The release of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, at the time arguably the world’s most famous political prisoner, in November 2010 seemed like a turning point for her isolated nation. The following year saw the military junta—which had ruled the country (also known as Myanmar) since taking power in a coup in 1962—hand over the reigns to a nominally civilian government. Crippling economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and Europe were eased, allowing much needed capital to flow in. Political prisoners were released, and censorship of the media and the Internet was relaxed. Once described as “one of the most repressive [countries] in the world,” Burma was on its way to becoming another autocratic also-ran, on par with Indonesia or Russia rather than North Korea.
“The war goes on,” Tha U Wa A Pa the leader of the Free Burma Rangers, tells me from deep within the Burmese jungle. Since 2011, attacks on ethnic minority groups, which opposed the junta for decades, have continued—and in some instances the situation has actually gotten worse. Over 100,000 people have had to flee their homes due to Burmese military actions in Kachin state, while inter-ethnic violence against the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority in western Burma—allegedly encouraged or orchestrated by the military—has displaced more than 140,000 people.
“Since Thein Sein became president [in March 2011], human-rights abuses which violate international law have increased,” said Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK, a London-based human-rights organization.
Much of the outside world’s knowledge of those abuses comes from the Free Burma Rangers, perhaps the most remarkable human-rights group that you’ve likely never heard of. Founded in 1997 by an ex-U.S. soldier (Tha U Wa A Pa is a Karen pseudonym; I have withheld his real name, and the names of other rangers upon request for their protection), the FBR could be described as Médecins Sans Frontières with guns.
Tha was born in Texas in 1960, but spent much of his early life in Thailand, where his parents, evangelical Christians, ran a school. As an adult, Tha returned to the U.S. and joined the army, serving in Central America before transferring to the Special Forces, which sent him back to Southeast Asia. In 1992, he retired from the army to attend California’s prestigious Fuller Theological Seminary, Rick Warren’s alma mater.
Like his parents, Tha U Wa A Pa was drawn to missionary work, and after graduation he returned to Thailand, not knowing that events taking place on the other side of the Thai-Burma border would change his life forever.
In 1988, after decades of stagnant economic growth and political repression, pro-democracy demonstrations swept across Burma, leading to a violent crackdown in which thousands died. The demonstrations did initially seem to have been effective, however, with the government agreeing to democratic elections within the next two years.
In May 1990, Burma had its first free elections in 30 years. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 392 of 489 parliamentary seats. But the government decided it wasn’t so keen on democracy after all and began an extended crackdown on dissidents and civil society actors.
After the government ruled the election—which it organized and oversaw—illegitimate, hundreds of pro-democracy activists were jailed and Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. The regime then turned its attention to the various ethnic militias in open revolt against it, particularly the Karen National Union which at the time was effectively operating an autonomous state in Burma’s south, with taxes, social security, and an army. In January 1995, Manerplaw, the Karen capital, fell to the Burmese army and tens of thousands of refugees began pouring into Thailand.
Tha was loosely involved in the pro-democracy movement at the time; he met with Suu Kyi in Rangoon in 1996 to help set up a global ‘day of prayer’ for Burma, which continues until this day. But it wasn’t until 1997 that he threw himself wholeheartedly into the Burmese cause.
Further offensives by the Burmese Army in 1997 displaced over a million people and the number of refugees living in makeshift camps on the Thai-Burma border surpassed 100,000 for the first time. Tha had begun working with Karen refugees in Thailand when one day he decided to head into Burma itself. There, he and a Karen associate worked as emergency medics until their supplies ran out. Tha returned to Thailand to restock on medicine, and the Free Burma Rangers were born.
FBR activities fall into three broad categories: humanitarian relief, documentation, and training. Rangers provide emergency medical care, shelter, food, and clothing to people living in war zones and the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDP) trying to eke out an existence in the Burmese jungle.
