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Gonzo Journalist Mac McClelland on the Badass Group Battling Violence and Repression

In "For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question" Mac McClelland chronicles the 60-year genocide the Burmese government has waged against an ethnic minority.

In 2006, Mac McClelland went to Thailand to volunteer and ended up living with refugees from Burma. They turned out to be survivors of a nearly unreported genocide the Burmese army is currently waging against an ethnic minority, in retaliation for ethnic insurgents’ fighting a war against the government for the last sixty years.

But as hard as those refugees’ lives were, they were still better off than those who’d fled the Burmese troops burning down their villages but were trapped between their destroyed homes and the Thai border, in territory contested by government and insurgent sides. Eastern Burma alone is packed with well more than half a million of these internally displaced persons, or IDPs—more than twice as many as the whole great internationally war-torn landscape of Afghanistan. One in five internally displaced Burmese children dies before they make it to the age of five. One in twenty-five deaths is caused by land mines. And unlike IDPs in places like Iraq or Sudan, none of the major international aid players, such as the Red Cross, has official responsibility for them. One of their only chances for help is from the roving army of a Pasadena-seminary-ordained American ex-Special Forces soldier who moved to the middle of a war zone and adopted the nom de guerre Tha U Wa A Pa—Father of the “White Monkey,” his daughter’s nickname. McClelland profiles him and his Free Burma Rangers in this excerpt from her new book, For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War.

Tha U Wa A Pa grew up in Thailand, the son of American missionaries of some repute, his father a gruff and understated preacher, his mother an ex-showgirl who says she was second in line to play Julie Andrews’s part in  The Sound of Music . She smiles when she explains that she thought her husband was brash when they first met but was soon so won over by his passion for Christ that she quit her promising career and moved with him to Thailand. She’ll sing for you, if you go over to their Chiang Mai house for pancakes, and she’ll tell you about how they gave their son a found bear cub for a playmate, and how it was the cutest thing when Tha U Wa A Pa would wrestle the bear, and how everyone was sad to have to get rid of the bear after it got a little rough with Tha U Wa A Pa’s young sister.

When he grew up, Tha U Wa A Pa went to Texas A&M and became an American Special Forces soldier, doing anti-narcotics in South America, working with special forces in Thailand. He met a girl, who thought he was a little brash, but he wooed her into a mountain-climbing date, and beyond. They got married, he quit the service, and he joined Fuller Seminary in California, ultimately deciding that he, too, should become a missionary.

He was in Thailand doing God’s work when a massive Burma army offensive was displacing people like crazy. When he went to the border with a backpack full of supplies, he ran into a medic-soldier from the ethnic insurgency who was also eager to help. That day in 1997, with the insurgents in full retreat and refugees and IDPs swarming the borderlands, the two men treated as many wounded as they could, picking up a guy who’d stepped on a land mine and taking him to a hospital to have his leg amputated, back and forth over the border, rushing into Burma to help the injured as if the whole country were a house on fire. The Free Burma Rangers was born.