My Journey from Violence to Nonviolence

How does a jungle soldier in a guerrilla war become a nonviolent activist? This is Ler Wah Lo Bo's account of jouning and then leaving the Karen army to serve an NGO, documenting the location in Burma of land mines -- some of which he had laid a few years earlier

By Ler Wah Lo Bo

It has been 22 years, but it feels like yesterday. I remember eating with my middle school students in a bamboo dining room in the jungle: fish paste, green chili, and papaya soup. And now I am here in a Toronto apartment, eating barbecue pork after work with my friends.

I enjoyed jungle life as a Karen revolutionary soldier, though the armed struggle in Burma was terrible. I served 16 years with the Karen National Union (KNU), the biggest ethnic rebel group in Burma.

The KNU revolted originally in 1949 after its peaceful demands for autonomy received only a vulgar rejection from the Burmese regime. They had asked for an autonomous Karen state, federalism, peace, and equality with all other citizens of Burma.

In 1980 while I was studying in university, I was in the KNU underground when the notorious Burmese military intelligence (MI) began its surveillance on me. That same year, one of my cousins was beheaded with a handsaw by the Burmese army near the Thai-Burma border, where they found him sick in a makeshift jungle hut used by smugglers. This brutal act, plus the army's surveillance of me, prompted me to leave my loved ones in the city and come to the Thai-Burma border, where the Karen revolutionaries were based.

Teaching in the Jungle

Upon fleeing Rangoon (Yangon) in 1981, I served as a school teacher for seven years at a remote village on the Tennessirim river about 15 miles from the border. When I arrived, there were only 30 households, a small church, and a school. In the first year we had 70 students, and the next year students came from the nearby villages, making 150 students. Every morning and evening in the school chapel we sang the national anthem and recited the four principles of the Karen revolution.

Since we planned to extend the school from middle to high school, the teachers and older students worked during holidays to construct more buildings. We worked harmoniously on the riverside despite the heat, for everyone was anxious to see the new classrooms and hostels. Some carried sand and stones uphill from the river. Some steered the long tail boats down the river to bring back cement bags, nails, and wooden poles, dropping them beside our only old truck. The teachers and students were satisfied, though we ate only rice, vegetable soup, chili, and salt. Canned sardines for dinner were as marvelous as getting a diamond ring for a birthday present.

Some students and teachers lay on the floor of the bamboo hut with glucose dripping from bottles, battling malaria and other ailments. For them, the headmistress herself made chicken soup from her own poultry. Despite the fatigue and sickness, we built a complete high school and set up a generator for night studies. After the construction in the summer, the school began in the rainy season. Moreover, the education officer ordered us to dig trenches around the school compound for protection against the Burmese army's air raids.

Foreigners and missionaries often came to the village. Some of them distributed Bibles and others helped set up the water supply and an agricultural workshop for villagers. Some individual volunteers came to teach a special English class for children. They always stayed with us in the school compound. One difficulty for me was that almost all school textbooks except Karen and Burmese are published in English - which I had never studied. Fortunately, I got extra time to prepare and study with a dictionary before going to my classroom. We also set up a music band and during summer holidays traveled with our students to other villages near the front lines to entertain and create friendships with the local people.

In early 1986 we heard bad news. Major Hla Myint from a Burmese army regiment had thrown two children into a fire when this regiment attacked a township. This atrocity provoked all the Karen villagers, including myself, to vow to resist the Burmese military regimes. As we kept up our educational work, there was a lot of political unrest. Student anti-government demonstrations were taking place in some major cities. In 1987, the ruling Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) government announced the withdrawal of all the country's legal currencies, hurting the entire people of Burma. This was one of the main reasons why people rallied on city streets in Burma's pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

I Join the Karen Army

Even before the uprising I had decided to enroll in the Karen Army's Fourth Brigade. After one year I was promoted, becoming a warrant officer in the brigade's top combat company. At the same time, the All-Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) was formed in 1989 by students who fled and came to the revolutionary areas after the Burmese military crackdown on the uprising. Also, the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) was formed in Mannerplaw, KNU's headquarters, comprising many armed struggle groups. It was organized to fight collectively against the Burmese military regime, which called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) after the coup d'etat in September 1988.

In 1990 15 columns were formed by the DAB military council. My company had to figure out how to operate jointly with ABSDF troops along the coast of the Andaman Sea. We had to mobilize from village to village, from city to city. Initially, shooting down enemies was a great satisfaction for me - revenge for my cousin and the war crimes against my people. Isn't it the main thing every freedom fighter wants to do?

