Burma had won its independence in 1948 - that is, over fifty years ago - but its generals behaved as if the Brits had left only last Tuesday. The military's disastrous rule had led a prosperous, fledgling democracy into misery and ruin. Yet, according to their bilious propaganda, all the nation's modern woes - poverty, AIDS, the booming narcotics trade - were 'pernicious legacies' of the Empire that Scott had helped to build. Aung San Suu Kyi, the courageous leader of Burma's embattled democracy movement, was branded 'a satan of destruction sent by the Western colonialists'. Similarly, spurious conspiracies involving shadowy foreign agents were invented, all for the same purpose: to legitimize the junta's tyrannies against its own people and justify Burma's crippling isolation from the rest of the world.
There was bitter irony in all this. While the regime's propaganda machine railed against Western imperialists, its soldiers subdued the population with much the same terror tactics used by the British a century before: arbitrary arrests, village burning, summary executions, exemplary beheadings. Burma's generals were the new colonialists - the new Trouser People. It was no coincidence that Aung San Suu Kyi had described the democracy movement as 'the second struggle for independence'.
This struggle had many front lines - military, political, cultural, personal - and I was sleeping on one of them. Or trying to. The celebrations at the rebel camp went on all night. At around 3 a.m. a Shan maiden took to the bamboo stage and sang a lament urging all young men to fight for the cause. It was astonishingly loud. My only solace, as I lay there listening to her keening voice, was knowing that the Burmese soldiers on the next hill could hear her too.
In the morning we hung about, waiting to meet the Colonel. The camp was a desolate place by daylight. Refuse clung to the parade ground and cascaded down both sides of the ridge. Beyond the trees the land was cancelled out by clouds, which cocooned the camp and lent it an entirely false sense of security. Hard-bitten peasant women with groggy-looking children shivered over the embers of last night's fires; their menfolk squatted nearby and spat between their sandals. These people were not just Shan, but Lahu, Akha and Muso hill tribes with strong, dark, secret faces raked by the elements. All were products of ferocious counter-insurgency campaign by the Burmese army in Shan State. Thousands of refugees had spilled into northern Thailand to work for low pay at lychee farms or construction sites until the Thai police or army, in the latest caprice that passed for policy, herded them up and dumped them back on the border again. Hundreds more scratched out semi-nomadic existence in the Burmese jungle, or arrived in silent, exhausted groups at Shan rebel camps like this one, hoping for food and protection.
With Philip's help, I asked some refugees to tell me their stories. For a while nobody said anything. Then a young mother stepped forward, carrying a toddler in a faded Disneyland baseball cap. Her name was Nang Seng Tong.
'They gave us one day,' she said flatly. 'They came in the morning and said that anyone who was still there in the evening would be shot.' Burmese soldiers had heard gunfire in Nang Seng Tong's settlement, part of a vast shanty town of internal refugees who had been relocated by the military; they assumed that the community was harbouring Shan rebels. At dusk the soldiers returned, and the shooting began. Nine people were killed. 'The old people and the children moved too slowly, and some were burned to death in their houses,' said Nang Seng Tong. Her sickly grandfather died in a bonfire of his meagre possessions. Her uncle was shot dead.
The others fled with what they could carry. Burmese soldiers butchered the livestock, and shot any villagers who crept back to salvage crops or possessions. Nang Seng Tong and her daughter trekked through the jungle for the Thai border. She now lived in a hut nearby, and moved on whenever there was fighting. 'I do not feel safe here,' she said quietly. Why would she? She lived in war zone. The day before I arrived a ten-year-old Shan boy had had his foot blown off by a Burmese landmine at a nearby spring.
Copyright Andrew Marshall, 2002. All rights reserved.
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