The Undercover Burma Mission

Founded by a former Green Beret, the Free Burma Rangers train ethnic minorities to run their own humanitarian missions in war-torn regions. Burma has reached a tentative peace deal with ethnic insurgent groups. Stories of human rights abuses and forced land grabs remain commonplace in regions where fighting continues.

On Tuesday, the Burma government and representatives from 16 armed ethnic groups signed a draft cease-fire agreement, offering the latest glimmer of hope in the decades-old conflict. Government officials say a final agreement could be reached with months. Still, in many border regions fighting rages on, and access for humanitarian aid is highly restricted, which is why groups like the FBR, which run clandestine missions, are in such demand.

Young insurgent

Young insurgent

The men have come from all over  Burma, travelling jungle paths and border crossing without passports or permission.. As members of Burma’s ethnic insurgent groups, these men have been locked into the world’s longest running civil war since they were old enough to lift a gun, carry medicine, or keep lookout.

The shared goal of the guerrilla soldiers is greater autonomy for their ethnic minorities that make up 30 percent of Burma’s population. And their trainers are the Free Burma Rangers, a covert humanitarian group that has organized aid missions in Burma (Myanmar) for nearly two decades.

The FBR offers survival and humanitarian training to guerrilla soldiers and civilians who have lost their homes and livelihoods in the fighting. Because of its clandestine operations, its founder insists on anonymity “to protect the sensitive nature” of his work.

The  founder of FBR (let’s call him Sam), the son of an American missionary, previously served in the US Special Forces. At 23 he led a platoon of 40 men on missions in the Panama jungle. He commanded anti-narcotics operations in Peru and trained foreign Special Forces in high altitude parachute drops. Inspired by his father, he quit his military career and entered seminary school. “I yearned for the satisfaction I saw in my father’s eyes,” he says.

But before he completed seminary school, U Saw Lu, then foreign minister for the Wa, an ethnic group in northern Burma, reached out to him. The Wa wanted to reduce their reliance on opium cultivation but had grown frustrated with the lack of assistance from international aid organizations. They instead turned to missionaries, including ‘Sam’s’  father, who recommended his son for the job. (U Saw Lu also reached out to the US Drug Enforcement Administration and was captured and tortured by Burma’s military rulers for threatening their lucrative trade.)

‘Sam’ first travelled to Burma in 1993. Six years later he formed the FBR. “In the conflict zones there was a bunch of people fleeing their homes who had no access to outside aid; we decided to fill that gap.” He’s yet to move back to the US. “I want to stand with those people who are suffering,” he says.

FBR training lasts two months and covers everything from trauma management and dentistry to orienteering and swimming, all skills essential to surviving in the rugged borderlands.

“We train our teams to avoid contact with the Burmese army,” ‘Sam’ says. “But we are not pacifists. We don’t encourage them to carry guns but we know they sometimes do for self-defence.”

The number of clashes between the armed ethnic groups and Burma’s army has begun to drop after successive rounds of peace talks with the semi-civilian government that replaced the former junta in 2011. This fledgling peace has allowed civilians in some areas to return to their homes or find new ones.

Still, violence continues to flare in northern Burma. Last month fighting erupted in the Kokang region, forcing tens of thousands to flee into China’s Yunnan Province. China said this week that Burma had apologized after its warplanes dropped bombs on the Chinese side of the border.

Kya Bon La Hi, a Wa pastor who attended FBR training, says fighting has intensified around his hometown in northern Shan State. “I don’t see an easy resolution,” he says.

“The recent escalation of violence is of major concern,” Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Burma, says via email. “The problem now is the lack of access for any international monitors to report on the situation on the ground.”

In the absence of international monitors, the FBR and other such groups serve as the world’s eyes on the ground. For example, an FBR-trained team got the word out about the torture, rape, and murder of two volunteer Kachin teachers in January. FBR say the perpetrators were rogue soldiers n the Burmese Army.

“I hate those people and I want to kill them,” Sam says. But rather than rush into the jungle to enact brutal justice, he prays for the perpetrators to experience a “change in their hearts and lives.”

One solution to the conflict, which started more than five decades ago, would be a federal system that devolved power to ethnic groups in their regions. But optimism that national elections this year will help bring an end to the war is cautious at best. For one thing, the army holds a veto over constitutional changes and is loath to cede power to ethnic insurgents.

“At present, we have a president who has committed himself in principle to a federal system, but a Burma Army which seems unwilling to change,” says Ashley South, a Burma specialist at Thailand’s Chang Mai University.

As Burma’s political parties prepare for the upcoming elections, the complex peace process continues – albeit at a snail’s pace. For Thi Naing, the young man with the “never surrender” tattoo, an end to the conflict can’t come soon enough.

“I want my people to be free from fear, to be allowed to say our background openly and [to] have self-determination in our homeland,” he says.

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Posted by on April 5, 2015. Filed under Burma,SOUTH-ASIA. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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