I was glad to see the Burman villagers welcoming our Karen troops without fear. Some elderly women even danced for us in front of their houses. One very poor woman put a water pot with cold water at her front steps for the soldiers. Others brought food, cigarettes, and tea for us. Karen troops could not normally even have approached, for the villagers were members of the Burman majority. They had been indoctrinated by the Burmese regime to see the Karen rebels as ugly and cruel, with long hair and beards and tattered uniforms - always killing, looting, and raping. We felt happy when the people told us of their surprise at seeing us speaking perfect Burmese and behaving politely. Occasionally I tried to convince them that, even though we are a different ethnic minority, we do not hate Burmans and should not be vengeful toward each other. Many village authorities who had been appointed by SLORC became our friends and often came to visit us in our jungle camps. Whenever we visited their village, they made security arrangements by sending people outside the village to watch the enemy and inform us of anything suspicious.

Our combined troops fought in combat and defensively on the front line between 1990 and 1994. Throughout those years we were able to seize and capture some enemy outposts and weapons. Once six enemy soldiers surrendered to us during a battle. They stayed overnight with us and we released them the next day, giving each one 200 Kyats for bus fare. By showing respect to the villagers we always avoided battles inside the villages. Whenever our troops engaged with the SLORC troops, the villagers made food for us. One brave Karen woman even delivered tea and homemade snacks to us during the battles. Numerous Burmese defectors joined us - some with weapons and ammunition, some with bare hands.

That period was our pinnacle. We had eight defectors who were eager to fight against the ruling military regime, and I was ordered to command them. I formed them into a section squad. We let many other defectors go free because they did not have any ambition to join the army. Some of them had been recruited forcibly by SLORC soldiers when they were only 15 and still in school.

Some of the ethnic armed struggle groups started entering into ceasefire agreements with the SLORC, and after 1994 the DAB began to fall apart. All of their columns had to demobilize. The SLORC could then intensify its offensives against the KNU by using spies disguised as Buddhist monks in order to divide the KNU. In December 1994, SLORC got the upper hand decisively by widening the cleavage between Christians and Buddhists, dividing the KNU into two groups. After the Buddhist minority split from their mother KNU organization and started collaborating with the SLORC in January 1995, the KNU headquarters in Mannerplaw was weakened by SLORC's major offensive. With this setback, the KNU had to abandon its headquarters, much to the sorrow of Karens around the world. Since then, many Karen revolutionary strongholds also have fallen and thousands of Karen villagers have had to seek refuge on Thai soil.

Nevertheless, the KNU's fourth brigade continued defending against SLORC. Its territory is rich with natural resources, such as timber, minerals, and gas, which attract foreign investors. After the US-based UNOCAL and French TOTAL gas companies established their joint gas pipeline venture with SLORC, the fourth brigade in that area became a target to be wiped out. The SLORC gained strength from foreign currencies and bought modern weapons. They ordered the local Karen villagers to move immediately from their villages to poorly prepared relocation camps, leaving behind their property such as houses, farming lands, cattle and livestock without compensation. Some local Burman villagers were used as forced laborers to clear the concession site where the gas pipeline would be laid. They had to go to work for the SLORC, bringing their own food. Some were used as military porters in operations against Karen rebels. The SLORC deployed many troops along concession site and planted a lot of landmines around their outposts and abandoned villages in order to secure the gas pipeline. That frightens the people in the areas. Some people have been killed or maimed while returning to their old villages to collect food. Many fled to KNU territory at Thai-Burma border, as I learned when I was sent to collect information from them.

I had learned about the media networks at the National Youth Convention at Mannerplaw in 1993. Now the horrible stories of villagers made me determined to bring them to a media campaign against SLORC's outlaw activities. Accordingly, I resigned from the KNU's fourth brigade in January 1995 and tried to contact non-governmental organizations in Thailand. At the same time, as a test in preparing for a major offensive, the SLORC troops attacked by surprise a Karen village near Thai-Burma border; many villagers, including my family, had to flee to Thailand. My wife was nearly full term in her pregnancy, so I sent her to a hospital in Thailand, where she gave birth to my youngest daughter.

