Shinichi Asabe Article Collection

The People of Southeast Asia

Burma(Myanmer) Worker Heading for a BattlefieldJuly 2007


The Salween River on which the construction of dams is projected by the military government.

“I’ll go for fun. I hate to use the word of volunteer,” said Mr. Keiichi Ohotani, fictitious name (37) as if he tried to hide his embarrassment, and then he got on an airplane bound for Bangkok this summer. He desires to be a volunteer for the Karen National Union (KNU) that has resisted the Myanmar military dictatorial government, that is, he is going to venture to the battlefield. “Why?” The KNU cannot afford to pay travel expenses or danger money. “Because I think I can make use of my knowledge and skills there,” he answered. He wants to teach the Karen soldiers how to dig a trench and how to use weapons and explosives.

I’ll call this country Burma hereafter, because the military government changed her name Burma to Myanmar without the national assembly’s consent or the people’s. In Burma there are reportedly 135 minority races such as the Karen, Shan, Chin and Kachin, and the number of the Karen people is the second largest after that of the Burmese people, accounting for about seven percent of the population of the whole country. The Karen has claimed her independence since 1948 when Burma gained independence from Britain, but foreign governments has not recognized the Karen, so that she is a still unmapped country.

The Karen, however, has had a structure as a nation. At her peak she received revenue of five billion yen from border trade with Thailand, the water transport industry and the export of lumber; and besides she has public institutions such as schools, hospitals, law courts and armed forces.

Saving up money by working as a freelance worker

Ohotani’s longest work experience was at the Self-Defense Forces. Ohotani was undergoing night training.

Ohotani went to Karen State to look over the state of things beforehand. After he came back to Japan, he worked as a freelance worker and saved about 700,000 yen. I visited him in Kuwana City, Mie Prefecture in May. He said, “I’ve got charge of the biggest press in a car factory. I work on Saturday and Monday, so I have satisfactorily saved money.” He had been frugal with money, living in an apartment which his company rent and doing his own cooking. He ate heated frozen-foods for lunch because the foods at the factory canteen were expensive. “When death comes, that will take care of itself. I’m not afraid of death. I rather worry about living long,” he said.

After Ohotani left high school halfway, he worked part-time at a gas station and a car-article shop, and after that he joined the Self-Defense Forces and served six years altogether in the Ohotani unit and the Chiba unit. He learned about the KNU at a lecture on trouble spots in the world which was given to members of the Self-Defense Forces. But he didn’t take any interest in it until he heard a story from a former KNU volunteer, who was working in a security company in the Kanto region where Ohotani was also working after quitting the Self-Defense Forces. Ohotani said he was strongly impressed by his story. The security company offered Fujioka a position as a staff member, but he declined it because he couldn’t stand being tied down. He said, “I don’t have such a dream as ordinary people do. I’d rather enjoy the present time. Otherwise my life will be nothing but stultifying routine.

“I was disowned by my father because I had taken so many liberties,” said Ohotani; nevertheless he visited his parents living in Dazaifu City, Fukuoka Prefecture without notice for the first time in two years before he left for Burma. As I was with him, I supposed, his father, who had served in the Self-Defense Forces until the retirement age, spoke to us. “I want him to take care of himself not to contract malaria.” His parents didn’t know that their son would go to Karen State until that day. They seemed to think that their son would go there to do volunteer work at a refugee camp. His mother said, “Until marriage he can do what he wants to,” while Ohotani said, “When I had a girl friend, I thought of marriage. But I was always jilted in the end. So I don’t have a wife or a child. My mother sometimes sends me an e-mail as to my marriage, but marriage will prevent me going, so I don’t want to think about it.”

Encounter with a former Japanese soldier

Mr. Nakano joining his hands in prayer in front of the monument.

The KNU lost a charismatic leader, Chairman Bo Mya, who died of illness at the end of last year. When I met him in Umphang, Thailand in 1996, he explained his analysis of the strategy of the government military. According to him, with an aim of weakening the KNU and splitting it up, the military government gave favorable treatment to Karen Buddhists and built a temple on the main road of Karen State, and then the government sent operatives who were under a mask of follower in order to fan the flames of religious conflict between Karen Buddhists and Christians. As a result, the Buddhist group surrendered to the government military. In January 1995 the military government used them to capture the KNU headquarters in Manerplaw. Since then Karen State has been invaded as far as the Thai-Burmese border, and the Karen people have been persecuted, being forced to work as porter and construction worker, to be displaced from their land, and even being killed when they disobey.

