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River of Tears

Snapshots from the Edge of a War

Salween River: Burma on the left, Thailand on the right.

14 Feburary 2011

The Salween River forms a border between Thailand and Burma.  “Rambo” fictionally crossed this jungle current in the movie Rambo IV.  But there is nothing fictional about the war, or the bombs that often fly from Burma into Thailand, or the land mines scattered across the hidden countryside.

Burmese Army position on Salween River.

The Army of Burma is called the “State Peace and Development Council,” or SPDC, and like organizations in Bizarro World, the SPDC is the opposite of what the name implies.  A government slogan gets more to the point: “Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.”

Water buffalos on Thai side.

For more than sixty years, the Burmese government has tried to crush the Karen and other ethnic minorities.  In a vague sense, Thailand is to Burma as Pakistan is to Afghanistan; many Karen people live on the Thai side or use it as sanctuary, and fight against the government on the Burma side.  But the war is far more complicated than just Karen vs. Burma government; a cursory examination reveals a situation probably more complex than what we see in Afghanistan.

Attempting an ultimate makeover, in 1989, the murderous Burmese government changed the country’s name to the Union of Myanmar.  Some months ago, in October 2010, they did it again, changing the flag and forging a new birth certificate with the latest name: “Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” but they might as well have renamed it “The Country Formerly Known as Prince.”

After more than sixty years of war, the Burmese fighting has matured to a point that three generations know only conflict, and instead of Muslim extremists helping Taliban in Pakistan, some Westerners have made a cottage industry of helping Karen and other minorities resist the junta.  In total, that cottage industry does good and important work, but it is neither pure nor simple.

Karen IDP (internally displaced people) village, just inside Burma.

Most Karen people are Buddhists or animists, though many are Baptists or Catholics.  This village had at least one Buddhist temple and one thatched church.

The villagers have no telephone service and precious little electricity provided by a small hydro generator, and I saw one tiny solar panel, but someone had a receiver dish.  This was the only dish I saw in a village of about 4,500 people.  (There may have been other dishes; we were not taking inventory.)

The people have been here for about 4.5 years since the SPDC destroyed their villages.  One hears many stories about murder, rape, slavery, and countless land mine reports, such as how the SPDC will force villagers to walk out front to detonate mines.  The Karen do fight back and are increasing the use of IEDs, for instance, which have taken on an evil name, though as American soldiers we learned to make all sorts of IEDs in the US Army, which we called “mechanical ambushes,” or just booby traps.

The day before we arrived, a Karen man stepped on a land mine and was brought to this village before being sent to Thailand for treatment.  A Karen medic who applied the tourniquet said the man lost the lower part of a leg.  The nearest hospital requires about an hour by boat and then an hour by car to Mae Sariang, Thailand.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    james j langner · 7 years ago
    your photographs tell absorbing stories. the narrative very informative without being overdone. i was in Vietnam in '67, '68 and very much miss s.e. Asia. iread every report you send. keep em coming.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Edward White · 7 years ago
    Extraordinary work and superb images Michael. These people deserve our support.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paula Alvelo · 7 years ago
    Thank you, Michael. If I were homeschooling my children, I would use your dispatches and facebook posts as starting points for research and study. Oh, the places I go after reading them...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Doug Laybourne · 7 years ago
    Hi Michael,
    If you're not fanmiliar with this Naval Signal Code; it means,"Well Done". You undoubtedly deserve a Bravo Zulu; because you endeavour to bring forth the truth from within the battle zone, and uniquely, able to post 'words from the "horse's mouth" - having the trust of Commanders on the ground! Above all else; you have placed yourself in dsangerous places, thus demonstrating your courage and committment. Your pictures tell the story for you; but you have to be there 'right in their faces' - Take care and my very best wishes for your safety and further successes in your reporting.
    Doug
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Patty Smith · 7 years ago
    Informative and beautiful photos. Smiling children's faces captured my attention, as did the surprise of seeing such an amazing educational system in place...the level of math, four languages, and check out the board that lists number of students & teachers. Far lower ratios than we afford our children in the U.S. Something to admire.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    แซค สุลลิแวน · 7 years ago
    amazing photojournalism again!!! keep up the good work!!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Esteban · 7 years ago
    Beautifully done, brother. Your photos are evocative, and your text nicely explicates what is displayed, but does not get in the way.

    Love your work.

    e.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Cat Luytjes · 7 years ago
    I agree with the commenter above regarding Bravo Zulu. Very, very well done. Your posts take us to places we are barely aware of and all of us need to be aware of these places. While the uninformed are barely aware of Afghanistan, you keep us in touch with the rest of the world with your photography, insights, and your ability to reach out and touch common folk and allow them to just talk while you listen. Keep keeping it real. That's all that's asked. Keep keeping it real.

    Cathi
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Leyla · 7 years ago
    Wow! The photos of the children were just beautiful and it was amazing to see them learning and happy!
    They could teach quite a few Americans a thing or two about compassion,seeing the bright side of things, and finding happiness in the moment not in things!

    As always Michael your photos are breathtaking, informative and full of many messages!

