During the 72 years of war against the dictatorship of the Burmese (Myanmar Army), the Karen keep following the 4 principles dictated by Saw Ba U Gyi a Karen lawyer and minister of the revenue during the era of British-Burma. After the independence of Burma, he became the father of the Karen rebellion and the founder of the KNDO the Karen National Defence Organization. He was killed in August 1950 and he still inspires the Karen revolution. The war started in 1949 and keeps going on today especially with today's strike against the Myanmar military that has sized the power illegally. The Karen army protects civilians in the Karen state against Myanmar soldiers.
I am back for the second part of my previous post "Travelling into secret war zone: Burma" and I will not talk about today's extreme situation but will soon make a post about what really happen today in Burma. Instead, I will talk about my travel back in the. As everybody must understand that the situation in Myanmar (real name Burma) is very hot at the moment and nothing seems to go in the way of easing the tension. The situation is out of control and the army is using lethal war weapons to kill protesters in the streets and even in their homes, even people not involved in the uprising against the military coup are targeted as much as protesters. I am really afraid for my friends in Karen state, Kachin state, Shan state, Arakan state, and friends in central Burma.
Years ago, as I explain in the previous post I've made a friend (in Thailand) with a General from the armed ethnic group of the Karen in Burma (Myanmar) and get an invitation during my travel in Myanmar to come and see a village that was rebuilding as the Myanmar army has burnt it to the ground and to visit a military camp just next to the village. At the time of the invitation, I was afraid to go first because it is in the middle of nowhere deep in the jungle but the worst was to know that they are at war with the Myanmar army for nearly 70 years at that time as today it is 72 years of war. But the general assure me that at that time there was no risk as there was a cease-fire agreement and he will get me an escort from Myawaddy town to the site. Even after having talked a lot with the general about this trip, I was still afraid because agreement or not both sides are longtime enemies, and agreements are made to be broken. But finally, I made the decision to visit them and accept my escort. After a car picks me up in Myawaddy we drove a good 3 hours north, then a few kilometers after being in the car, we encounter the first road checkpoint by the Myanmar army (the Tatmadaw). There were at least 8 soldiers but maybe more in the house, the car stopped at the checkpoint and right away a soldier starts to speak about me as he walks around the car. The driver that was already out of the car talk with him and told him something that made the soldier calling another soldier with a higher rank, as he arrives next to the car the driver open the trunk and give him a bottle of Thai whiskey than the officer says something and the soldier make us the sign to go without me having my passport checked but my heart was racing to my ears. Later on the road another checkpoint and this time the driver park a little before the checkpoints desk and brings one more bottle with him, it takes at least 20 minutes before him coming back to the car first I was suspecting a problem but in fact, the driver was having a drink with the soldiers during that time they were looking at me much time and makes me feel really uncomfortable but like the first time no passport or talk with me and even as we pass in front of the soldier one of them make me a salute. The third and last checkpoint was completely empty. After arriving in a small village we stay a few hours waiting for something the driver was talking about many times on his phone and also in a walkie talkie but the fact that I was invited somewhere that is normally forbidden to foreigners and to pass all army checkpoint like a letter at the post office. Later I was told that my driver was in fact an officer/soldier from the Myanmar army and he wasn't aware of my final destination.
After two or three hours a man come to us and he was talking English and one of the first things he asked me was if I was OK to sleep in the jungle and sure I was as I have been doing it many times already. He was asking this because it was already mid-afternoon and if we start our travel right away I will have to sleep in the jungle. So we leave the village with my backpack and him with his backpack. The driver brings us outside of the village and leaves us on the side of the road next to a rice field that ends up at the feet of a mountain cover by jungle. From there we walk, crossed the rice field, and head up into the deep and dark jungle. The guy opens the way and uses his long machete to cut the branches on the way. Even inside the jungle, the temperature is better than in the fields but it stills hot and the humidity is really high and it makes the walk more difficult especially when walking up the mountains. All the way he wasn't really talkative and always make me signs to keep quiet (we were maybe surrounded by enemies of the Myanmar army) which makes me paranoid about every move or noise in the jungle. We have been walking nonstop until the darkness of the night start covering the jungle. He has chosen a place and has to hang two army hammocks and has fixed a terp on the top of it just in case the rain comes during the night. Then he made a little fire where he has cook some rice and meat inside a bamboo than it was time to sleep even we have spent a good two hours talking about Burma's situation and also about life in Europe and other subjects. I was so exhausted from the day trip in a car without AC and under the sun than the waiting and the long walk up and down the mountain it takes me just a few minutes to fall asleep and has a good night under the trees and the stars with all the sounds of the animals from the jungles. Before sleeping he takes out from his bag an automatic handgun with its holster and puts it right next to him in the hammock and a walkie-talkie and talk to someone for a minute.
