Inside the world's longest-running armed conflict, the 63-year civil war in Burma's Karen State.
It’s four in the morning on my 38th birthday, and I am staring up at the thatched roof of a small jungle clinic in Karen State of eastern Burma, the home of the world’s longest-running armed conflict – a 63-year civil war between the Burmese army and the ethnic Karen people. The rain has finally ceased and the screeching of two cats fighting has replaced the sounds of the downpour. If I’m lucky I might get a few more minutes of sleep once the screaming stops. A senior medic sleeping near me is having a nightmare. After he screams himself awake, he apologises, gets a drink of water, crawls back under his mosquito net and begins to pray.
In less than an hour the wake-up whistles will blow and 40 young trainee medics will rise from their mats and hammocks and trudge along the monsoon-soaked trail. In a clearing, the once-praying senior medic will become a grim-faced NCO and order us all into pushup position in the ankle-deep mud. Covered in sweat after 30 seconds of pushups, I will gasp and feel nauseous. Some of the students will start cooking breakfast and the sickening aroma of the first lumps of sizzling fish paste will make me vomit the remains of last night’s dinner of rice, sardines and tomato paste into the mud. I am not making a good impression.
Only three weeks earlier I was working in a cubicle at a visual effects company in Venice, California. Now, I am a volunteer doing semi-legal aid work and making weeks-long trips into the jungle on foot to provide some of the only medical care the people of this region will ever get. I’ll end up spending three years in and out of this camp, training new groups of medics before settling on the other side of the Thai border where I will meet a beautiful Thai woman, marry her, have a kid and run a restaurant. A lot will change for me during my years in Southeast Asia. For this intractable civil war, the only discernable progress that will be made over the course of my stay will be the signing of a not-particularly binding cease-fire agreement.
Burma is a sometimes chaotic mix of 135 or more ethnicities, separated by thick jungle, wide rivers and centuries of antipathy. The dominant Bamar ethnic group who control the fertile Irrawaddy river valley have for generations tried to move east to the Karen region to expand commercial enterprises and extract teak, pyinkado and other hard woods, as well as coal, iron, copper and other minerals. Clashes between Burmese forces and the Karen National Liberation Army are rare these days. But the Myanmar Armed Forces, known as the Tatmadaw, attack civilians as part of their counterinsurgency strategy, and the Karen National Liberation Army installs fields of landmines to protect themselves. The Tatmadaw use landmines as well. This civil war is slow burning, but it has left generations of Karen people with little access to the modern world and fewer opportunities for development.
Because of the political and security issues involved in working in Karen State, few large international NGOs work there. That leaves the Karen National Union, small community-based organisations, and an ad hoc group of foreign volunteers to try and meet even the most basic needs like health care, food, education and security.
There’s little in terms of infrastructure to support humanitarian efforts save for muddy trails, swollen rivers, and the countless mountains that make even a short walk a trial. The few roads that do exist are mostly military roads. The crossing points are guarded and mined. It can take days for a safe window to open up for a crossing.
During the 40 or so trips I made into Karen State I saw firsthand the burned and mined villages and crops, met countless forced labourers, human minesweepers, rape victims and landmine casualties. I watched children and old people die from illnesses and injuries that wouldn’t warrant an emergency room visit back home.
When I first arrived on the Thai/Burma border in 2009 to help with the training and equipping of the medics, I brought 100 pounds of surgical instruments, medicine, and 75 dry bags. The medics were kids, mostly, between their late teens and mid-20s, some former soldiers but more often students from the refugee camps in Thailand or the remote villages deep inside Karen State. Many have walked for up to 15 days past Myanmar Army patrols and minefields to get to this training camp, where they will spend the next six months learning basic anatomy, physiology, first aid and combat trauma. Once they’ve finished their training, many will return home to act as first responders at a village level.
They treat the patients they can or arrange transport to larger clinics and more experienced medics in the larger population centers. But the transport is not by ambulance, truck or car. Those who cannot walk are carried in a homemade stretcher consisting of a hammock and bamboo pole. It is not uncommon for a landmine victim to be carried for three days to a clinic that can treat them.
The medics who remain are split into two groups. The first spends the next several months working at a clinic housed in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp located in a Karen-controlled part of Burma. The others receive advanced training from a number of foreign volunteer doctors who teach specialised classes such as pharmacy, trauma, and midwifery at camps scattered throughout the region.
Providing this sort of care is not easy. Some trips required two to five weeks of travelling on foot covering over 100 miles. After a while blisters, bad backs and blown out knees would have us eating painkillers by the handful. There was also the ever-present malaria, dysentery, dengue, and heat exhaustion. The river crossings, however, were always a treat. The risk of drowning during a monsoon flooded river was nothing compared to the joy of being able to wash the crap out of my pants, rinse my socks, and enjoy a moment of relief at being cool again.
The stark difference between the Karen State and Thailand to the east hits you at once. The only noticeable structure on the Burma side is a crude Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) outpost. With its bamboo perimeter fences and huts it is more reminiscent of frontier stockades in the American west than a military base for an army fighting a modern civil war. The analogy works: This war is like some Southeast Asian frontier, a modern-day battle between cowboys and Indians, fought by a government intent on wresting control of the resources from a land it has never controlled, and crushing the indigenous inhabitants who dare to stand in their way.
Are the Karen themselves blameless? No, they are not. Corruption and cronyism have played their part in prolonging this conflict. Also, the culture itself, its aversion to change, and the near Paleolithic ages of some of their civilian and military leadership complicate the Gordian knot that is Burmese politics. To much of this I can only offer opinion, as I was not admitted into the deliberations of their leadership. But from time to time I did find myself with their generals, presidents, spies and outcasts. From those encounters I formed a view of an inherently valiant struggle, with flawed people balancing military, political, and humanitarian necessity with the hopes of a leadership based in a foreign country trying to regain control of their homeland in another. I doubt I could do any better.
