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Since starting in 1983, we've never operated trips in Burma (Myanmar) on moral grounds. Travel to Burma only legitimizes and perpetuates that country's horrible repression. We suggest you consider your operators before selecting your sea kayaking adventure.

Burma Repression

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In early 1992 my Ecotourism work took me to Tak Province on Thailand's Burma border. Ti Lor Su waterfalls, now considered the World's 7th largest, were only recently "discovered" and the only paddler ever to go down the Mae Klong River never came back.

It was a real treat to traverse the pristine Mae Klong, filled with fish and wildlife in the upper reaches (and ten treacherous rapids at the lower end), but the Thai tour operator we went with fished it out in a year. When I returned for my first trip to the Karen National Union Headquarters camp two years later, all the fish were in photos on the tour office wall.

With take-out only by elephant, the Mae Klong is another story - and a good one. But this story is about the never-ending will for Freedom, and what people will endure to gain it.

Activist and journalist, I was interested in the Karen and their 48-year old war of identity and independence, so I arranged a trip to General Bo Mya's birthday party, an annual event held in Manarplaw, the legendary Karen remote headquarters camp accessible only by boat down the narrow Moi River, the border between Burma and Thailand's Tak Province.

That first visit was remarkable. The longtail down the Moi took me through fabulous country, and Manarplaw was magic. Set onto a river bank on a level plain Manarplaw was a small city bustling with the business of war, yet filled with a positive, uplifting spirit - including mine. I was thrilled to be inside Burma without paying for guns that repress Burmese. Since Bo Mya's birthday was a four day non-stop hill tribe festival complete with dance contests and endless free food, the attitude was positively cheerful. It was uncanny - I was inside the World's longest fight against oppression, yet everything around this war was smiles and laughter, including the Burma-side Manarplaw Headquarters camp.

Even so, everybody was alert. I photographed a teenage soldier with his AK-47 slung over his shoulder while he watched his sweetheart dance onstage and thought about my privileged high school prom. In high school, I was the kid from "American Pie", but this boy soldier would be in a firefight tomorrow - either killing or being killed. The war raged just over the mountain, and platoons of adolescent foot soldiers often marched the steep trails to join in the fight.

It wasn't rocket science realizing that the Achilles heel of the Manarplaw firebase was the ridges. If the Burmese Army ever reached those ridges, Manarplaw was in clear view directly under the Burmese mortars.

Thank goodness that didn't happen in 1994. The festival, complete with endless hill tribe dance contests, was great fun. When I wasn't photographing dances, I researched the war and learned the environmental implications. Both sides were financing the fight by leveling forests of teak, and the Burmese were colluding with the Thai's to dam up the Salween river, hopefully delivering electricity to growing Thailand while drowning the lands of all those troublemaking minorities continuing the struggle against the despot generals in Rangoon. Much to its credit, Thailand never took the bait, and the Salween runs free to this day.

The Karen survived on grants from various Christian groups, mostly in America, and selling teak - and they were running out of timber.

In those peaceful times, we continued down the Moi to the Salween, photographed a beautiful new Buddhist monastery built right where the Moi dumps into the Salween, and then motored upstream past the largest pile of scrap lumber I've ever seen - and on the Burmese side. Then we looped around on land back to Mae Sot.

I returned in March with Chuck Weiss, a retired news reporter who became Communications Director of the American Canoe Assn. We traversed the Mae Klong and paddled into Manarplaw, where I arranged for some interviews after researching the grizzly facts on the war. The practice that bothered me the most was the plight of "munitions porters".

On the way to the battlefront, a Burmese Army officer would march his troops into a "minority" village. He collected the village headman and marched him before the villagers with a gun to his head, where he demanded all the adolescent girls. Many headmen's brains were blown out before their relatives when they refused. Resist or not, the army collected all the girls, loaded them with ammo, and headed for the front.

Why girls? Adolescent females served a dual purpose. In the day time they carried ammo, and at night they were gang raped. Then in firefights, the Burmese used them as human shields.