The next day I woke up in paradise even it was really early morning but birds and monkeys were singing around us and I even have a surprise to see that there was two coffee for me and some rice with vegetable and sauce. We ate quite fast and fold our hammock then start the road again with just in front of us the next mountain to climb and the guy was telling me that we will walk until we reach our appointment around 2 or 3 pm and it was only 6:30 am so we will have a long and difficult walk and it was especially after the first mountain that day we entered a Myanmar army controlled area, he even shows me where was the camp. Like most of the camps in the Karen state, the camp was on the top of a little mountain. All the walk inside the area was quite hard as we have to stay invisible inside the jungle not make any noise and the worst of all was to avoid the pathway as it is full of land mines so we have to walk at cover inside the jungle at places where it is full of trees and plants. He was very good at opening the way in this green hell as there was a lot to cut and do it in silence than I have to walk in his footprint and avoid all the suspicious bump and mark in the soil. This part of the walk was a nightmare as it takes a long time to make a few meters and to keep a full watch on the surrounding, listen to each and every noise and keep an eye on the feet of the opener to make sure to not walk out of his footprint. Also looking for booby-traps after all this never-ending nightmare we were out of their sight but still have to be very cautious about everything as we still can encounter a patrol in the jungle. During this very special travel I was having a lot of souvenirs of many movies about the Vietnam war or other jungle military movies and this time it wasn't Rambo or others that were in the hiding mode but me instead but the fear apart I was feeling that I was very lucky to be one of the people to enter this forbidden green land of Kaw Thoo Lei (the Karen state) and curious at the same time of this all adventure because Myanmar is little like North Korea and it is one of the most secretive countries in the world.
Many times during the walk the guy was using his walkie-talkie not for talking but for making some clicks and other clicks were received in response, like a kind of morse language. The guy was in fact a KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army) but when I met him he was wearing civilian clothing but since the morning he was wearing military camouflage trousers and the holster and gun at the belt. During the walk, he wasn't talking too much, only a few times to tell me to stop or to hide low but most of the time was just making the sign with one hand. For sure the guy was knowing the jungle-like his pocket because during the entire walk in the jungle he never uses a compass, he knows every little path and even sometimes it seems that there was no path but after he cuts some branches I can see that there was a path but not been used for long. Around the mid-afternoon, we arrive at a quite big river but quiet, we walk for maybe half an hour along the river in the opposite direction of the stream. We stop at a place that looks like a tiny beach with sand, where we rest under the trees, and he was busy clicking. Suddenly, he makes me a sign to stay quiet and listen and there I was able to hear an engine, quickly he gather all our things and ask me to follow him. We went about a good 8 meters inside the jungle and seat in the hiding of the trees but from there we still have a very good view of the beach and the river. I remember that the time in the hiding seems to be very long as the engine sound was approaching it seems to be very slow. Then suddenly at the corner of a bunch of trees behind it is a curved part of the river, appear the tip of a longtail boat with three soldiers with machine guns and a few meters behind the driver and on the back were two other soldiers with a machine gun. After they arrive nearly in front of where we hiding they turned in the direction of the tiny sand "beach". My guy (soldier was clicking with his walkie-talkie. He made me a sign to follow him in the direction of the boat uncovered. The time we walk to the sand the boat has already touched the sand and the three front soldiers already jumped from the boat with their M16 machine gun and they make the salute to my soldier then we both get into the boat followed by the three soldiers taking place as they were before at the front with the two at the back next to the boat driver. The boat travel on the big river takes us about 2 1/2 to 3 hours but the landscape all along was stunning with mountains on both side all covered with thick jungle after a while we arrived at a fork where the river opens on an even bigger river than my soldier told me that the other side is Thailand "my love country" but we mostly travel on the Burmese side and only sometimes because of the deep of the rivers the boat has to navigate along the Thai river bank, this river name is the river Salween its length is about 3300 Kilometers starting high on the Tibetan plateau than to the southwest China to Burma and Thailand and it is ending up into the Andaman sea. The Thai side seems to be much more alive than the Burmese side with villages and houses nearly all along the river the Burmese side is mostly nothing other than many Karen military camps and only one Burmese army camp/checkpoint that is facing a Thai village with a lot of boat activity but the Karen control nearly the entire border except where there are towns. A few times during the boat trip we stopped at some Karen camps where soldiers run to the boat and take a big bag of rice and a box of food than after a few minutes we continue our trip.
Finally, after these two days of traveling, we arrive at a riverbank covered with sand and stop the boat there, quickly some soldiers came down from the hill and after a quick shaking hand they started to unload the boat from bags of rice, boxes, and other bags. I followed the soldiers that were with me on the boat up the hill and along a little path that brings us to a fence of bamboo with sharp bamboo facing out and in front of the fence was many trenches in case of an attack from the enemy at the entrance was a checkpoint with 3 soldiers, all of them get out of the checkpoint and shook my hand and it was the same all my way inside the camp, shaking hands and receiving big smiles. I was feeling like a superstar or better a VIP but I have nothing that can make these people happy to see me, I am not a politician, neither a soldier I am just a normal dude that life made me meet the general nothing more than that. Later I learned that they were happy to see a foreigner coming that far to see them. Karen people are very kind in life and are some of the best, if not the best jungle warriors that the giant Myanmar army fear like hell.
The base is covered by the jungle with the exception of the training field a little bigger than a football field. All the housing and the barracks are well hidden under the canopy of the thick jungle and even on the inside of the camp, there are more trenches especially on the side of the hill. The soldier asks me to seat at the officers' mass where to my surprise were two foreigners, the girl was working for an NGO and the man was a foreign politician (I won't disclose the country as I suspect it wasn't official for him to be here). After a quick presentation of each other my friend General Nerdha Bo Mya arrive and give me a hug and tells me that he was happy that I have accepted the invitation and ask me if I have a good trip. He told me that the next day will be a conference and many people will come. The sun was slowly coming down and it was time for us to eat.
I want to send my love to all the people of Burma and the power to get rid of evil. As my friend the General like to say "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst"
I will write the suite of this special trip soon and will also make a post about today's situation in Myanmar.