Inside Burma’s Dirty War, Part II

November 18, 2012

“Dawa” is the home of the legendary Free Burma Rangers, or FBR as they are called. To some, the FBR is an “up the river” paramilitary force run by a deeply Christian, former Special Forces Major who goes by the name The Father of the White Monkey. Others will tell you that the FBR’s secretive leader is the most effective foreigner working with the rebels deep inside Burma against the Generals.  Thai Boon waves his hands. “Crazy Amish Christian relief people. It’s hard to tell where they begin and where FBR begin.”  Boon and Rob are reticent about the “gullawa,” or white people, who are currently inside Burma.  “The normal tour is a two-week vacation or leave. I don’t really get into to what they do. Some of it is above my pay grade. I have heard stories,” says Boon.

The next morning we have visitors. Two thin Italians from Lake Garda who rebuild villages inside Burma for an NGO called Populi, and a young American who is clearly ex-military. They have walked three days from the interior to reach here.  The American says he is “security.” It’s hard to imagine what one unarmed person could provide in the way of security, but he says he is along to determine enemy troop positions and navigate the humanitarians safely in and out.  The Italians were going to travel further until they found out that a three-day hike takes five days. They turned around seven hours short of Dawa. Rob and I remember to factor this in. The Karen estimate travel time for themselves—not for heavy, lumbering gullawas.  We decide that if we make it to Dawa, it will be an accomplishment.

Although the American is at first stand offish around his Italian clients, when they leave he becomes chatty. Jack, 27, is a former Marine Force Recon soldier with who tells me that most of his military records were redacted when he started doing spooky stuff in Colombia starting in 1998. “I read an article in Soldier of Fortune about fighting in Burma. I kept that article on what to take inside, and had it posted on the inside of my locker for years.”

Jack first connected to Burma through Karen expat, Robert Zan.  Zan was a former commander in the Karen army who now lives in Minnesota and raises money for Karen in the US. Jack’s next step was to get in touch with Thomas Bleming, a Vietnam vet in his 60s who wrote a book about his brief time in Burma and what appears to be his conversion from self-described PTSD effected Vietnam Vet to journalist to mercenary.

“In my Google searches,” Jack says, “I would come across Thomas Bleming mouthing off. So I made contact with him.  He spent the next three months trying to sell me his book. His book is basically a road map on how to get in. He invited me to meet him here.

“Tom had made a couple of previous trips. He also went to Honduras to see if he could get involved in that.  Now he is trying to get something going along the border in Mexico. He tells people he has been in 25 conflict zones and hasn’t yet figured out how to make money.  Tom even appointed himself as consul general.” Jack sums it up: “The Karen are easy on people who are a little bit crazy.”

Jack also sees himself transitioning from marine to trainer to mercenary. “I was in the military from 1995 to September 19, 2001. I have been shot twice, stabbed seven times with an ice pick and had 8 inches of my intestine removed.  Toward the end of my time, I spent nine months in the brig.  I went from private to sergeant to private.” He provides a quick but convincing recap of his time working with counter-drug, CIA and other groups in Latin America and Africa. “I worked as a shooting instructor at Front Sight near Pahrump, Nevada.”

He first came to the region in 2007 on an “O” English teaching visa. Now he has an anti-piracy business. “My new piracy thing is only a couple of months old, but I know where to get everything.”  He says his company STORM or Strategic Tactical Reconnaissance Maritime, was inspired by a TV show called Shadow Warriors. “I used to have a website but I couldn’t afford to keep it up.” But he did find that a lot of people were interested and has had over 3000 business inquiries. “Out of those, 11 were potential candidates. Out of those, four actually came, and three have made multiple tours. I did have a couple of 16-year-olds pretend to be 18 years old.”

Jack also thinks there will be business from the US government. “DEA wants info, the US wants info, but they won’t leave the embassy. Even when they want to meet, they don’t want to go more than one subway stop from the embassy.” Although Jack is enthusiastic, it seems the US invests accordingly. “The DEA is eager to fund with Toughbooks, sat phones and BGANS. They have to check with higher ups. They might give me 2000 baht a month [about $65 USD].”

“They are worried about drugs, nukes, China and North Korea. There are a lot of Burmese who would sell that info. Manifests, large equipment on RoRo’s.” His stillborn maritime attempt seems to have attracted some interest.  “I have a bunch of people coming from Afghanistan. Couple of British guys, mostly contractors who have money. All I have is contacts and experience. I don’t have any money.”

Jack sees a bigger geopolitical importance to the region. “China is setting up in Burma big time. Rich people in America want to disrupt shipping along the coast for the Chinese. We could set it up for $500,000.”