    Thanks for sharing,

    Leyla
  • This commment is unpublished.
    seymour01 · 7 years ago
    Your pictures and comments about the level and quality of education says a lot. I agree that the attitude and willingness of a student has a lot more to do with a quality education than millions of dollars spent on a "nice school room'.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve Novotny · 7 years ago
    Michael... Love your pictures. Your talent as an photographer and an artist have grown immensely. Thanks for the candid story line as well. I believer you are going to create a new genre of reporter Be ready for the copycats and take it as a compliment.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ralph Greenhow · 7 years ago
    This is another beautiful, honest dispatch. Love the RPB Rocket Propelled Banana and the child’s drawing.
    Your pictures of "Leadership Training" tells so much!these dear people deserve this recognition. Learning English makes sense.
    This dispatch is current and educational, Thank you Michael.
    My wife and I have welcomed these Karen refugees here at O'Hare in Chicago. Talk about culture shock!!!
    Some have lived for years in refugee camps in Thailand, mostly Christian but some Muslim, all with a sweet contentment and though quite primitive, they are intelligent, industrious and inherently dignified. We even had to rescue one from a washroom because they were unfamiliar with a door knob.
    We welcome them as volunteers with World Relief. It is so much fun, now these Karen are productive workers in Chicago even accustomed now to our snow and winters and public transport system.
    Burma needs a major change of government and heart to free the treasure that is these very people.
    Your name keeps coming up in my daily prayers. I have a nephew heading soon to Afghanistan. Stay safe we just plumb, plain need you and your insights.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paul B. · 7 years ago
    Excellent photo essay. I first fell in love with the Karen while reading Don Richardson's amazing book, Eternity in Their Hearts. A beautiful people. I pray they get much better than Burma's current government.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Peter Olney · 7 years ago
    I visited an American Baptist Hospital on the Thai side, about 3-4 hours north of Khanchanaburri, Thailand several years ago. The head doctor there is the son of the former head doctor, an American who is truly dedicated. Their patients include many Karen & Mon people who've stepped on land mines, IED's, etc. We were there to develop CadCam computer clinic for prostheses, to provide more accurate, computer aided, readings of their stumps. The local "Aid Car", an ox-kart, brought in a young girl who'd lost her foot to a land mine while we were there. The work these people do requires amazing dedication and love. Thank you for your photos of these truly beautiful people. They are truly wonderful people! I was there for only two weeks and yet came to love and respect these missionaries and especially the Karen and Mon people. Thank you for bringing that rich experience back in pictures!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dennis H. · 7 years ago
    Great photos. I just returned from that area (a little north of your area) working with the KNLA ( I am ex-Special Forces) Was able to pass along some skills I acquired in Vietnam so many years ago and the training was greatly appreciated. These people have a hard road ahead of them and need all the support they can get. It appears I will be returning some time in the near future. Hope so, I enjoyed working with them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    C · 7 years ago
    Sir as always you captured the beauty and ugly of a non perfect world, if only main stream media would cover the world as it is without any spins and people had the ability to see these images maybe just maybe there would be a slight profound change in some. It is amazing that these generations have been so desensitized where they could still smile for a visitor with all the bloodshed going on around them. Again you've capture what many do not see, Be safe and keep the news coming many are reading....


    Kind Regards

    C
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike A · 7 years ago
    Excellent photo journalism, as always Michael. Thanks for moving around the regiona nd finding interesting locales and stories.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Randall Hannaway · 7 years ago
    Michael,

    Thank you for another great dispatch, one of my favorites so far. Be well and be safe in Af/Pak.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kristine Grimes · 7 years ago
    Thank you for all that you do! Love these photos and the stories you tell. I especially love the photo's of the children, they are so innocent and so willing to learn in any conditions. Greg Mortenson who founded Pennies for Peace has proven how education is so important to the children in Afghanistan in the worst conditions. Love your work! Please stay safe on your journey to Afghanistan!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    GM Roper · 7 years ago
    Michael, what a stunning photo-essay. I am always in awe of what you do, especially for this type of work. Thank you for caring about the little forgotten places in the world struggling for freedom and dignity.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    C. Ochsner · 7 years ago
    Dear Michael,

    Thank you for this outstanding dispatch about Karen people. Thanks to your comparsion to AfPak, I can better understand what the situation today is. Burma and it's minorities are very complicated and diffucult to track for outsiders. Once more shows your "footwork" on spot a deep insight, compared with beautiful photographies, much more as any mainstream medias tells me about a crisis / war situation. I will support this dispatch with pleasure. Thank you for the risk you take by your work. You are for sure much more as just a journalist, you are a unique writer and corresponder, indeed. Stay safe .....
  • This commment is unpublished.
    JM · 7 years ago
    Michael you are really becoming Iconic with your work..after years of following your work/mission (sometimes regularly, sometimes not) I just reakized how far you've taken this and how much further you will probably go. Truly a rennasaince man in your own right
  • This commment is unpublished.
    WB · 7 years ago
    When I look at what we in America complain about, I am ashamed. Our teachers and students need to see these photos and quit complaining.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sandra Carney · 7 years ago
    Thank you for this amazing journey through my lost homeland. I was so impressed to see that the children continue to be educated to the highest standard possible. People may not know that at one time not so long ago, Burma was 100% educated. She was the largest exporter of rice in the world in the 1930's. Burma was one if not the richest nation in SE Asia. Rich in history, minerals, gas,gem stones, silver and so much more. My heart breaks and yearns for the Burma of my childhood that I will probably never see again.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Agam · 6 years ago
    Not to be picky, Michael, but the SPDC was the name for the former junta itself, now disbanded since the seating of a new parliament. This junta was first known as SLORC (State Law & Order Restoration Council), but the change was in name only, with Than Shwe the chief dictator. Burmese Army is known as the Tatmadaw.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Agam · 6 years ago
    Oops, sorry, just noticed this is from last year. Apologies!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Albertina · 4 months ago
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Iraq war correspondent.

    Regards

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