Dogmeat Diaries 6: Jungle College

Dogmeat Diaries 6: Jungle College

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.  

From late 1993 until April 1994, I lived and worked at the Karen Teacher Training College (KTTC) at Pwe Baw Loo. This was a Karen National Union (KNU)-controlled village on the Thailand side of the Burma border, a couple of miles up the Youm (Mae Sariang) River. There was a dry season road out through the jungle (Salween National Park), which I was never allowed to use, my presence in the sensitive location not being official. Pwe Baw Loo was one of several semi-secret villages along the border, controlled by rebel groups from Burma and only notionally under Thai sovereignty, similar to the better-known KMT (white Chinese) controlled villages further to the north. The Thai security establishment acquiesced in KNU control of these jungle enclaves as part of a long-standing arrangement whereby the KNU made trouble for Thailand’s traditional enemy-neighbour (Burma) and provided intelligence, and access to lucrative logging contracts. In exchange, the KNU received guns and ammunition, and an official permission to house families in Thailand. Or at least that’s how the deal worked back then. 

I was fortunate to arrive on the border before the end of an era. Within a few years, these arrangements had been (and at the time were being) replaced by cosier government-to-government (and business-to-military) relationships, under the ASEAN policy of “constructive engagement”. The year after I left Pwe Baw Loo, the village was evacuated after the KNU suffered a series of military defeats as a result of defections within its ranks. During the years I lived there, there was relatively little fighting along the border. We few foreign volunteers which made the place our temporary home, used to bravely claim that the KNU headquarters area could never fall to “the enemy”. However, we (I at least) were not qualified to make those judgements, which proved incorrect.  

The string of villages including Pwe Baw Loo were established in the 1970s, after Gen Bo Mya founded his new headquarters at Mannerplaw, on the Moeie River a few miles south of the Moeie-Salween River confluence (which was to play an important role in the fragmentation of the KNU in the mid-1990s). During the early 1990s, it was still possible to believe that the KNU-led alliance, composed of ethnic armed groups and pro-democracy activists from the cities, with its headquarters at Mannerplaw, represented an alternative axis of power to the military dictatorship in Yangon (at the time still called Rangoon).  

To reach Mannerplaw from Pwe Baw Loo took a 20 minute boat trip down the Youm and across the Moeie, which constitutes the border. Spread out beneath magnificent limestone crags, the rebel headquarters was like a large village of mostly bamboo and leaf-thatched wooden houses, with a few more substantial buildings (for example, the KNLA supreme headquarters building). The main KNLA parade ground and barracks were further to the north, under a gateway across which was the emblazoned logo “Give me liberty or give me death”. Various hardwood-walled, zinc-roofed (and occasionally concrete) KNU and alliance offices were spread out along the riverbank to the south. Even on big symbolic-ceremonial occasions, the atmosphere was sleepy, although resonant with the romance of rebellion. I would visit fairly often, in part because – despite its beauty and the good fellowship of villages and my students – Pwe Baw Loo could be pretty dull on the weekends. 

‘During the early 1990s, it was still possible to believe that the KNU-led alliance, represented an alternative axis of power to the military dictatorship in Yangon

About once a month I would make the trip into Chiang Mai, the main city of northern Thailand, and every three months or so further on to Bangkok and Malaysia. This involved an early start in the dark, followed by a long boat ride up the Moei and Salween Rivers to Mae Saam Laep (Thaw Leh Hta in Sgaw Karen). I was never allowed to use the road into Thailand, because the Thais didn’t want nosey foreigners travelling in and out willy-nilly. One had to travel by boat, which was always beautiful and often delightful, but sometimes very chilly. The journey up to Mae Saam Laep took an-hour-and-a-half – or longer, if one had to wait by the riverside for more passengers. It was freezing cold on the river in the early morning when we headed out, and between May and October there was always the chance of rain, driven into one’s face once we got underway. The river was beautiful once the sun came up, with thick mist rolling along the river valley, not yet broken up by the sun. 

Among the other interesting distractions at Pwe Baw Loo was the occasional lunch or dinner with Gen Bo Mya. The families of several top KNU leaders each had a village under their patronage, strung along the east bank of the Moeie. The big mahogany and thatch house at Pwe Baw Loo belonged to General Bo Mya, KNU Chairman and Karen National Liberation Army Chief-of-Staff. 

Under the plank bed in my rather more modest house at the edge of Bwe Baw Loo was a rusty AK-47 assault rifle, for “just in case”. Although I never used this (and I’m not sure it would have fired, if I’d tried), I did on occasion borrow a friend’s .22 Carbine rifle. I once asked Gen Bo Mya for bullets for a hunting expedition, and he kindly gave me a hundred. The expedition was not a great success; the few shots on target were managed by my friend Saw Da Eh, who shared the house with me and had the thankless task of making sure I didn’t get into too much trouble. On other occasions, Dah Eh had more success with his slingshot. 