First Ohotani visited Mae Sot in Thailand, which lies across the Moei River from Karen State, on way of Bangkok. The Moei River forms the boundary between Thailand and Burma. In this city, Mae Sot, stands the Monument for Free Warriors in memory of three Japanese volunteers for the KNU who were killed in action or died of illness. In the 1990s when ferocious battles took place, more than ten Japanese volunteers joined the KNU, including those who came only once and for a short period. Mr. Yaichiro Nakano (87) is taking care of the monument. He used to be a medical orderly of the 31st Division of the Former Japanese Army. Even after the war ended, he stayed in Karen State and settled in Mae Sot.

“In wartime I was an enemy of the Karen people because they were on the side of Britain. But after the war ended, they sheltered me who had left the army. I couldn’t stay with the Burmese military because the Burmese military went over to the side of Britain and hunted Japanese soldiers,” Nakano said, “that’s why I made friends with the Karen people.” He got married to a Karen woman and helped sick people in villages without a doctor, making the most of his knowledge as a medical orderly. Later he started his business. First he opened a general store and succeeded in the jewelry trade. But he had to move to Thailand because the government military invaded Karen State and he could not live there in peace.

Nakano was sent to Karen State by orders of the army 62 years ago. He remarked about the Japanese young people of today who were going to be volunteers for the KNU of their own free will, “I think their intention is great.” But he also said, “I don’t understand them. In Japan they can live in comfort. Even if they serve in the Self-Defense Forces, they can live peacefully. Why do they come here all the way from Japan in behalf of other people’s country?”

The KNU (Karen National Union)

There is a liaison office of the KNU in Mae Sot, which functions as an embassy. Before he left Japan, Ohotani was told by a Japanese supporter for the KNU that a military officer Mr. A was in charge of reception. But Ohotani has a prejudice against the staff of the Mae Sot office in Thailand, so he was trying to go to the front line on his own without making contact with them, being guided by Igo whom he met during the last visit. Igo was one of the refugees who used to belong to the Karen 7th Brigade but who were forced to flee after the breakdown of their brigade. Ohotani greatly relies on him, because not only he came from the north part of Karen State where his destination Day Bpoo Noh lies but also he can speak English a little. Ohotani has suspected Mr. A of embezzlement on the grounds of Mr. A’s vague account of the money spent for Ohotani’s entry to Burma and his luxurious life quite unlike those of the KNU soldiers fighting in the front. “They pay money to Thai Immigration Office to ensure your safety,” Igo explained. But Ohotani didn’t seem satisfied with his explanation. “Mr. A said that he would pay the money for a boat fare and to a guide, but he didn’t say that the money would go to Thailand.” The KNU has its base within Thailand to keep in touch with foreign countries, to negotiate with the military government, and to maintain the custom of merchants’ and laborers’ coming and going across the border. If the Thai authority tightens its control on border violation, Ohotani’s border transgression will come into question.

Meanwhile, the negotiation with the military government has been deadlocked. I met Colonel Nai Saw (64), who attended cease-fire talks, at the KNU Liaison Office for Peace” standing by the Asia Highway that links Thailand and Burma. Since the first meeting held in Mae Sot in October 1995, the military government has claimed that their government is legitimate and the KNU is an illegitimate organization, and they has demanded disarmament from the KNU without approving independence. The KNU, however, has refused the government military its entry into their state, and proposed setting up a demilitarized zone and ceasing fire completely. But the round of peace talks came to a deadlock at the end of January 1997, and warfare started again in the following month, February.

In November 2003 the military government sent a colonel and a member of the embassy staff as an envoy to the KNU via Bangkok, and in the next month, December, the KNU negotiating party of four people, including Colonel Nai Saw, went to Yangon and proposed cease fire to the then Prime Minister Khin Nyunt again. In January of the next year, 2004, finally the KNU Chairman Bo Mya went to Yangon, and told the conditions from the side of the KNU. They were (1) complete cease fire (2) refugees’ return to their villages (3) continuation of the talks (4) stationing a monitoring group on both sides. But Khin Nyunt made no concessions at all, on the contrary he gave a proposal that the Karen people should move out to the three regions including the north of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. However, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was replaced in October of the same year, 2004, and there has been no negotiation since May 2005 when the last meeting was held in Myawaddy, which lies across the river from Mae Sot. “Such a peace treaty as doesn’t guarantee anything is totally unacceptable,” Colonel Saw said and clenched his right fist, on which he had ‘For Kawthoolei’ tattooed.