Over the months and years, the work became a frustrating slog through an unquantifiable quagmire of cultural resistance to change on the part of the Karen. Personal doubt, illness, injury, drinking, ever shifting goals, and more drinking dragged me down. The group of friends that was my connection to sanity dissolved. Funding came and went. Long periods with no work led to dangerous idleness. My concern grew that the model I and others had worked to create might not be the right one, and that we wouldn’t be able to build the right one even if we had the resources because of the political limitations involved in the type of work we did. A dentist from Kentucky and member of the first team of medics I organised said “This is like eating an elephant one bite at a time.” But I realised that it was more like absorbing the elephant one cell at a time.
I also grew somewhat wary of my fellow foreigners in the region. Over the years the military types became less common. The stagnation of the conflict, and pressure from the Thai Government, made Karen less inviting and romantic for ex-military and even some civilian adventure seekers. In my early days it was not uncommon to see foreigners training troops. I have met many of these volunteers: former British and Australian special forces, Ex-Green Berets, Russian Spetsnaz and even some Japanese former members of the French Foreign Legion. One who sticks out is an Australian called “Dangerous Dave” Everett, one time bank robber and, for a while, Australia’s most wanted man.
The rest were mostly stereotypical missionaries with a genuine Christian love of their fellow man but a low tolerance for some of the decidedly un-Christlike aspects of life in the jungle. The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) were in a class of their own. The group’s armed medics walk for weeks to deliver medical aid and humanitarian assistance in the farthest-flung reaches of Burma. The founder of the Rangers is a retired special forces major and seminarian, and the biggest, most truly friendly super badass anyone will ever meet. They are by far the best run, best trained, and best funded outfit working in the region.
Eventually things changed for me. The stunningly beautiful woman who ran a restaurant I frequented on the Thai side of the border finally gave me the time of day, friends from home came to visit, and what I swore would be the last medical team I ever took in completely turned my head around. They helped me to reconnect with the medics I came here to help in the first place. The work began to take a normal rational place in my life, no longer the be all and end of all of my existence. I settled into the village, made friends, and had a social life that didn’t revolve around the latest project or drama going on inside Burma. For a solid year things went more or less OK. Nothing Earth shattering, good or bad.
But then things got more complicated again. My girlfriend became pregnant. I was notified via the most hilarious text message ever: “Baby, I have baby, baby.” Soon we were married and I settled into owning a restaurant I never planned to buy. Going into Burma became something I could do between four-hour drives to the doctor, restocking the bar, and food shopping. When our son was born, the pressure of supporting a family began to push out the serenity of that life. The savings drained away and it was clear things were going to have to change – and soon. We put the restaurant up for sale (it’s still available at a low low price) and I returned to the US and to the spare room in my dad’s condo in Southbay LA to find work and begin the process of bringing my family to America. That was six months ago. I am still looking for a job from my dad’s spare room, and the immigration process for my wife’s visa reminds me a lot of the never-ending struggle I left.
Every foreigner who has set foot in the war zones of Burma comes with their own narrative or speck of narrative that expands, during their time here, into hundreds of different mythologies. Some are forged by the war, some by religious fervor, some by the aid work, and some by the experience of reporting on it. The romance eventually gives way to the realisation that this war will not end during their brief tour, that no matter how hard or how long they work, or how much money is spent, things never seem to get noticeably better. Each small victory is eclipsed by a larger defeat. Yet we all live under the illusion that we are at the cusp of a new beginning, that the world is shifting and the decades of injustice will cease to stand under the weight of human progress.
Progress itself brings a host of new problems, some more complicated than the old. The simple story of good versus evil is now being reframed into a compromise-friendly cautionary tale about the dangers of ethnic identity politics and the need for national unity. But how do you unite a country that never was? How do you reform a government, military, police, and intelligence apparatus whose primary purpose is the systematic oppression of its own people rather than the defence and security of its citizens? To be blunt, I never gave a shit. That was a job for the big-brained, high-salaried chattering classes who shuttled between capitals in UN jets and slept in five-star hotels and the multimillion-dollar NGOs and advocacy groups, the people we frantically waved our photos and reports at, only to have them placed in the “lovably naïve” file or burned on the altar of realpolitik.
Now the war is beginning to end, with the whimper we all dreaded. A face-saving “compromise” for the government of Burma and a continuation of the bang of oppression and exploitation for the rest.
Today some may consider the current situation in Burma the worst of both worlds, a false peace. It gives the West, strapped for cash and suffering from compassion fatigue, a welcome opportunity to reduce both aid to those displaced or under daily threat from the Burmese military and political pressure on the government to initiate real reforms instead of the window dressing of changing the national flag and releasing photogenic dissidents. Meanwhile, in the jungle of Karen State the army still reinforces its positions, builds roads for military traffic, dragoons locals into forced labour, and pushes them off their lands to make way for development projects financed by Chinese and European conglomerates.
What has been missed in the rush to bring Burma into the community of nations and block the expanding Chinese hegemony is a simple concept: that Burma is not a single country but a series of ethnic enclaves governed, in theory, by a majority ethnic Burman ruling class whose enmity with their tribal neighbors is centuries old. Aung Saung Suu Kyi is a member of that class, which goes a long way to explain why, with all the recent exposure, there is still a deafening silence about the plight of these people. It also provides more than enough cover for the continuing campaign of ethnic cleansing and assimilation against the Karen, the Mon, and other groups along this part of the border. These are not the vast drug-financed armies of the Golden Triangle, but an ever-shrinking number of armed bands trying to hold out long enough to reach some type of amenable political resolution and join a federated Burma that acknowledges their simple right to exist and prosper.
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