After that, my family and I went to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Bangkok and applied for political refugee status. But the office determined that we were "border refugees." There are two classes of refugee status. At that time the UNHCR defined only ex-ABSDF fighters and other exiled politicians from Burma as political refugees and offered welfare aid to them during their stay in Bangkok. Then they would be ordered by Thailand's Interior Ministry to register in a particular camp, the only gateway to third countries. Those defined as border refugees had to go back to the border areas from whence they came. Following the UNHCR guideline, I sent my family back to the border and came back alone to Bangkok to find work. I worked with one of the NGO groups for a couple months and was arrested by Thai police in a church raid. I was sent to an Immigration Detention Center for seven days and deported to a distant border town.

On the way back to my family I met a high-ranking Karen commander who had been seconded to the fourth brigade from another brigade to set up a Community Organizing Agency (COA). He asked me to participate with him. After I agreed, we set up a new camp and training center near the Thai border to train local villagers with self-reliance programs such as health, sanitation, and organic farming.

As our training was gaining momentum in the beginning of February 1997, the SLORC launched a major military operation against the KNU fighters in the area to eliminate all Karen revolutionary activities and secure the gas pipe concession. I had no choice but to resume fighting with COA unit, for our camp was right in the middle of the SLORC troops' marching route. The fourth brigade provided some weapons and ammunition for us to defend our camp area. In this operation the SLORC brought Wa troops from northeastern Burma region to fight KNU as well. (Armed rebels from the Wa ethnic group had earlier signed a ceasefire agreement with SLORC.)

Eighty fighters of the COA (including some villagers) confronted the combined mighty enemy column with 2,000 soldiers in strength on 23 February. The heaviest fighting lasted five hours and we were able to reduce the enemy ranks by about 200, while we lost only three comrades, plus one who was seriously injured by a mortar shell. We had six US-made Claymore anti personal landmines, which all worked. The next day, a lack of ammunition forced us to abandon our camp and scatter into two groups after a half-hour confrontation.

Refugee life.

At the end of February the SLORC successfully wiped out the entire fourth brigade territory. All of our families and villagers had to flee to Thailand, becoming refugees of war. Being busy with recruiting our comrades from several places, I could not look after my family after they fled. A couple of weeks later I stepped out toward the Thai border alone to look for them. On the way I passed some villages where I saw numerous abandoned things on the ground, such as children's school uniforms, textbooks, boxes, blankets, and pots. Some were hanging on bushes while pets and livestock quietly lay under the houses. That was my last and worst image of the area where I had lived for 16 years. Finally I got information about my family and tried to see them in a temporary camp provided by Thai authorities and humanitarian organizations.

When I got to the camp I saw my 11-year-old son cooking dinner in front of a makeshift hut, and my six-year-old son looking after his two-year-old sister in the hut while their mother had gone to collect firewood. After staying with my family for a month, I was called to a hospital in the city to take care of my wounded comrade. My family had to shift to another larger camp and I could not help them build their new hut. When my comrade recovered, I went back to stay with my family.

The camp has a population of about 15,000, who live under plastic sheets. Even though they have lived under those sheets since 1997, the camp people are grateful to all humanitarian organizations and individual donors for their contributions of food, medicine, clothing, and other necessities. After few months living there without any income, I decided to find work outside in the city. Fortunately, I got a job in a documentation center as a translator. I learned from interview tapes about various atrocities by the Burmese army against ethnic people.

Though Thailand has accepted nearly 120,000 people from Burma as refugees along its western border, there are still many ethnic minorities inside Burma such as Karen, Karenni, and Shan, in jungle hideouts. To escape atrocities, people came from farther villages to the border, spending weeks or months on the way. But when they reached to the border, they were not allowed to get to the camps. In terms of international refugees law they are identified as "Internal Displaced Persons." Most of them are women and school-age children. Many were killed or raped in jungle hideouts by Burmese soldiers. Others died of jungle illnesses. Many have never been to school. From ourdocumentation center we were able to report a lot of human rights violations in Burma to the international comm nity.

Monitoring Landmines

Before I came to Canada I worked as Burma landmine monitor for Nonviolence International's Southeast Asia office in Bangkok. Because I am a Karen ethnic from Burma and ex-freedom fighter it was easy for me to deal with the camp people along the border without raising suspicions. By working with some humanitarian organizations I have found new friends and learned much. Now once again I met nice friends in Peace Magazine, and I thank them for this opportunity to share my life experiences.

Although I have obtained a better life in Canada, I am always thinking about how I can re-open the wonderful school that remains quiet under the vines and bushes on the Tennessirim riverside. Oh my beloved Karen people! When can I help upgrade your education and well-being? May peace prevail in Burma and all the countries around the world.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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