For two hours we've been winding through a dirt track in Thailand’s Daen Lao mountains. The driver's taking it fast, trying to avoid the six Royal Thai Army checkpoints stretched between the Thai village of Pang Mapha and the Burmese border. To avoid potential diplomatic spats, Thai soldiers – we've been told – are on strict orders to stop foreign journalists from slipping across the border.
Not long after crossing into Burma, a guard nods us through an outpost flying the flag of Shan State, a partly autonomous region in the east of the country. Below us is the town of Loi Tai Leng, the mountain headquarters of the Shan State Army - South (SSA-S), one of the largest of a myriad of ethnic armies that have been fighting the Burmese government for more than 65 years – the world’s longest-running civil war.
We approach the base and our guides perk up, watching as the narrow road to nowhere transforms into a frenzy of swaying soldiers, sentries, costumed dancers and monks. Guerrillas drink in tarpaulin stalls, villagers throw darts at balloons and women hawk rebel merchandise. Near the base's entrance, children bounce in an inflatable castle as live music reverberates off the dark surrounding mountains.
Dressed in American digital camouflage, Lt. Col. Yawd Muang – head of the rebel army’s department of foreign affairs – greets us, welcoming us in on the night before Shan National Day. "The name of this place," he says, "means the 'Mountain of Shan Light.'"
Commanding a force of about 6,000, the SSA-S and its political wing, the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), represent the Shans, a Tai-speaking ethnic group that's closely related to the people of Laos and Thailand. Numbering about five million in Burma, they mostly live in their eponymous Shan State, a mostly rural area rich in timber, gold, gemstones and opium.
The Shans began their fight for autonomy shortly after Burma’s 1962 coup d’état, which ushered in an era of brutal military rule that is only now just beginning to unravel.
The Burmese government still controls many of Shan State’s major towns, but the borderlands and the jungle belong to the SSA-S and an isolated (and separate) Shan State Army North (SSA-N). The SSA-S and the SSA-N both signed ceasefires with Burma’s new, post-junta government in December of 2011 and January of 2012, but deadly clashes between Shan and Burmese forces still continue.
On the 7th of February – Shan National Day – Loi Tai Leng's flag-lined parade ground is full of people in bright costumes, monastic robes and camouflage. They’ve come from all over Thailand and Burma for the SSA-S’ four-day party, the second the army has hosted.
The celebration kicks off with military drills; new recruits with painted faces and mohawks bench-press logs, commandos rappel from a tower before swooping across the grounds, and there’s a mock hostage rescue mission peppered with gunfire and explosions. Drills turn into parades, marches and speeches. Standing in tight rows, soldiers pass out under the blinding sun.
Decked out in tinted glasses and a flashy orange Shan suit, long-time SSA-S leader Lt. Gen. Yawd Serk addresses his men.
"We are chained by the rulers of this country," he says from a stage filled with Shan dignitaries and other ethnic army leaders. "If we want rights and democracy, we must seize them!"
Later, in a private interview in his simple but airy mountaintop villa, Yawd Serk says that he trusts Burma’s president and the government’s reformist agenda. "The ceasefire was signed between the RCSS and the government, but the clashes are between our troops and the Burmese military," he tells me. "We think there might be some problems between the Burmese government and military."
In the face of continued fighting, however, Burma’s government is pushing to sign a new nationwide ceasefire with the country’s armed ethnic groups.
I ask some of the Shans at Loi Tai Leng how they feel about this. "President Thein Sein is still a snake," one officer tells me. Once a junta general, Thein Sein ditched his medal-heavy uniform for drab business suits when Burma created a "civilian" government in 2011. The officer continues: "The snake only changed his skin."
Amid the crowd of Shans, the few foreigners who made it up to Loi Tai Leng all stand out. There’s a Canadian photojournalist, an older French writer, a clutch of Christian aid workers, an American reporter from the Myanmar Times, a random dude in tie-dye, the photographer for this story and me.
Standing near the stage, I see another foreigner. He’s watching the drills and speeches, arms folded across his chest. Tall, rigid and lean, he wears head-to-toe black: combat boots, cargo trousers, jacket, sunglasses and a cap pulled over his closely cropped silver hair. Let’s call him Frank.
I ask Frank what he does. "Oh, I help these guys out from time to time," he says, cryptically. Frank eventually tells me that he used to train Thai commandos in the 1970s – kids rounded up from Bangkok slums, then handed uniforms and M16s. He says he fought alongside them in America’s secret. "Those were the good ol’ days," he says. "We’d build morale in bars and brothels. Back then, no one had to worry about AIDS."
The speeches end, and to the sound of booming drums the soldiers march past the stage. They carry AK-47s, old carbine rifles, M16s and M60 machine guns. As they leave, a monk sprinkles them with holy water.