The ideas keep flowing as we chat inside the bamboo clinic. “I am thinking of doing anti-piracy along the coast. Charge fees for the ships that come in that steal the fish. The Burmese have no presence along the coast. I know I need two fast boats.” He finds humor in the idea. “We could charge them a fee for fishing in Karen waters.”

Jack’s newest idea seems the most far-fetched and most lethal.  “I want to use an ultra light. Fly it out of a small strip… Ultra lights can carry 250 pounds…You can arm them. I put an M16 on an ultra light with a scope and night vision. You shoot from 6000 feet… the bullet goes straight down… We tested in out in the desert near Fresno. We laid out a bunch of soccer balls, something the size of a human head… Start at 16,000 feet and glide in. It takes about three shots during the day.  At night it takes longer, six to seven shots with night vision.

“You can buy them for 16,000 bucks. It seats two side-by-side, or pilot and load.” Jack is full of ideas. “I can get Glocks for 45,000 baht ($1,500 USD). I can get M1s for 25,000 baht ($830)  all day long. I can get all the ammo I want. But I am broke. I am about as broke as they come.”  His clients call. Time to cross the river.

Late at night, Rob and I are sitting on a rough-hewn bamboo bench listening to the sounds of the jungle at night. The creek burbles, people inside their huts are singing and the usual group is watching a Mr. Bean DVD on the battery powered TV for the umpteenth time and laughing at the exact same spots every time its played.   The stars burn through, and we stare up. Rob talks about death.  “I had thyroid cancer. They took it out. Had a Cambodian kid in Seattle die in my arms after he was shot in a drive-by.  Found a dead homeless guy that was stabbed.  Those things seem to gravitate to me.” A satellite tracks across the sky as we sit in the cool of the dark. “My girlfriend shot herself. When I was 22. We broke up. She went out and bought a Remington 303. She called my friend, ‘Is Rob there?’ And then shot herself. I had to go pack and clean up her place. I found pieces of skull and brain in my clothes. I kept going in a downward spiral. Like a tuna before you gaffe it.” He doesn’t have a funny ending. He pauses. “Eighteen months I was working in a cubicle. Now I am here.” A shooting star interrupts him.

“Look at those people.” He nods to the Karen watching TV. “There is a soldier, sitting next to a baby. Look at the women. They are smiling”.  He pauses again but there is no shooting star that burns and disappears.  “I am happy here.“

The next morning we are on. Thai Boon has set up a meeting with the generals. We travel to the “commando training camp” before dawn, and the first thing we hear is the raucous sound of two distinctly Americans voices bellowing, “Fucking… fucker… Fucking …dipshit. Fucking… goddamn… fucking… asshole…”

As we hike up from the river there are two geriatric silver-haired men drinking their morning coffee discussing old times and acquaintances with a liberal dose of profanity.  They are here to train General Bo Jo’s Special Forces.  They are both Vietnam-era Special Forces vets, one with time in Germany and Cambodia and now training contractors in the US.

A few yards away a fire is cooking two pots and what looks like a very large vine. On closer inspection, it’s a freshly killed python. The Karen eagerly drag the 8-foot snake across the coals to cook their morning delicacy.   While the two Americans continue their good spirited but foul-mouthed conversation, I talk to 48-year-old General Bo Jo, the commander of the 5th Brigade—the most active and largest of the KNLA army.  The 5th Brigade has about 1,300 men under arms, and is up against about 3,000 Burmese troops.

General Bo Jo’s grandfather worked with the legendary “Grandfather Long Legs” and spent time in prison with him. He began as a Sergeant in 1982 and has been a General since 1997. Like many senior Karen, he has a link to America. His wife is in Indiana working on her PhD. He is not optimistic for the future. He sees the struggle lasting another five to 15 years. He personally visits each village that is burned, and he asks me if I have any idea for a better freedom for his people.

As the interview wraps up the General says to me, “Don’t forget about us.”

After the interview Bo Jo puts on his uniform for photos. He wants to just sit and talk with us. Behind us the python is being served up, two small dogs fight and the cook puts on a large pot of boiling water. Mama noodles, bamboo shoots, fried potatoes, sardines and rice. All washed down with Birdie premixed coffee. By now the two silver-haired Americans begin teaching their classes. Down by the river they have built a small model of a Burmese Army Base. With the aid of an interpreter one of them is teaching the Karen how to attack: “The snipers need to take out the towers, while the rest of the forces fires mortars” The other hobbles off into the jungle with the aid of a cane to start the class on self-defense. A British instructor is working on training the Karen in the use of a shortwave radio.

