International Writers Magazine: World Travel
Kurtz, on the Burma Border
Thomas Bleming sees himself as the new Karen liberation fighter,
but does anyone else? Mercenary, soldier of fortune, fast-gun for
hire, even the job title sounds awesome. The Magnificent Seven,
The Dogs of War, and most recently, Blood Diamonds,
mercenaries have been the subject of so many great action movies
that appeal to teenage boys.
Let me tell you about the army. The army is some
guy you dont know, sending you out to wack some other guy
you dont know.
Al Pacino, Donnie Brasco
I remember on my
twelfth birthday thinking, I wish I was half as cool as Han Solo
and half as tough as Charles Bronson. Sadly, my dream came true.
I am only half as good as either of those movie characters.
If the movies are to be believed, mercenaries are shadowy blokes, lurking
around bars in exotic places, like Biafra, East Timor, or Mae Sot. They
are hard drinking, hard fighting men who will soldier for anyone, if
the price is right.
Sixty-two year old Thomas Bleming, a Vietnam War veteran, the latest
in a string of Americans who have shown up on the Burma border to fight
for free, is one of the loudest mercenaries in history. He holds press
conferences, gives interviews, and appears in several youtube videos.
Bleming claims to be a soldier for the KNLA (Karen National Liberation
Army), one of the armed resistance groups fighting against the Burmese
junta. More than just a soldier, Mr. Bleming claims to have been appointed
as the ambassador to the US, representing the Republic of Kawthoolei,
the name which the Karen Republic will take after they win independence.
Because of my own involvement with the Shan State Army, the other major
armed resistance group, many people have asked for my take on Bleming.
First, before this article becomes a long rant on how I believe the
man to be misguided, let me begin by saying, the conflict
in Burma is a just cause. The Karen, the Shan, the Palong, the Pa-O,
and all of the many other ethnic minorities of Burma have lived under
a regime of torture, execution, and genocide for decades. The SPDC (State
Peace and Development Council) as the Burmese Army is called, is one
of the most terrible entities in the world. Reports claim that Burma
spends as much as 70% of their GDP on the military. Since they have
no external enemies, the only purpose of the Burmese army is to kill
the Burmese people.
And dont forget that this conflict has been going on for sixty
years. The citizens of Burma have suffered at the hands of their own
government for sixty years.
These statistics are scary enough to make a normal person angry.
But, when you are living in Thailand, working on the border doing aid
work and journalism, it is hard not to fall over the edge and go completely
Kurtz. You hear horror story after horror story from the
kind, gentle ethnic people who were rapped, mutilated, and driven from
their homes. The lucky ones live in refugee camps in Thailand. Many
didnt make it that far. Their bodies line the mine fields where
they were forced by the Burmese soldiers.
If you have a conscience, if you have a soul, you wouldnt need
more than one ten-year-old to tell you that he witnessed his parents
murder or one fourteen-year-old to tell you of being gang raped, until
you would be willing to pick up gun.
In the early days of the conflict, rumors suggest, that the Karen actually
paid military advisors from other countries to help them set up their
army and train their troops. Those days are long past, however. Anyone
fighting today is doing so for free.
Ex-soldiers are attracted to this conflict for a variety of reasons.
Some, the best one, are probably motivated by the same humanitarian
drive that makes people do medical work or aid work on the border. These
soldiers feel that they have a skill which is useful and they are going
to help however they can. Others are simply adventure seekers, hoping
to experience combat for the first time. Some have PTSD from other conflicts
and just cant let go. They need a conflict to fight,
but they are still basically good people and dont want to join
a terrorist group to get their fill. They prefer a good conflict
to a bad one.
Many of the older US veterans, including Thomas Bleming, are Vietnam
vets. Many Vietnam War veterans were either drafted into the army or
joined out of blind patriotism. Either way, they didnt know much
of the background of details of the conflict itself. For a man in a
foxhole, the big picture means nothing. Personal survival is everything.
After the war was over they began studying the issues. Some of the most
well-versed Vietnam War experts I know are Vietnam vets, who have spent
the last thirty years reading and researching.
For some of them, going to fight in Burma, or any other just war,
is a way of making up for their forced participation in war which they
may now disagree with. And this feeling of, choosing my fights,
is not limited to Vietnam veteran, all veterans, even peace time veterans,
realize with hind sight that they either participated in or swore to
participate in a conflict that they knew nothing about at the time,
and which they maybe have strong opinions on today.
In my own case, I was on alert for the Panama invasion, and later cursed
my bad luck when my unit wasnt called. Years later, I did an undergraduate
thesis on American intervention in Latin America, and realized that
the Panama invasion was anything but the Just Cause that
the American government had dubbed it. I grew to respect Omar Torillos,
and wondered what moron thought installing Noriega was a good idea.
Oddly, this conflict is one I have in common with Thomas Bleming. One
of the many wars he has participated in, as a freelancer, since Vietnam
was Panama, where he was jailed.
