This post is part of the series ‘Dogmeat Diaries’ by Ashley South. (Read the first entry here for an explanation about the title choice.)
Dr Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Between 1992 and 1994, he worked as an English teacher along the Thailand-Burma border. This was followed by three years coordinating relief supplies to ethnic Karen and Mon refugees and internally displaced people, who had fled armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, Ashley has mostly worked as a consultant for the aid industry and in academia.
The Dogmeat Diaries recollect (not necessarily accurately) and reflect upon Dr South’s experiences working in and on Myanmar over several decades. During this period, he published extensively on ethnic armed conflicts and peace processes in Burma and Mindanao (politics of legitimacy and governance); politics of language and education; and most recently on climate change and “deep adaptation” in Myanmar.
Ashley’s academic and policy-orientated publications are mostly available at: www.AshleySouth.co.uk. The Dogmeat Diaries are intended to supplement this more analytic work, providing some snapshots and impressions of life beyond the beaten track in Burma.
Towards the end of my time at Pwe Baw Loo, I was asked to visit some Karen National Union (KNU) schools inside Kawthoolei (the KNU’s ‘liberated zone’ in Burma). The purpose of my trip was to survey a high school, as part of a larger inventory of the Karen education system, on behalf of the National Health and Education Committee in Chiang Mai (which served as a clearing-house for limited funding to Ethnic Armed Organisation service providers).
I took a long-tail boat up-river for a couple of hours from Mae Saam Laep, through limestone gorges of the Salween (Thanlwin) River. It was January (1994), so the river wasn’t at full strength, but still had quite a surge with the rainy season only a few months behind us. The boat worked slowly upriver through occasional rocky rapids, skirting whirlpools, including the infamous sucker at Wei Gyi, where more than one revolutionary martyr had met his end. After a couple of hours, we pulled over to the left (west) bank. A steep and hotly sticky trudge up through sandbanks, after which we rested for a while at a makeshift Karen Liberation Army (KNLA – the KNU’s armed wing) riverside checkpoint made of bamboo and rough-hewn planks. As the afternoon heat began to recede, my bodyguard/guide (a local KNLA soldier) led me up into the hills.
These days, much of the journey can be done by truck, at least in the dry season. Back then before the ceasefire, the only way in was by foot. Always something of a shock to the system, when one starts to walk in the Burmese jungle. Usually, it’s travel by boat or truck until the road gives out, usually at the bottom of a steep hill. It’s tough going from relative rest to intense uphill trekking, with little transition. I was determined to prove my mettle by carrying my own backpack, although I quickly realised how relatively out of shape I was.
I struggled on behind my guide until we reached a Karen village near the top of the first ridge of hills, about two hours into the walk (and into rebel Burma), where we stayed for the first night. It was a delightfully cool evening at this elevation, but not cold enough to be uncomfortable. On following nights it was pretty chilly, as we were still not fully out of the cold season. I didn’t have a sleeping bag, so had to make do with whatever blankets were afforded me. Wish I had bought a hammock – which I often did on subsequent trips (this being my first proper expedition into the Burmese interior). On that first trip, I learned how Karen villagers would often wake up in the night like a fire to warm their bones; even quite young kids had a few gulps of rice wine before bedtime, to ward off the cold.
We slept on the bamboo floor of village houses. This would usually be the larger house of a small cluster – a typical upland Sgaw Karen hamlet being rarely more than a dozen houses. Nearly everything was made of bamboo: the walls and creakily bouncing floors; large bamboo poles cut in half and laid alternately one on the other to make a roof (other roofs being leaf-thatch); even plates and eating utensils were made of bamboo.
Privileged guests like me were usually given a place to sleep nearest the hearth. This was warmer at first, until the embers died out, but hardly the most restful place to spend the night. Karen folks are up and down, children squealing and wriggling, dogs and chickens barking and pecking, mewling and crowing. You get used to it after a while, but those first few nights I found it difficult to sleep properly.
After a couple of days’ walk, we arrived at BNBK village. This was in the heart of KNLA 20th Battalion (later upgraded to 5 Brigade), deep in the Papun Hills (KNU Mudraw District) – just a few miles from Gen Bo Mya’s birthplace at Htee Moe Kee. At the top of the last hill, before walking down into BNBK, I asked my guide (in broken Karen) – “where is the nearest Burma Army base?” He pointed back to the left and indicated (I think) over the next hill; then to the front and rightwards, I think saying not far in that direction. We were more-or-less surrounded – albeit from an indeterminate distance.
The school was made of bamboo too. Very rudimentary, with little more than benches (bamboo and wood), cursory blackboard (bamboo and wood), some chalk for the teachers and slates for the students. Only the teachers had copies of textbooks, and only a few students had their own pens and notebooks. A typical KNU high school. Extraordinary and inspiring how communities, teachers and parents provide education in the middle of a war zone. Almost the first thing displaced Karen communities do upon finding a new location which is safe, at least for the present, is to set up school, even if only under the shade of bamboos.
The highlight of my visit was the animist wedding. My recollections are more than usually cloudy, because of the vast amounts of booze consumed. Every place I went, as the honoured guest (the only white person for many miles around), I was presented with dozens of little bamboo cups – at the same time or in quick succession. Each was full of rice whiskey (stronger than the local fermented beery-wine), which I had to drink almost to the bottom, before returning to the person who had first handed me the cup – a parlour game which became more difficult the more was consumed. Great fun, sticky and exhilarating.
Everyone was wearing traditional Karen tunics, except the KNLA soldiers in a combination of traditional shirts and camouflage kit. One Sergeant-Major, in his 50s, grabbed me by the hand waving his pistol in the air and shouting: “we will never surrender, and never be beaten by the Bama – they destroy our villages and rape our women, but we will defend our land to the end!”
The ceremony itself is a bit of a blur. Traditional instruments wheezing and jangling; crowds (in the hundreds) jostling and sweating. Wonderful fun, and a strong feeling of living Karen culture for its own sake, and in defiance of the Burmese military. A bamboo platform, with bamboo baskets full of pork. There must have been a lot of pigs killed that day, as one after another lower jaws were produced from the basket, to the crowds’ cheering, and passed out among the congregation. We each took a bite, encouraged by the raring music, all the time being sprayed by cupfulls of rice wine, energetically doused from buckets set upon the platform.
After a couple of days, we headed back to the Thailand border. This was the hardest part. Like a kid, I repeatedly asked my bodyguard/guide – “are we nearly there yet”. Again and again, he indicated the next hill and said, “just over there”. Each time when we got to what I thought was our destination, there was yet another hill to go.
Dr Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Between 1992 and 1994, Ashley worked as an English teacher along the Thailand-Burma border. This was followed by three years coordinating relief supplies to ethnic Karen and Mon refugees and internally displaced people, who had fled armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, he has mostly worked as a consultant for the aid industry and in academia, focusing on ethnic and humanitarian politics in Myanmar, and the southern Philippines. Most of his publications are available at: www.AshleySouth.co.uk.