International Writers Magazine: Free Burma
inside of Burma,
An Interview with Free Burma Rangers
If I get
discouraged, I can go home, but the Karen tribe cannot.
These were the words of one of the many brave volunteers who
make up the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) a humanitarian service organization
which works closely with the many tribal defense forces, resisting
the repression of the Burmese government. FBRs stated mission
is to bring help, hope and love to people in the war zones
The group was founded in the wake of a Burmese Army offensive against
ethnic minority peoples in 1997, which left countless dead, and over 100,000
homeless. According to statistics gathered by FBR, at the present time,
more than 2,000,000 Burmese have been displaced.
The recent protests in Yangon have brought the plight of the Burmese people
to the attention of the world. But for the tribal people, the war has
been going on for nearly fifty years.
If you havent heard of this war, dont be surprised, the Burmese
junta, lead by General Than Shwe, has kept the country almost completely
sealed. The internet, cell phones, and news media are under the complete
control of the government. Email is censored. There is no foreign television.
In the bets of times, the only legal entry point for the country was Yangon,
the former capitol, where visas were required. Tourists were closely watched
and generally mistrusted. Journalists were strictly prohibited from entry
into the country. With the possible exception of North Korea, no country
in Asia has been kept as much in the dark as Burma.
The Free Burma Rangers is one of many volunteer organizations, mostly
comprised of westerners, working in cooperation with tribal armies, who
enter Burma and document cases of human rights violations.
An FBR volunteer agreed to meet under the promise of complete anonymity.
The Burmese junta is known to collect news clippings from around the world,
using photos and names printed in foreign press to locate and punish dissidents
within their own borders. If a ranger is detected, not only is his or
her life endangered, but also the lives of any villagers who failed to
turn him in to the authorities.
The courage of the Karen people is inspiring, said the volunteer.
FBR is open to cooperation with any of Burmas ethnic minorities,
but the majority of the people FBR works with are from the Karen tribe.
They are the most unified, with the best political and military
organization, and the best infrastructure.
One possible reason that volunteers and intelligence gatherers have given
why they find it easier to work with the Karen tribe is because they had
a much closer relationship with the British, during the colonial times.
As a result, a large percentage of Karen are Christian and speak English
FBR operations include sending relief teams, with medical and food supplies
to the afflicted areas.
The teams provide medical relief and whatever we can give them to
bring in plastic, cash for food, donated clothing, general supplies or
other items which they cant buy there.
While on site, the teams document human rights abuses, and return. The
data is then made available to the foreign pres, the UN, and international
governmental and non-governmental organizations. Often, the FBR reports
are the only news that manages to escape the vice like grip of the Burmese
In addition to giving immediate relief, the FBR run educational programs,
where they train tribal people to run relief and intelligence teams.
We work through local leadership explained the volunteer.
The tribal organization, will pick people and send them to our course.
We just train them and send them back.
The local leaders take command of the newly trained groups, and deploy
them in the field. The volunteer felt this system worked out well, making
the FBR into a cooperative, rather than competitive authority.
The training has long range impact on the tribal people themselves. It
helps build civil society because it gives the existing leadership a core
of young, skilled, qualified future leaders. After the course, they have
had training in communication equipment, modern technology, and basic
medical. They learn to do interviews and to document human rights abuses.
For the tribal people, dealing with war and battling repression has been
a central theme in their lives for generations.
The Karen state bears the brunt of the government attacks. The Shan
state also gets hit a lot. Other areas are ceasefire areas, so it is a
little more clandestine.
In addition to battling the government troupes, the tribal people are
also faced by proxy armies, groups of tribal people who defected to the
Any time you have a hot zone like that, it is to be expected that
people get burned out. Joining the government side seems like the easy
way out. The monk led protests in Yangon havent changed anything
for the tribal people.
Most of the tribal people are either Christian or Animist, but everyone
we know in the tribal areas supports the protests in Yangon. They held
a rally and put out a statement saying that they supported the Burmese
in Yangon who were defying the government.
Unfortunately, beyond sending prayers and messages of solidarity, the
tribes have no way of aligning with the Yangon protestors.
The military forces of the ethnic groups are just too small. They
are defense forces, with a common goal of defending their territory.
The tribal people are severely outnumbered, as the majority of the countrys
population is Burmese. To date, there doesnt appear to be an armed
Burmese resistance group. After the 1988 student uprisings, there were
small bands of ethnic Burmese from the cities, who joined up to fight
along side the tribal armies.
They were very few, not well organized, and were never fully trusted
by the tribal people.
In the wake of the recent protests, it was hoped that the governments
attention would be drawn toward Yangon and away from the tribal areas.
We thought maybe the government would start pulling troops from
the border areas, but it hasnt happened. Now is the beginning of
the dry season, so troop movement will increase. A major offensive,
begun in 2006 is still ongoing. In 2006, they pushed harder than
before. It was the worst fighting in ten years. Since that began, 30,000
people have been displaced. Over 300 - 400 were killed.
Of those displaced in the most recent push an estimated 4,000 - 7,000
have escaped to refugee camps outside of the country. Life in a refugee
camp is more chaos, as if the poor victims have stepped out of the frying
pan and into the fire.
The camps just grew up overnight, with thousands of people living
shoulder to shoulder. Only a little bit of aid can get in. Half the people
registered in the camp dont live there. And at least half of those
living there are not registered.
Traditionally, tribal people do not leave their homelands. The animist
beliefs will keep them there because they need to stay close to the spirits
of their ancestors. Culturally, they feel more at home, surrounded by
their extended family, and speaking their own language.