During the first Gulf War I was a Merchant Seaman. When graduation day
came and we lined up for ship assignments, just by luck of the draw,
the five guys in line in front of me were sent to the Gulf. I was sent
to Hawaii. They sent me one set of letters about how much their life
sucked in the Gulf. I sent one about Hawaii, and I havent heard
from them since. One of my boyhood friends, who was still in the army,
was shot down in that war. He has had a colostomy ever since and is
still undergoing surgeries, more than 15 years later.
Once again, at the time, I cursed my luck. Now, I am glad I wasnt
in Panama, and still not clear on Gulf War one. I am certain I am glad
I am not in the current quagmire of Iraq, but would be willing to lend
a hand in Afghanistan.
This is the kind of regret that both peacetime and combat soldiers can
carry with them. A low intensity conflict for the right reasons, like
Burma, may be just the tonic they are looking for to sooth their wounded
If a man was a corporal in the real army, he may find himself
an officer in a volunteer army. He was a trainee in his past, now he
is the training officer. Low intensity conflicts are a kind of nostalgia,
a way of living out the past way you wish it had been.
As far as conflicts go, Burma is one of the most comfortable. For one
thing, the SPDC is so unbelievably, clearly wrong. Not since Hitler
has their been such a clear-cut bad guy. So, if you fight in Burma,
your conscience wont eat at you. The tribal people need help and
protection, and you are giving it to them. Case closed.
Physical comforts are also present in Burma. You sleep relatively safely
in a base camp. You eat large quantities of pork and rice. And, you
only go to the fighting when you want to. You sleep late.
You wear what you want, and do what you want. It is like soldiering
without all the hassles of a legal military commitment. And the best
part, when you want to leave, you leave.
As far as I was able to verify, Thomas Bleming only spent six weeks
in Thailand/KNLA on his first trip. It is not clear how long he is planning
to stay on this, his second trip. But it probably wont be a four
year enlistment, as it is for the soldiers in Iraq.
When you make your way across the border to one of the rebel military
camps, the rebels are happy to see you. They welcome you, and share
what little they have. Your presence, even just seeing your face, raises
their hopes that the world hasnt forgotten them. They hope that
you will be the one who will go back and tell the US government to take
action on their behalf. Or, maybe you are a scout for the US military
and soon, tanks, made in Detroit, will roll over the hills and take
all their problems away.
To this end, the rebels will do nearly anything in their power to please
you. They will offer you honorary citizenship or ask you to open an
embassy in your home country. I personally saw an American
offered the position of Ambassador three hours after arriving
in a military camp.
The rebels are desperate for foreign aid and recognition. Many of the
men who show up to fight are just desperate. The two together can be
an unhealthy combination.
For most foreigners involved in the Burma conflict, the way in is through
Thailand. They come to Thailand for one reason or another and at some
point, by accident or by providence, they meet someone associated with
the conflict and get hooked. For me, it was when I was living in a monastery,
learning Muay Thai. All of my training brothers were tribal, and most
were Shan. When I learned about the war in Burma and how these people
suffered, only to come to Thailand to live on the streets and get hooked
on Yaba, methamphetamine, I began looking for ways I could help. Another
friend told me that his house cleaner asked for $30 to save a tribal
kid from deportation. When he realized that a human life could be spared
for such a paltry sum of money, he began doing full time aid work.
Every border worker has his or her unique story, but the similarity
is that they usually spent a lot of time in Thailand, learning the language
and the culture, before getting involved. Once in, they read voraciously.
If you mention the name of any book written about this conflict, nearly
every aid worker will tell you he has read it. In short, the people
working on the border are informed. They understand the culture and
the nuances of communication. Thomas Bleming only spent a few weeks
in the country. He probably doesnt speak Thai or Karen, and much
of what he is quoted as saying suggests that he really doesnt
understand what he is involved in.
He is caught up in the fact that he was taken to the top echelons of
the local KNLA unit. But, all foreign visitors are received by the highest
ranking people. This is normal. He was allegedly awarded a political
position. Once again, these are handed out like candy. He believes he
was asked to be the US representative. The rebels are nice people and
it is against their culture to disagree with anyone. If you asked, Can
I represent you in American? they would definitely say yes.
This would either be because they desperately need representation or
because they dont want to refuse a friend. But again, this great
honor is bestowed on everyone. Bleming was quoted as saying
that he was the only American or foreign soldier with KNLA. Not true,
there have been many, and several were killed in the 1990s. He
also said he wrote the only book about fighting with the KNLA. Again,
not true. Shelby Tucker wrote about KNLA in his book, With the
Insurgents, and a silly marine, names Mike Tucker, wrote a terrible,
93 page book about his hair raising seven days with the KNLA.