In the afternoon, we explore the base. Lookouts on the mountains surrounding Loi Tai Leng stare out into territory controlled by the Thais, the Burmese and the heroin and amphetamine-peddling United, the country's largest armed group. Within the base, officers’ villas boast sweeping views of the surroundings. The simple houses of military families and IDPs from the Shan diaspora, who have fled war-scarred villages elsewhere, cling to slopes or sit nestled in lush valleys.
The IDPs we speak to tell of murder, rape, razed villages, land seizure and arbitrary detentions. Visitors from within Burma talk about their long journeys to reach the Shan base, and how they had to lie their way through Burmese checkpoints.
Although Burma has supposedly become a democracy, many say that little has changed in their outlying communities. If they're caught on their return from Loi Tai Leng, they can be fined or imprisoned for visiting the base under Burma’s severe Unlawful Associations Act.
"The risk is worth it,” one woman says of her four-day trip. “Here, we feel free.”
Loi Tai Leng has a clinic, a general store, a prison, a handful of noodle stalls and a boarding school. The clinic and the school receive NGO assistance, and the school – which houses hundreds of students from all over Shan State – is one of the only places in Burma where Shan language and culture can be freely taught. Most supplies for the base are carted in via neighboring Thailand, highlighting the deep (but unspoken) relationship between the Shans and their neighbors.
The base even has two museums; one tells the story of the Shan people, the other the history of opium. The former is filled with portraits of mythical warriors and 20th century generals. The latter’s walls are decorated with photos of blooming opium fields and downloaded images of crusty dope fiends.
The SSA-S, however, is trying to get away from that. The group emerged from the ashes of the Mong Tai Army (MTA) – which, for decades, was one of the world’s largestproducers of opium and heroin – after its drug lord leader surrendered to the Burmese in 1996. The SSA-S says that it has long been dedicated to eradicating drugs in Shan State, and has even formed a partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime – though poppy cultivation has beenon the increasein Shan State for the past six years.
Night falls on Loi Tai Leng, and Freedom’s Way takes the stage. This band of SSA-S generals, colonels and majors play through a catalogue of Western songs that have been retooled into nationalistic anthems. Their covers range from Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” to rock renditions of standards like “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”. The soldiers know all the words.
Dressed in black fatigues and a beret, Chairman Yawd Serk works the crowd, passing out bottles of locally distilled rice wine. The soldiers go wild, drinking and dancing in a blur of camouflage. Civilians and traditional dancers twirl on the periphery while armed guards keep watch. A cold wind whips dust across the ground, and when soldiers collapse from drink they’re dragged into the dark to recover.
"I’m not afraid of the Burmese!" a new SSA-S recruit shouts, swaying on his feet. He looks like a kid – many do – but swears he’s 18. "I joined because the Burmese have invaded our land!"
A group of Buddhist monks hang back, taking everything in. "This is good," says one, smiling. "We want peace and we love our Shan nation."
"Do you think the Burmese army parties like this?" I ask Lt. Col. Yawd Muang as he bobs around with a group of traditional dancers. He shakes his head: "No."
The morning after the party, the base is silent. Vendors pack up their noodle, beer and T-shirt stalls, while stray dogs scavenge among the piles of litter. Little novice monks run around, playing war with toy assault rifles, while weary soldiers shuffle back into the mountains. At the guard post in front of Chairman Yawd Serk’s villa, an armed sentry yaks up last night’s booze.
We make our way to Yawd Muang’s house, where he’s holding court on his terrace with a group of Shan leaders. They’re drinking rice wine and eating chicken wings. Out back, a soldier plays with a baby monkey that’s tethered to a tree. The monkey has a hard-on; the soldier flicks it and laughs.
A Buddhist monk for 14 years, Yawd Muang disrobed and joined the SSA-S in 1998. "My home and village were burned down, and my grandfather was killed by the Burmese army," he says. "We, as Shans, have a responsibility to defend our land."
Yawd Muang is articulate but concise. His job is to garner international recognition and support for the Shan cause, as well as being involved in protracted peace negotiations with the Burmese government. Because of this, he’s very careful about what he says. Mumbles, slight nods and cold stares answer questions like: "Are the Thais providing military support?” "What are your sources of funding?", "How many troops does the SSA-S have?" and, "How can you trust the Burmese ceasefire negotiators?"
"We know the peace process is difficult," he says, finally, "but we’re trying to do what we think is best for our people."
The photographer asks him to pose for a final photo. Yawd Muang steps behind his house, smiles for a few portraits, then removes his pistol from its holster and aims it at the mountains.
"Now point the gun at me," the photographer says.
Yawd Muang frowns and re-holsters his Glock. "Don’t make me look like a terrorist."
Follow Daniel on Twitter: @dsotis
Photos by Sam Jam See more of Sam's work on his website.