Normally, the only reason they would leave their home is if they
are going to starve. To see so many of them running away tells you that
it must be something terrible.
The mass exodus of tribal people has caused a break in the agricultural
cycle. With fewer people left in the villages, fields go unplanted, and
the remaining villagers could go hungry.
The volunteer believed that this was all part of the juntas plan,
for the slow annihilation of the tribal people.
The Burmese government doesnt attack headlong. One strategy
they implemented was to build new roads, cutting the Karen state into
The roads were mined and army encampments were built along these new thoroughfares,
which bisected the walking paths local people used to trade with other
Now it is easy to control. Villagers have to travel to get basics
like salt, which they cant make themselves. If they come up on a
patrolling Burmese army troop, they can be shot at, taxed, or impressed
for forced labor.
The new controls have disrupted trade and communication between villages,
further isolating the people and making them even more vulnerable to attack.
Its not necessarily always a hot war. Instead, it is a slow
strangulation, a gradual decrease of the peoples normal breathing.
And that has increased in the last two years.
The Burmese government is one of the most paranoid in the world. The army
is estimated to have more than 400,000 soldiers, with defense expenditure
equaling 50% of the national budget.
The country has no external enemies at all, but they spend half
their income on defense. It is an army created to attack its own people.
Perhaps the most peculiar action taken by the junta was secretly relocating
the countrys capital, under cover of darkness, to a secluded area,
known as Pyinmana.
A recent refugee from Yangon said that government workers were so underpaid
that they were completely dependent on their side jobs, which they lost
in the move. They would have quit the government, but the junta ordered
that it was illegal to resign a government post. As a result, families
have been torn apart as the husband or wife who worked for the government
was forced to relocate, but the spouse and children remained behind in
It seems like the time is right for the people to protest. It is
probably not a coincidence that the people are taking to the streets.
As incompetent as the Burmese government seems to be at matters of human
rights, quality of life, and economic policy, the one thing they are good
at is maintaining control.
They have managed to stay in power for fifty years, by creating
enough fear and disunity in the country that no one could stand up to
Last week, they burned a village.
The Karen army provided early warning to the people. So the majority of
the villagers were able to run away.
Usually, the army comes in and loots, burns, or mines the village
and moves on. It depends a lot on the individual local commander. He has
a lot of autonomy and not a lot of accountability. The Burmese army is
also very corrupt. On a given day, a troop could march into a village,
burn it down, and the people run away. The next day, the people come back,
rebuild and re-establish trade with the army, because the soldiers live
At other times, the soldiers kill everyone in the village or take them
away, as slave laborers.
There havent been many mass killings in a long time. Most
recent shootings have been people getting hit, while they were running
away. In the Spring of 2006, the army forced 800 people to work as porters.
In the case of slave labor, the troop commander will come into the village
and tell the headman how many workers he must supply. If he refuses, he
could be tortured or killed.
When they take away that many workers, everything going on in the
Villagers cant plant, and that adds to their suffering.
The soldiers dont necessarily feed the forced laborers, and
they dont treat them well. A lot of the statistics we have on people
killed are based on the porters. They are required to carry heavy burdens,
and they arent fed. If they dont move fast enough or they
collapse, they are beaten or killed.
The abuses seem to be endemic to the system.
It is what you would expect when you have a power disparity and
The soldiers, of course, come from the lowest ranks of society.
They are not treated well on their side either.
There are widespread reports of soldiers being abused by their superiors.
Recent reports say that the army is taking younger and younger recruits.
Boys, as young as 12 years old, are allegedly gathered up at the markets
and forced to serve in the army. There is a lot of speculation on why
this is happening. One reason people believe is that no Burmese would
go willingly to the army if he believes he would be forced to kill a monk.
The volunteer described Burma as a problem with no end.
On the one side, we are giving band-aid solutions. We can send in
a medical team to treat malnutrition or malaria, and they can help. But
after they leave, the people will be in the same position again.
As dismal as the situation is, there is still hope.
The long term benefit of our work is that it provides encouragement.
And, who can say how valuable that is. It lets the people know that they
havent been forgotten by the outside world. It gives them hope that
maybe an end will come. If you were sitting there, in the jungle, fighting,
thinking no one knows anything about your struggle, it would be easy to
lose heart. But if someone comes from the outside and says we know
you are here we know what is happening, it keeps you going.
The other benefit is that our work is creating a core group of villagers
who have training in modern technology. It gives them the ability to help
their people. Right now if you are a young kid in the village, seeing
this horrible stuff happen, and you think what can I do to help my people?
The only option is joining the army. Now, our training gives them practical
skills so if the government does change, their will be leaders waiting
to take up the reigns.
If I get discouraged I can go home, but the Karen cannot. I could
go on with my life, but they have been doing this for years and havent
quit. They are poor materially, but rich in spirit. In some places we
see displaced people set up a camp, and a week later, the school is open.
In spite of battling against overwhelming odds, and in the face of an
international community who has yet to give them any concrete help, the
people of Burma, both tribal and Burmese, aided by a few brave volunteers,
continue their struggle for democracy. Let us all be inspired by their
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts
author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, Martial
Arts Odyssey, The Pilot episode, shot in the Philippines, is running
on youtube.'The Monk From Brooklyn - Kuntaw in the Phillipines'
Antonio is the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him
see his website www.speakingadventure.com
Get Antonios books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa
More Life Stories
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