Audio tape running, Weiss asked a Karen Platoon member about his thoughts when he had to shoot his way through his own women. The Lieutenant replied with wet eyes, "It isn't easy but our girls are yelling at us to shoot them first to put them out of their misery."

I've never understood why tourism to Burma even exists. Tourism only legitimizes, finances, and perpetuates this brutal repression, and doing business in Burma requires getting into bed with a totally corrupt Junta member. All those middle-age flower children justify it by claiming they can make a difference, but that's just denial. As we know from recent events, the Junta doesn't care what anybody thinks, and the tourists normally meet only Junta relatives and sympathizers - who often claim to be "minority" to bolster the Junta's PR. ("But I talked with a Karen in Rangoon and he said everything was cool.")

Huge numbers of workers were forced from their villages with just a bag of rice to sustain them while building those grandiose new tourist attractions, or a pipeline for an already wealthy French or American oil company. With no shelter, medical care or decent diet with no pay save the "Glory of Myanmar", the International Labor organization (ILO), a United Nations agency, says between 1/3 and 1/2 of the forced labor pool does not survive to return to their villages. The ILU report was issued ten years ago - complete with a damning video of a slave labor camp - yet nothing has changed.

The ILO claims that Burma has the worst forced labor record in the World - and that includes Uganda, North Korea and China.

Chuck and I cried many times after those interviews, but Bo Mya's Birthday was so special I decided to take Amporn the next year.

I spoke at the PATA Ecotourism Conference in January 1995, and then flew from Kalimantan to Jakarta to Bangkok all in one day, where a van waited to take us to Mae Sot and the boat for Manarplaw. I hadn't seen a paper in a week.

The next morning we drove through several roadblocks on our way to the boat. When I asked what was going on I was told "Construction". I thought "Strange that the Thai Army was guarding so many checkpoints" but didn't say a thing.

Things became clear once we reached the boat beach, one of those 100 meter wide sand banks that rivers sometimes form. My gear got in the boat OK but when it came time to walk to the boat, I was told "You are Farang, and the Burmese assume that any Farang in this area is a Karen sympathizer. They will shoot you on sight."

"Since we've see some patrols around here, please run a zigzag as you cross the beach."

Of course, I got half-way, somebody yelled Burmese and I ran back to the truck. Was it real, or where they playing games with a stupid white boy? I didn't stop for philosophical discussions. We met the boat 10 K further downriver, and I had to stay low in the boat all the way to Manarplaw.

Manarplaw was a ghost town. We were redirected to Bo Mya's new headquarters well inside Thailand. The mood was far more somber this year. Bo Mya was totally dejected, but put on his best face for me and invited Amporn and I to lunch. We still had the birthday ceremony, complete with cake, but no hill tribe dancing and no all night parties so I put on my reporter's hat and went sniffing for stories, asking Amporn to find out what she could in Thai.

When we reconnected we both shared the same story, and it was a shocker.

The Christian Fundamentalists who supported the Karen stopped equality at the church front door. Cash donations came with strings, primarily (1) only Karen Christians could become officers and (2) family aid only went to Christians. After several years of favoritism, a Buddhist Monk finally complained so loud the Burmese Army heard the story and offered US$50 to any Buddhist who defected to the Burmese side with the monk. Although rumors had the monk making between US$50,000-200,000, about 200 Karen Buddhists took the offer, showing the Burmese Army the trails, minefields, bunkers and topography that formed Manarplaw's defenses.

Manarplaw didn't stand a chance. Bo Mya had no choice but to close the show, give up Manarplaw and move back to the Thai side of the river. The legendary fire base was abandoned without a shot.

Bo Mya told me a major battle was engaged at Saab Moi, where the Moi empties into the Salween. Amporn, I and some Thai journalists hired a longtail and (with me still below the gunnels) we left for Saab Moi. There was still one more Karen River checkpoint where the captain raised his Karen flag, a proud moment that I hoped wouldn't get us shot.

We got to Saab Moi about dark and stayed with a very lonely bungalow owner. Expecting peaceful times, he just built about 20 units in line down the ridge on the Thai side. We took a bungalow but unfortunately displayed ourselves just at dusk, so we opted to put up tents and slept behind the restaurant.