A lot of gear is donated to the Karen effort, and it gear ranges from erasable markers to motorcycle batteries to soldering and wiring kits.  Communications equipment is their most important need. A quick inspection of the Karen Special Forces soldiers is not encouraging. Their weapons are battered Vietnam-era Colt AR-15s, some still stamped “Property of the U.S. Government.” Some carry bolt-action rifles and Garands that date back to Korea and World War II. They have rubberized jungle packs and most wear sandals or flip-flops. A few have jungle boots. Some commanders wear tactical leave-behinds by foreign advisors, like Casio watches, binoculars and the most popular gift: telescopic rifle scopes. Before we leave, General Bo Jo asks to have his picture taken with me and to get an autograph. “You are our advisor now”.

After almost a week of waiting, it’s time for our march into the heart of the conflict. We take a boat upriver for an hour. Hidden under a stifling black tarp is a doctor, a former electrician and now pastor of a church in Southern California, the wife of a former SF soldier, the wife of a volunteer, , another doctor, a former missionary pilot and head of partners, and a silent American who turns out to be a property tax accountant on vacation with the pastor. We are dumped off on the riverbank as the last light of day disappears. Inside the jungle, it is even darker. We switch on our headlamps for the long walk ahead.

It’s easy to both embellish and understate the amount of pain and effort it takes to hump a heavy pack up and down guerilla mountain jungle trails. The best way to describe is to say that one very physically fit and young man would attempt this walk and fail. The doctor along with us has also tried and failed this hike. The distance is only about 20 miles, but the terrain is chosen specifically to deter Burmese army troops.  On painkillers and only ten feet at a time, we accomplished the hike. Large holes in the bush were reminders of where sure-footed pack mules slipped off the muddy trails and crashed down the side of the mountain.

On the tail end of the second day we hiked down from a mountain, sun baked, thirsty and in pain and ended up in Dawa.  There to meet us was the Father of the White Monkey.  We’ll call him Doug. Doug was a former Ranger, Special Forces Major and always a devout Christian. He immediately greeted our small group by praying and then loading up our packs for the hike deep in the forest. After a bamboo-raft river crossing, a steep hike up and down, we arrived in a narrow valley. Camp Taw Wah, one of a number of training camps used by the Free Burma Rangers to mentor and graduate five-man teams that spread out across Burma.

This camp is in a deep, green valley with a spectacular, boulder-strewn river at the bottom. There are a dozen huts—woven grass roofs, pole supports and made from peeled bamboo. During the day, purple and black butterflies flit in and out, cicadas chorus. The ground is river silt with the tops of giant boulders poking out and bamboo sprays. It’s the start of the dry season. At night the frogs call to each other like ducks, the stars explode and the cold air rushes down.  Nights are chilly as the moon slides over the narrow valley with only the sound of people talking softly.

At 5:30 in the dark morning, the sounds of PT enliven the camp. Doug leads the exercises in singsong Karen. Before breakfast the recruits chant an English statement for freedom before digging in to massive bowls of rice.

The camp is small and the small bamboo huts holds about 100 young men and women. There are three Americans, two of them ex-military, one a computer expert.  There is also Doug’s family of three young children and his wife. The two Americans, volunteer military trainers, are joined by their wives who were along for the hike. The gullawas eat at a headmaster’s table elevated above the recruits’ area. Anyone who has been to a military or boarding school would recognize the concept immediately.

Doug is up before dawn reading his bible or books and has run up the mountain and back before six o’clock. The Father of The White Monkey is a dynamo of energy and optimism: tapping out emails on his ToughBook, talking on his solar-powered sat phone system, meeting with recruits, writing update emails or making lists on the many white boards. He is a hyperactive perpetual-motion machine. But he often stops mid thought or sentence to ask people to help him pray. It’s hard at first to understand why a well-trained military commander would stop and seek guidance and support. The concept took me back to my days with al Qaeda and other jihadi groups. Like the Chechen rebels, also trained in the military, who simply said, “Our faith in God is simple. There is no one else to help us”

Doug has no one to help him other than the few medical and military volunteers who risk the steep trails and hard living, the young Karen, who put in 4 months of training, and his religion. Deep behind enemy lines—his only supply chain by foot or mule—he has managed to carve out a well-oiled training camp, high tech communications center and beacon of hope for the Karen. Doug is thin, small shouldered and wiry but his accomplishments are immense. The students beam under pressure and constantly say; “Rangers never give up.”

Part III next week…

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