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Ghosts of the Jungle

Burma's Karen National Liberation Army is the most effective guerrilla fighting force active today. They usually don’t take too kindly to outsiders, especially those with cameras, but somehow I—a curious Canadian photographer—managed to embed with the...

Over the last 63 years, Burma has been carrying out a methodical ethnic cleansing program against the country’s minorities, relying on terrifying tactics such as state-sponsored rape and the mass slaughter of civilians. At the eastern edge of the country, along the Thai border, this genocide has turned into a protracted, never-ending battle between the Burmese government and the Karen ethnic group.

After decades of fighting, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) has become the most feared opponent of the Burmese army; some cite it as the most effective guerrilla fighting force active today. It’s also one of the few insurgent groups that isn’t considered a terrorist organization by the US, possibly because the KNLA is 100 percent antidrug and exceptionally talented at blowing up government-run meth labs in the middle of the jungle (you know, the ones that supply the majority of Asia’s methamphetamine).

They usually don’t take too kindly to outsiders, especially those with cameras, but somehow I—a curious Canadian photographer—managed to embed with the KNLA’s Special Forces division.

It took a lot of work (including the help of a shady mercenary) to arrange an introduction with one of the KNLA’s top officers, Colonel Ner Dah Mya. After a tense meeting, the colonel granted me access to the rebel-held territory known as Kawthoolei.

Entering the region is especially nerveracking because it’s an active jungle battlefield littered with mines. According to the Thai Royal Army, over 70 percent of the 1,268-mile border has been seeded with antipersonnel explosives. Realizing that every step you take could be your last is a total mindfuck, but when you’re flanked by guys who kill everything that moves for a living and are known as “jungle ghosts,” you quickly learn to mimic them and act unfazed.

The cultural suppression of the Karen (among other things, their language isn’t taught in government-run schools) angers the KNLA so much that they’re willing to take drastic action to protect their way of life. They spend years in malarial jungles far away from their families and face death every day. Despite their extreme and dedicated lifestyle, when they weren’t out garroting Burmese death squads, they actually were fun guys to hang out with. In the 14 days I spent with the KNLA, between happy-water (alcohol) binges, jungle offensives, and epic treks, I realized they aren’t your stereotypical hedonistic, villageburning, amoral modern guerrilla army. They are something more human. For instance, SeeTu is not only an explosives expert but also the resident musical entertainer and historian. He almost shit his pants with excitement when he realized that I was from the same country as his favorite pop star of all time—ShaniaTwain.

One of the youngest soldiers in the KNLA, An No knows his way around an AK just fine.

Just after entering Karen-held territory, the soldiers cluster together in the bed of a pickup to do a weapons check.

Two young soldiers hang out while waiting for orders to come down the chain of command.

A soldier walks through a downpour as he arrives in the village of Maw Kee.

A soldier takes a smoke break on a trek to a waterfall that only eight foreigners have seen according to Colonel Ner Dah Mya. Yes, he was that specific.

Lucky, one of the KNLA ghosts, showing off his back piece.

When asked about his bandana, Nah Na said he had no idea who Bob Marley was.

Two years ago, at the age of 63, Thoo Goo decided to go and fight for his people’s freedom.

See Tu and two other ghosts ride on a Land Cruiser during patrol.

Pe Yat, Bryan’s personal bodyguard, carries a grenade launcher at all times.

Nah Na sports a set of homemade good-luck Karen face tats.