All we heard at dinner were mortars and gunfire. Of course, the Thai Army was everywhere, and Army observers wouldn't let us cross the river to cover the firefight, so I went down the ridge to waters edge, about 400 meters from the shooting and caught the sounds of war on my videotape. At one point the battle stopped for about five minutes. I learned later that both sides ceased fire while a family of rare Asian rhinoceros walked through the war.

A lot of folks died that night. Next morning we saw why.

The monastery at Saab Moi was gone.

After they defected and gave away the defenses of Manarplaw, the Band of 200 made their way to the new monastery on the Burma side of the Salween. The KNU followed them and took up position on a mountainside across the river. With mortars and the usual small arms overlooking the monastery, the KNU sent six emissaries across the river to negotiate reuniting. The answer came when the renegades marched the six down to the sand beach directly below the KNU positions, put the negotiators on their knees and shot them one-by-one in the back of their heads while they were facing their friends on the hill. The shooters then ran back to the monastery before the shocked Karen could react.

In their rage over this brutal act and thinking the shooters were in the Monk's abode, the KNU leveled the monastery. The irony was the band of 200 already deserted the place. The battle we heard the night before was Karen regulars running down the defectors after they deserted the monastery.

We crossed the river the next day before the monks arrived. The monastery was still smoking and judging from the body parts, testimony that not all of the Buddhist Karen escaped.

Amporn found a Burmese Army weapons cache - plenty of unexploded mortar and cannon shells. I wasn't surprised at the Chinese lettering on the ordinance and pointed it out. The Karen in attendance replied that China is Burma's patron state because they want access to the Indian Ocean. "Chinese are famous for disregarding human rights, but we are glad that China gives arms to Myanmar because most of it doesn't work. If the Burma Army got its arms from America, we wouldn't stand a chance."

When we returned to our bungalow, we found a surprise - four Chinese mortar shells that didn't work found their way to our bungalow. "It's a Burmese calling card. They will call a truce so you can go back on the Moi if you leave by 8AM."

We were gone at 0730. Despite the cease fire on my account, I still laid low in the boat.

Back in Mae Sot, we asked a retired border policeman if he could get us to some Burmese illegal teak logging camps. We decided to drive across a panhandle area going south from Mae Sot. Unfortunately, my old company (that I started and gave away the shares for free) won't release my video and slides so images we risked our lives for are not included in this show, such as kilometers of stacked teak trunks waiting for market to finance the Junta's purchase of more guns to repress their people. That appalling sight reminds me of a Singapore real estate ad on CNN that proudly says ". and teak from Burma". Obviously, residents either don't understand or don't care about the human cost of their luxury.

At one point, we drove through a teak dump shooting video while a pick-up truck full of Junta soldiers shadowed us from the next row, about 50 meters away. My video was running with the lens resting on the door sill. Had they seem the American Karen sympathizer journalist shooting video inside Burma without passport or visa, I was surely dead, probably Amporn and our driver as well.

So what's Burma's future? Realistically, it's bleak. The Junta doesn't care what anybody thinks, and will continue to shoot their people just to stay in power. No UN envoy, embassy demonstration or newspaper editorial will change things - these folks are so black-hearted they just don't care what anybody says.

There's talk that China has influence over the Junta, but do they have the will to do anything effective, even in an Olympic year? I doubt it. China is China, with ethics across the board only slightly better than Burma.

Would I visit Burma in the near future? No way. Each visa is used as justification to show that the World actually supports the Junta, while exorbitant Visa fees only finance the repression. I will go to Burma when Aung San Suu Kyi is rightfully installed for her election victory - after all she won Burma's last election with 88% of the vote.

But each country is different. I would visit Cuba in a song, but Burma's regime listens to nobody and never will, let alone out-of-touch middle-age hippies trying to be cool by visiting a pariah country with exotic tourism sites built by slave labor. If anything, tourism prolongs the repression - and the bad guys are only ones who benefit.

John "Caveman" Gray, October 2007

Burma travel legitimizes and perpetuates repression, so we've never operated in Burma (Myanmar)..

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