Even now the KNU boasts that it still has seven brigades, 20,000 strong, in the areas ranging from Toungoo in the north to Merqui in the south. Indeed, the area to the west of Mae Sot and the area opposite to Three Pagodas Pass in the south of Thailand were part of Karen State that was under the control of the KNU. But now the areas were invaded by the Burmese military. There was a wooden bridge across the Moei River and a market and a sawmill by the river, but they are all gone now. The surroundings are as silent as the grave. In reality, as of the summer 2007 the liberated district of the KNU is only the north part of Karen State where the KNU 5th Brigade is just managing to resist in arms. “I want to help those people who stay within the country to protect their own land,” said Ohotani. His destination is that district.

“I don’t like refugees.”

To get to the district, you have to go up north 200 kilometers from Mae Sot by land, and then go up the Salween River for a little more than four hours. Ohotani and Igo went on a bus which was converted from a pick-up at Mae Sot. Igo works part-time for a foreign NGO which is supporting for refugees. Now that he is absent from work to accompany Fujioka, there is a risk that he may not be able to work there the same as before when he returns. Moreover, he is taking a risk in violating the rule that a refugee should not move around in Thailand. So we should avoid the checkpoint of the Thai border guard. Therefore, we had to get off the bus several kilometers before the checkpoint, make a detour through the jungle and get on the next bus at a bus stop on the far side of the checkpoint.

About an hour after we left Mae Sot, an imposing scene came into sight. We saw many huts standing closely on the hill between the road and the border. That was Mae La Refugee Camp. About 140,000 Burmese refugees who fled from persecution and attacks by the military government live in nine camps within Thailand. This camp is the largest of the nine, and here live 49,000 refugees, most of whom are the Karen people. Although Igo’s acquaintances and relatives live here, Ohotani said bluntly, “I don’t like refugees. They don’t have to worry about their food as long as they stay in a refugee camp. I don’t think they still have self-respect and independent mind. They say that they want money or that they want to go abroad. They have gone to the bad. They should remain in their country and support the KNU, growing crops if not taking part in actual fighting. That’s what the Karen people should be, I think.”

The number of the Karen refugees who were driven to the Thai-Burmese border and took refuge in Thailand was about 200,000 at its peak in the 1990s. The number has decreased by about 60,000 as compared with that of those days. It is not that things have improved; it is that some surrendered to the military government, some started working illegally in Thailand, some acquired citizenship of Thailand, or some emigrated to the third country. The KNU has fought for 60 years, but its target of Karen State’s independence has only receded. The military government annulled the results of the general election in 1990 in which democratic groups won a great victory. In February of this year, the commander of the KNU 7th Brigade and his men surrendered together with their families. When our bus ran past the camp, we came across people in line getting on two big buses. They were refugees leaving for America. I asked Igo about his dream. He said, “I have a wife and children. I want to raise them in a free country. You understand that, don’t you?” He told me that he desired to live in Australia.


Ohotani and Igo on a boat going up the Salween River

At last we are going to enter Karen State. Last night we stayed at Igo’s relative’s house in Mae Sariang, a small town in the northern Thailand, and we left the house early in the morning and after 30 minutes’ drive we arrived at Mae Sam Lap, a port town which the Salween River runs through. The opposite side is Karen State, and up the river are Karenni State and Shan State. There is a hut of the Thai Immigration office by the steps which lead the wharf. Ohotani got a porter who acts in his way to take his big baggage and pretended to be a tourist. This area is indeed designated as a national park. “If I’m not allowed to pass, I’ll cross the border under cover of night,” he said determinedly, but he was very tense. The immigration officer asked us to write our names in our own hands and took our pictures with a digital camera, but he didn’t see our passports or inspect baggage. He just said, “Come back by five in the evening,” and let us pass. “They go home at five,” the boatman explained, “and there is no one in this office at night.”

This map shows the location of the projected dams, but one of the five is unknown.

From here we are going by boat. The boat is 7 to 8 meters long from stem to stern and a little short of 2 meters broad. It has a cloth roof and a car engine. The boat moves with a roar sound but smoothly at a speed of 30 kilometers an hour. On the steep jungle-covered slope of the valley hamlets are scattered. There live people who were displaced from their villages by the military government. It is impossible to grow rice on a steep slope like this. The boat calls at every hamlet like a bus on a regular route to set down the passengers who are returning from a town and a cargo of rice supplies on board.

The river through the valley became narrow and rapid, and sunken rocks can be seen. “Look! There!” Igo pointed at a sign on the bank. The sign said, “NO DAM!” The letter O in the ‘NO’ was illustrated with skull and crossbones. When Ohotani was taking a picture of it, the boatman slowed down. This is a construction site of the Wei Gyi Dam, one of the projected dams of the Salween dam development project. The military government signed the agreement on the dam development project with Thai and Chinese enterprises. The construction of the Tasang Dam (7,110 MW), one of the five projected dams, started this April in Shan State, where had lived the Shan people who already surrendered to the military government. The other four projected dam sites are in Karen State, and we’ve got information the construction of the dams will start this November.

