Those living in the badlands along the border between Thailand and Burma know the lean and lanky American as Tha-U-Wu-Pa. Given that he is an active player in the struggle against Burma's thuggish military regime, one might consider the name a nom de guerre. But he'll have none of the war talk, insisting that he's merely a Christian man driven by love and a desire to help relieve the suffering among Burma's oppressed ethnic minorities.
And he points out that those minorities need as much help as they can get—and a great deal more. While the world has been outraged by the Burmese junta's recent crackdown on monks and civilians protesting peacefully in big cities like Rangoon and Mandalay, away from the spotlight the people in the ethnic enclaves have been enduring the generals' persecution for decades. And for 10 years from their base in northern Thailand, Tha-U-Wu-Pa and his Free Burma Rangers have been slipping past Thai patrols and eluding heavily armed, trigger-happy Burmese Army units in order to bring emergency medical care and other assistance to people in the Shan, Karen, Karenni and Arakan ethnic states.
spacerThe 47-year-old expatriate, who grew up in Thailand and speaks the language fluently, has himself roamed across a thousand miles of Shan, Karen and Karenni territory on relief missions, often with Burmese soldiers no more than a few yards away. The Americans he leads are mostly Christian, and the man himself—let's call him Don for anonymity's sake—is a kind of modern missionary on steroids. He's seen some of the worst atrocities of the Burmese military. "When you think about terrible things, it's hard to quantify," he says, two days after returning from a cross-border relief mission. "What's terrible? People shot and killed instantly, tortured slowly, blown to little pieces, stepping on land mines …"
And yet Don displays the missionary's faith and optimism. "The love that ethnic people have given us has struck me most," he says. "This love gives us the strength to keep going and not worry about who wins and who loses."
By any practical measure the ethnic minorities are losing. While the protests in the big cities went on for several weeks, the government's campaign against ethnic people has been raging nonstop for 50 years, and some operations are ongoing right now. In Karen state in eastern and southern Burma, the State Peace and Development Council—which is to say the junta—began an offensive in February 2006 that had killed more than 300 men, women and children and displaced 25,000 people by February 2007, according to the Free Burma Rangers.
The group, founded 10 years ago by Don, compiles its numbers via the teams it sends into Burma on humanitarian missions. It says the Burmese Army built 33 new camps in the area, seeking to solidify its control. The military's 2006 campaign was the largest offensive in Karen state since 1997, says Don. The army's goal, he says, is to crush anyone living in those areas.
"Their objective is to eliminate all resistance, to keep a tight grip on the population," explains a 25-year-old American volunteer whose Karen nickname is Wee. "And they do it quite brutally, with no regard for basic human rights. Last month they burned down at least two villages in northern Karen state with no concern for whether they were harming men, women or children. They'll take whatever they like, shoot the place up, burn down the village and set land mines on the trails leading to farms. People are regularly maimed or killed."
After the army loots and destroys villages, any villager seen is shot on sight, witnesses say. The soldiers' slow pace, coupled with security provided by the Karen National Union (KNU), means most people are able to escape. The KNU has tried to set up an early warning network in the state. Villagers flee into the jungle, often to hiding places prepared in advance. Once the soldiers leave the area, ethnic Karen try to return to their villages and farms—or at least to somewhere nearby. Often the devastation is such that they can do neither, and they become internally displaced people.
At the Rangers' headquarters, the young American volunteers mix with Thai and Burmese colleagues, putting together videos, care packages, educational supplies, information packets—whatever it takes. They see their mission as providing "help, hope and love." And they are not here in any kind of paid capacity. Each volunteer is responsible for his or her own upkeep, and they all have people or churches or businesses back home supporting them. As Wee speaks the TV flickers with images of distraught Karen villagers recounting atrocities committed by Burmese troops. The video shows a man burying his face in his hands, crying as he tells about his children being captured by soldiers, killed, and then burned. They were so young, he says incredulously, between sobs. How could they have been any kind of threat? "They didn't even know their right hand from their left hand," he wails.
Watching the video, Wee says quietly, "When there are babies and moms and others around you and you're all running in the jungle to get away from the SPDC troops, it kind of takes away your fears for your own safety."
Don remembers a report by a television crew that accompanied the Rangers on a mission. The presenter suggested that under attack the Rangers had run away and left some people behind. It still angers Don, even now, a couple of years later. "We have a rule that we don't run if people are there," he says. "You know, when people want to join us, we look for moral courage. Well, that's the moral courage. You don't run if the people can't run."
He says that in 10 years there have been fewer than 10 situations in which he has come under indirect fire—mortar, rocket-propelled grenades and such—and only twice has been "under direct fire, nothing between them and me." In one incident he "could feel their bloodlust at the back of my head," he recalls.
And he remembers a battalion "firing everything it had at us" for 30 minutes. "I wasn't even scared, because I knew we were doing the right thing."
Each time the Rangers go on a mission, they spend a month or two in the bush, getting around on foot and hiking 10 to 40 miles a day. "You're not going to get fat," Don observes wryly. "We don't know how long we will hike, and we don't know how far. It depends. It's either, the attack by the SPDC was over there and you have to get there, or someone's chasing you and you have to keep moving."
Ranger teams consist of four to five people and include at least one "medic," typically a native person who has gained some medical experience working with one of the ethnic militias. "A lot of people are interested in joining our teams," Don says. "They love their people and they see something terrible is going on. A lot of them have had experiences, and they're angry. A lot of these emotions are motivating factors for our teams." As a result, the Rangers don't have to recruit. The various ethnic groups, each with its own acronym, send volunteers. "We just tell them the qualifications," Don says.
Don's Karen name, Tha-U-Wu-Pa, means "father of the white monkey." That's a reference to one of his two daughters, herself nicknamed "white monkey." He also has a son, his youngest child. His wife works with him in the effort to, as Wee put it, "remind these people that they are not forgotten." Don's family helps provide perspective. Last year Don took a photo of a nine-year-old Karen girl wounded in a Burmese Army attack in which her father and grandmother were fatally shot at point-blank range. The picture shows a large, bloody hole where a bullet exited the abdomen of the girl, who survived. "It struck me that this could happen to me," Don says. "I thought, 'Wow, man, that's my family right there.' I said from this day on, this is my family."