Saw Da Eh was from a tiny village up in the Papun hills of northern Karen State; he intended to become the first person in his village to finish high school. He attended the KNU high school in Pwe Baw Loo, rather than the KTTC. In many ways, Dah Eh epitomised Karen from the hills. Sometimes lacking confidence regarding his limited formal education, this young man was nevertheless a genius with a machete, and could build a jungle hut in hours flat, as well as being adept at hunting, and producing a curry from scratch. 

Saw Dah Eh once discovered a snake curled in the branches of a tree outside our bamboo and thatch hut. I was assured it was very dangerous, and that he would take care of it. Great, I thought: I’ll will see how a proper Karen guy deals with a snake.  

Dah Eh made a show of circling the tree (which wasn’t very big), testing the wind direction with his finger (okay not really, but that sort of thing), and sharpening his machete. He slowly approached the snake, which was three-feet long and greenishbrown. I awaited demonstration of his technique – but instead he launched into a series of ferocious blows and shouts, laying about the branches with gusto. I’m not sure what happened to the snake, but it certainly wasn’t there by the time Dah Eh had finished. Lacking in finesse, but an effective non-violent technique. 

On another occasion, I was lying in my hammock in the hut/house, listening to the BBC World Service on a battery radio. My candle had burnt out (we had no electricity), so it was pretty dark with just sound of the radio, and chirruping and burping of insects and frogs in the background. As soon as I felt the sudden little lump on my throat, I knew it was a scorpion which proceeded to scuttle over my face and into my hair. This was too heavy to be a spider, but not big enough for a mouse. I lay as still as I could and called to Dah Eh, who was half-asleep in the room next door. He staggered over to my hammock with his torch, as I tried to explain the situation in a mixture of panicky Karen and English. He was initially sceptical, but then saw the little beast in my hair. “Scorpion! Scorpion!” he helpfully yelled. I tried to explain that this had been my assumption. I needed to know whether it was still in my hair, in which case I would lie still; or if the critter had moved onto the fabric of the hammock, allowing me to jump out. Eventually it seemed that the latter was the case – thus ended my first run-in with a scorpion. 

‘This was too heavy to be a spider, but not big enough for a mouse. As soon as I felt the sudden little lump on my throat, I knew it was a scorpion’

A few weeks later, I was visiting the outhouse – a simple bamboo structure built over a pit latrine, with an old rice sack for the door. I reached up to pull down the sacking to give myself privacy and indicate the room was occupied. A scorpion, which must have been nestling in the raggedy folds, stung the flesh of my right palm. Almost immediately, a zinging pain shot up the lymph and started throbbing in the gland under my armpit. Very soon, this was joined by an intense pain across my right palm, which lasted for most of the next two days and only fully subsided about 10 days later. Those 48 hours were probably the most painful period of my life. I still have a tiny scar to show for it. 

My next run-in was a few weeks after. I turned over in the middle of the night, under my mosquito net, and felt something against my ribs. I had just formulated the thought: “this feels like a scorp …” when it stuck. Fortunately, this time must have been a glancing blow, because although quite painful the sting was not as excruciating as before. 

I’m fortunate not to have been stung since, and also never to have been bitten by a centipede. I did once unfurl an umbrella during an English class (can’t remember why). A big orange centipede fell out, and passed just a few inches from my nose before hitting the packed earth classroom floor and attempting to scuttle off. It didn’t get far before being squashed by one of the students. 

I mentioned that Dah Eh was a great jungle cook. However, it was not he who introduced me to the delights of dogmeat. One afternoon I was wondering at the back of our section of the village, and thought I would visit one of the students houses. Eh K’lu Htoo (who later became my cousin by marriage) was eating a curry with friends. He seemed a bit surprised to see me, and I was surprised he didn’t invite me in (quite rude by Karen standards). However, I didn’t think much of it, and continued my walk. I later came across the little stream which ran down to the Youm River, and followed this back into the village. I soon came across Eh K’lu Htoo cleaning his pots and pans in the creek, with a big black dog head to his side, placed on a mid-stream rock. At this point he came clean, and admitted having had dog curry for lunch. This is considered rather low-class in polite Karen (Baptist) society. (For example, my wife has never eaten dog in her life.) This explains why he had invited me to eat earlier on earlier occasions, but not this time. 

Over the coming years, I discovered that dogmeat fried with garlic, and also dogmeat sausage are delicious. Both go well with whiskey. 

[Saw Dah Eh died earlier this year, at home in Kawthoolei.] 

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.

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