One has to ask, what good would a 62 year old white soldier do for the
KNLA? The terrain is absolutely brutal, up and down mountains, with
no roads. Patrols last a minimum of one month, during which time, you
carry your rice in a sock wrapped around your waist. You walk all day
and sleep a few hours, maintaining noise and light discipline. It would
be difficult for a fit US soldier in his twenties to keep up on such
a patrol. It is extremely unlikely that a man in his sixties could even
survive it. And if he slowed down the column or got tired or sick, he
could get the whole team killed. Beyond the physical limitations, a
foreigner is just a liability inside Burma. Any tribal person who sees
a foreigner and fails to report him could be executed by the SPDC.
One of the things Bleming says he did for the KNLA was teach them how
to use landmines. This conflict has been going on for decades. Even
a slow learner would know how to use a landmine by now. Its not
like the KNLA were sitting on huge stores of munitions with no idea
how to use them.
The KNLA and SSA (Shan State Army) dont need foreign soldiers.
One soldier more or less wont have any impact on the outcome of
the war. What they need are doctors, teachers, engineers, people who
help them keep their people alive by building irrigation systems or
rendering medical aid. They need material aid, clothes, food, medicine,
and munitions. They also need journalists and writers who can tell the
world about their struggle. Lastly, they need political activism. They
need every person who reads this story to call his congressman and say,
please help the people of Burma.
Another thing Bleming doesnt seem to understand is that the war
is real. The aid workers who cross the border every day are the real
heroes. They cant be photographed or go on TV, once their cover
is blown they would be in grace danger. So, they live quiet lives, risking
their lives for free, brining necessities to a tortured people.
I interviewed the leader of an aid mission in Shan State once, and asked,
What do the children need? he answered, What they
need, I cant give them. They need independence and peace for their
country. But apart from that, they need clothing, food, medicine, education,
and safety, like children everywhere.
Blemings loud behavior has put a lot of people at risk. Also,
Thailand cant be seen as harboring dissidents or actively supporting
the war in Burma. Every time a story of someone like Bleming comes up,
the border suddenly closes and food and medicine cant get in to
the people who need it.
One aid worker, who requested that he remain anonymous, said: Oh
man, that Bleming guy is a real piece of work. He's walking around,
giving out his business cards which he autographs for you, talking loudly
in all the wrong places about going to Burma, blah blah. The Karen have
issued all sorts of statements saying this guy is his own work, denying
almost everything he says, etc. The KNLA and KNU have worked for
years at cultivating a good public relations, this guy goes and sets
that back decades. America just took ex KNLA combatants off the
Homeland security terrorist risk list for refugee resettlement, and
this guy goes and makes them look like a bunch of well armed terrorists
again. Plus he is big, loud, obnoxious and arrogant. That
equals dangerous in my book.
It is easy to point a finger at Thomas Bleming, or any of the foreigners
showing up on the border to fight, and label them thrill seekers or,
at the very least, slightly disturbed. But in the modern world of confused
sides, things are never that simple.
Training in Muay Thai, I wind up training with a lot of security contractors.
These are basically mercenary soldiers, employed by private firms to
do military operations for the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They normally work on rotations, so many months in combat and so many
months on vacation. Many of them chose to take their holidays in Thailand,
where they can live cheaply, and where they can squeeze in some martial
arts training before returning to work.
An enlisted US soldier in Iraq earns about $3,000 USD per month. A contractor
earns between $10,000 -$20,000, and a volunteer in Burma earns $0. Being
a contractor or US soldier, fighting where you are sent, is legal, admirable,
profitable, and wont land you in jail. Being an unpaid volunteer
soldier in a conflict of your choosing, on the other hand, is illegal,
not paid, and can get you labeled as a terrorist which could have long-term
negative impact on your life.
Taken to the strictest limits of the law, the same negative effects
could befall an unarmed, non-combatant, who crosses the border to inoculate
children living in a rebel refugee camp.
Once again, I have to ask, what kind of world have we created where
rendering medical aid to children could be construed as a crime? On
the one hand, Bleming may have gone Kurtz.
I'd never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.
Apocalypse Now" screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford
He may have gotten so wrapped up in who he thinks he is or what he believes
he is doing, that he is certifiable. On the other hand, if the UN would
step in, or if the US would sanction this war, there would be no need
for the Thomas Blemings of this world. All it would take is a single
stroke of a pen from the UN Secretary General or the American president,
and foreign soldiers could enter Burma and render the humanitarian aide
so many are dying to receive.
As always, please say a prayer for the people of Burma.
© Antonio Graceffo April 7th 2008
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia.
He is the Host of the web TV show, Martial Arts Odyssey,
recently he has been working inside of Shan State, documenting human
rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of
the Shan people. To see all of his videos about martial arts,
Burma and other countries: http://youtube.com/results?search_query=antonio+graceffo&search=Search
Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute
to the In Shanland film project, you can donate through
paypal, through the Burma page of my website.
Get Antonios books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa
World Travel Stories at Hacktreks
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