It got dark. The road shrank to little more than a mud-filled groove through thick jungle. The Toyota's engine screamed blue murder as it propelled the truck up improbably steep hills. We stopped to give a ride to two bleary Shan villagers, their breath reeking sweetly of rice wine. The road ended abruptly in a small hillside clearing. I jumped out, massaged my legs back to life, and by torchlight followed the others along a narrow path winding up into the jungle. More torches approached us, and there was the smell of cheroot smoke and the squawk of walkie-talkies. Unseen hands reached through the darkness and wordlessly relieved us of our bags. I trudged on, following the circle of my Maglite, and soon I heard the deep boom of Shan long-drum, carrying far through the damp night air, and saw through the trees a few smudges of light. Philip 's voice rang through the darkness. 'Welcome to Shan State, everyone,' he announced. 'No visa required.'
The rebel camp was scattered along a narrow, sloping ridge. At the top was a parade ground of packed mud dominated by an enormous flag featuring the crossed sword and rifle of the Shan State Army. At the lower end were rough bamboo stalls selling dry goods and illuminated by candles, or by lamps fashioned from dead beer cans. Wood smoke bathed the scene and turned torch beams into light-sabres. A small crowd of mostly women and children waited by a makeshift stage where giant moths battered themselves to death on the fluorescent strip lights.
Most SSA soldiers I saw were very young. They wore yellow neckerchiefs fastened with woggles, and carried Vietnam War-era M-16 assault rifles - weapons older than they were. They looked like heavily armed Boy Scouts. There were a few older soldiers, their dark skins etched still darker with magical Shan tattoos believed to deflect bullets and keep out the cold. The SSA had a few thousand troops. It was massively outnumbered by the 400,000-strong Burmese army, whose nearest camp was, unnervingly, only on the next hilltop. 'We flash our torches at them,' a rebel told me cheerfully, 'and they always flash back.'
The SSA men cleared a circle in the crowd for the musicians. I had arrived just in time to see the ka-toe, a traditional Shan dance featuring a pantomime long-horned deer, which shambled in after the musicians. Everything about this grossly elongated invention was ridiculous. The costume was made of green and red felt, and the yellow, papier-mâché head was too small. Instead of hooves the deer had muddy jungle boots, which belonged to the two Shan soldiers inside.
They were evidently making final adjustments, for just before the show began a disembodied arm extended comically from hole beneath the deer's tail to pass a torch to a nearby soldier.
But then the music began, and it was as if a powerful electrical current now coursed beneath the skin. The deer leaped with astonishing speed around the circle, sending spectators scurrying backwards. It would suddenly freeze, then slowly rotate its head to scan the crowd, its mechanical ears twitching with irritation. Or it would crouch and shudder its spine as if preparing to pounce. This was no longer a bumbling pantomime animal, but a creature with all the menacing agility of a Chinese festival dragon. The boom of the long-drum, the drone of gongs, the dark, infinite jungle all around - the whole performance was mesmeric.
Just before midnight, the young SSA soldiers fell in before a bamboo flagpole. The camp's civilians formed ragged columns behind them. The SSA was one of the few rebel armies still fighting the Burmese junta; nearly every other ethnic insurgent group had signed cease fire agreements with the generals. What I was seeing here were the last free Shan in a Shan State. A few monks appeared, among them grave-looking Philip. The Shan flag was raised and saluted, and the Shan national anthem was sung. Then Philip and the other monks chanted a blessing. It was a solemn occasion, a mourning rite for people without a nation.
Copyright Andrew Marshall, 2002. All rights reserved.
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