According to FBR records, the group has treated around 360,000 patients since its founding, an average of one or two thousand per mission, and provided assistance to over 750,000 people. (While there is no way to independently verify these numbers, analysts from Human Rights Watch say they believe the figures are trustworthy.) Rangers also document atrocities and human-rights abuses by the Burmese Army, of which there are many. During several months of communicating with Tha and other FBR representatives, my inbox filled up with photos and firsthand accounts of alleged torture and executions, and stories of villagers who had seen their homes destroyed and their relatives killed or abducted for use as porters, carrying supplies for the army with little food or rest until they are released (or more often, die of exhaustion). In For Us Surrender is Out of the Question, Mac McClelland describes how Burmese army offences can be charted by the “trail of porters’ corpses left in their wake.” In a February report on Burmese Army attacks in Kachin State, Rangers said they found the body of a man who had been strung up and scalded with boiling water before being summarily executed.
The Rangers’ reporting appears to be solid. In January 2013, a video released by the group to the BBC, showing attack helicopters and jets attacking trenches held by the Kachin Independence Army, helped halt government offences in the area.
The Rangers are not a neutral organization however, and the group is intrinsically linked with the “ethnic resistance armies” (what the government terms more simply “rebels”) such as the Karen National Liberation Army or the Kachin Independence Army. The ethnic armies protect the Rangers (many of whom are drawn from the same ethnic groups) and in return the FBR provides expertise and training. The group operates secret bases in Karen and Shan states where ethnic soldiers are trained in everything from emergency medical care and logistics, to land mine removal and battlefield communications.
This partnership allows the FBR to operate in a country not exactly hospitable to international human-rights organizations—Médecins Sans Frontières was expelled from Burma in late February after almost two decades—but comes at a price. While the FBR does not provide guns to its members, neither does the group forbid them from arming themselves. Unlike most human-rights NGOs, the FBR website has an “in memoriam” section which catalogues rangers killed in action, some of whom were reportedly tortured to death by the Burmese Army.
(UPDATE: The Rangers issued a response to this article after it was published: "We do not arm our teams, nor is our mission to fight the Burma Army. Most of the Rangers are unarmed and many teams have no weapons at all. The teams can defend IDPs under attack or themselves if they have their own weapons and are attacked. But whether they have weapons or not they can not run away if the people can not run away.We train them to be able to get away from the attacking Burma Army and help the people that are being attacked do the same. Our mission is of love and we pray for our enemies.")
That the work of the FBR has changed little since the group’s inception is perhaps the most damning indictment of the Burmese government’s purported reforms. It is in Tha’s nature to be optimistic, but even he is skeptical of the government’s commitment to change while the military remains largely in control. Other rangers are more blunt. “The Burmese Army has not changed,” one Karenni ranger said. “Ordinary people are suffering more than before.”
Ceasefires between the government and rebel groups do not help the situation, according to a Karen ranger who helped document the Burmese Army’s resupplying of its bases in the region during a lull in hostilities, believed to be in preparation for future actions against the KNU.
“While ceasefire have meant less abuses in some states, ethnic people are deeply concerned that there are more, not fewer Burmese Army soldiers in their areas,” said Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK. “Groups who have been less compliant to the demands of the government, such as the Kachin, have faced renewed and increased conflict, and terrible human rights abuses.”
As the hope which accompanied Suu Kyi’s release fades into memory, it’s difficult to find much to be positive about in Burma. According to Farmaner, the reforms of 2011 have largely come to naught. Suu Kyi has been sidelined and, in the eyes of many Burmese human-rights campaigners, compromised by her reticence in standing up for the Rohingya in the face of Buddhist anti- Muslim violence. The world’s longest running civil war, as the FBR has documented, carries on.
I ask Tha how he finds the motivation to continue: “We love the people of Burma, this is our heart. We enjoy the life in the field, this is our body. We feel this is God’s place for us, this is our soul.”
James Griffiths is a reporter based in Shanghai, China. You can follow him at @jgriffiths and jamestgriffiths.com.