The Karen people haven’t constructed roads deliberately in self-defense so that the Burmese military can’t bring in heavy firearms. Therefore, the river is the main artery for transportation. If the dams are constructed by the military government, their lifeline will be cut off. Ohotani said to Igo on the night at Mae Sot, “I want to go to Hat Gyi this time, because the Hat Gyi Dam is scheduled to be constructed first in Karen State. I want to destroy the project.” Passing through the rocks, some of which were marked with yellow paint for measurement, the boat is moving up the river. Spray had hardly risen from the jungle when we caught in a shower. Ohotani moved toward the stem and gave his poncho to a woman and her child in native dress on board before they were soaked.

The KNU well under control

Ohotani is talking with Captain Ira at Meh Nyoo Hta Village

About four hours after we left Mae Sam Lap, we arrived at Meh Nyoo Hta Village, the gateway to the KNU 5th Brigade district. Judging from that Captain Ira (45) was waiting on the bank of the river, the KNU seemed to be informed of Ohotani’s visit. On the steep slope stand houses with wooden pillars, bamboo-woven walls, a leave-thatched roof and bamboo-woven floor which set high above the ground. There were only three or four houses in this village before, but now the number has increased to 14 because of the inflow of displaced people. The KNU office was given sacks of rice and hunting guns. According to Captain Ira, the unit being stationed at Meh Nyoo Hta Village is defending 10 villages where about 10,000 people live, and they fight a battle almost every day even in the rainy season. “The government military is invading from the west and foreigners are intruding from the east to construct dams. Where on earth can we live?” Ira said without hiding his irritation against invasion. In villages where electricity is not supplied like this village, people have early supper before it gets dark. A soldier on the cook’s duty put a pan on a portable clay cooking stove.

When Ohotani heard what Captain Ira said through Igo, he made a long face. “I can’t go to Day Bpoo Noh! It was a mere waste of money.” He wants to join the main force of the KNU 5th Brigade in Day Bpoo Noh, but the information that Ohotani didn’t obtain permission at Mae Sot has already been conveyed. “If a foreigner joins us without Mr. A’s permission and dies, it will be a big problem,” Captain Ira explained in a calm voice. The KNU Mae Sot office functioning as embassy and headquarters and the troops in the front line are well under control even now when they are driven to bay. Since actions in the front line can be an important diplomatic card, it is natural that they should keep in close contact with each other. Ohotani’s desire to help the soldiers holding out in the front line under hash conditions against the Burmese military doesn’t seem to be fulfilled as long as the KNU remains as an organization.

Ohotani got a man who was going to Day Bpoo Noh the next day to take his message to General Heng of the KNU 5th Brigade whom he hit it off with during his previous visit. However, he is not allowed to stay in the village to wait for the reply. Ohotani said, “I was going to tell off Igo, saying ‘that was not how I understood it. I will go even alone,’ but I thought better of it. I shouldn ’t make the matter worse, I thought. I’m not as young as I was.” He decided to return to Thailand as a temporary measure, leaving his baggage in the village. On the boat for Thailand I asked him again, “Why?” He answered, “In Japan I was an outcast living at the bottom of the social pyramid, but people here accept me, because they have been driven to the situation where their lives are in danger. I may die of malaria, but I can really feel ‘I’m alive!’ here. It’s great, isn’t it?”

The structure of peace

Lastly, Ohotani, who wants to help to obstruct dam construction, said, “Not to put too fine a point on it, I’ll be a terrorist.” His words troubled my mind and I visit Associate Professor Surichai Wun’gaeo, a specialist of sociology at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. After he remarked that dam construction on Salween River will increase anxiety factors, he continued, “The disparity between the haves and the have-nots has widened and talks between them has decreased. Minority races and Japanese freelance workers can be dangerous from the point of view of terrorism prevention, when they are forced to be in a stifling straightjacket. The people who have money and power should think out the policy where the have-nots can fulfill themselves.” He seemed to have some misgivings.

On one hand a Japanese freelance worker tries to help a minority race; on the other hand Japanese government has recognized the Burmese military government. Viewing the structure of terrorism from a different angle, it is nothing but the structure of peace. After that Ohotani asked another Karen young man to guide him, for fear that he might get Igo into trouble, and entered Day Bpoo Noh successfully.

(Story & Photo by Shinichi ASABE)

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