Gonzo Journalist Mac McClelland on the Badass Group Battling Violence and Repression
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.
The first Free Burma Rangers team consisted of two medics, a nurse, and a guerrilla soldier, along with a videographer, photographer, reporter, and pastor sent to the jungle for a three-week relief mission. Since then, 110 teams have conducted more than 350 missions that have treated some 360,000 people. And they’re all dispatched with medicine and video cameras and at least one gun from a base that Tha U Wa A Pa has built right in the middle of enemy territory.
“The purpose of the training is to train, equip, and inspire you to serve your people and help them get freedom,” he explains to his new recruits, ethnic guys from Burma, sometimes peppered—or salted, I guess—with a few white Christians, during the six-week training on base. Tha U Wa A Pa is buff and sinewy and fair. He is a charismatic brightness in the vast green jungle camp. “We call ourselves the Free Burma Rangers because we want everyone in Burma to be free. A ranger is one who can go alone, or go in pairs. No matter what the obstacles, he will always try. If a ranger has a weapon, he can fight. If he has no weapon, he can still do something to help. No one can stop the Free Burma Rangers from serving and loving other people. And no one can stop you from serving your people.”
Training involves war-game-like drills, with burning buildings and unconscious villagers and enemies attacking from the wings. The rangers complete intense physical obstacle courses, plus training in swimming and lifesaving, backpack floatation, using maps and compasses, operations order, building rope bridges, rappelling, land-mine removal, video camera use, CPR, first aid, syringe and IV use, human rights interviewing, counseling, crack surgery and dentistry.
So this is where Tha U Wa A Pa lives, along with his wife and two little towheaded girls and a boy, running his own kind of insurgency from the middle of the jungle in the middle of this war. Sometimes the kids go on the missions, but the lifestyle isn’t all rough: Tha U Wa A Pa has implemented the use of pack animals, and subsequently kept his offspring in ponies. Also, they got to learn to swim the fun way. You can see Tha U Wa A Pa chucking the youngest daughter into a raging river by the seat of her underpants in a video the family made to submit to the “Postcards from You” segment of PBS’s Arthur cartoon.
The whole thing operates on a budget of about $1.3 million a year, and the whole budget, like all of the money that fed Burmese refugees for years, like some of the money that still educates and feeds them now, comes from individual donations and church groups, via Internet donations and checks. Additionally, PO boxes in Thailand receive contributions of supplies: toys and vitamins and toothpaste, all sealed into little plastic bags with postcards full of Bible verses.
But Tha U Wa A Pa tells his recruits that they can all work together even if they’re not Christian, because they’re all God’s children, and God is bigger than everything. Trainings include liberal amounts of praying. Before the missions, team members confess their sins to one another. During the missions, they pray over their patients, and hand out Bibles where few other books exist. They pray that God will keep them safe and give them signs so that they can avoid conflict with or capture by the Burma army. Tha U Wa A Pa says there’s no other explanation for his being alive today. Once, when he was being pursued by more than a thousand Burma army troops, he says, the only way to survive was to hunker down and pray for safety. It worked. The teams press on whether fighting is heavy or not, whether or not Tha U Wa A Pa’s baby girls are with them. Prayer has, according to the Free Burma Rangers, made Burma army soldiers get lost in pursuit or mis-steer their boats, has helped teams find their way when they’re lost and alone in the middle of completely encompassing land-mine-filled jungle. They’ve got a list of miracles longer than the Salween River.
And like any decent paramilitary force, they’ve got uniforms, too. I saw one of the specially printed T-shirts—soft jersey knit, in nice army olive, with free burma rangers in a white insignia over the left breast—on one of my first days volunteering. I didn’t know what FBR was, or how much cred it had, when I laid eyes on the shirt, but I told one of the refuges I’d do anything to get my hands on one. What with the flattering color and emblemed front and the motto—“Love each other. Unite and work for freedom, justice, and peace. Forgive and don’t hate each other. Pray with faith, act with courage. Never surrender.”—printed on the back, I just thought it was a really nice shirt. I didn’t realize until I saw one of FBR’s videos that the rangers were total fucking badasses.
The video one of the refugees showed me starts with war footage, guys shooting guns in tall jungle bush and loud rocket fire, and a village burning down and screaming women running for their lives, before moving briefly to photo stills: a picture of villagers standing over a group of dead bodies, a picture of a beaten woman with her shirt torn open, dead on the forest floor, a picture of murdered children on the ground, lying all lined up in a row. Then the camera centers on the face of a seventeen-year-old boy with lifeless, unfocused eyes, rolling his head on the ground, moaning, while a hand pets his cheek, a longyi held up below his neck so he can’t see what’s going on with the rest of his body, which is that a few men hold on to his completely exposed lower leg bone, a bloody white stick still hung with a few slick and glistening black-purple sinews, protruding from a bloody knee, a land-mine wound swarmed by flies. Then he’s in a thin hammock, with a man in cheap plastic flip-flops at each end of the bamboo pole from which it swings, and another walking alongside holding an IV drip dangling from another piece of wood, being carried through the mountainous terrain. For four days. Which is how long it takes the team to get him to a clinic on the border, where a proper amputation can be done.
By now, instantly, I’d twisted my face into a permanent wince, and it didn’t get any easier to watch. A husband and wife sit next to each other on the ground while he explains that their two sons and daughter were taken by Burma army troops that stormed into their village. Local leaders negotiated the return of the two boys, but they haven’t seen the girl since. “We want her back,” the woman says, smiling sadly, before dropping her face to her knees, covering it with her pink sweater, and starting to sob. When she calms down a little, the man says, “My wife and I are like dead people.” There are people getting ready to run from an attack, little girls running around talking fast directions to each other while they throw shit in baskets and sacks they can carry strapped to their foreheads. A man on his back breathing hard and fast and shallow as Free Burma Ranger medics jab their fingers and instruments into the bloody stump below his knee where his calf and foot were before he stepped on a land mine. Skulls and bones on the ground and a ranger telling how he brought a bunch of children’s presents donated by kids overseas only to find that there are no children in this village anymore. Rangers tearing out infected teeth with pliers. Rangers stitching up a gaping, blood-spurting hole in someone’s foot. Rangers cleaning the gory, festering wound on a little kid’s leg as the child stands still, calm, pantsless. Rangers delivering a baby in the darkness by the green glow of the camera’s night mode, in open jungle air, on the jungle floor. The partially decomposed decapitated head of an old man on the ground, which the rangers bury when they find it. A shot of a Burma army compound, the camera zooming in shakily on the faces of the boys with rifles, the hiding cameramen whispering breathlessly to each other. Shots from an FBR team that came under attack when they went back to a village of some recent IDPs to see if they could recover any food; the camera jostles violently as they run along, set to the sound of gunfire cracking and thundering through the trees. An FBR team rushing to the scene of a new attack and meeting two fleeing villagers, young guys who tell them they were taking a smoke break with four other friends when the explosions and bullets started coming. They’re not sure if the guys who were running with them survived, since there was so much shooting. By way of illustration, one of the guys points to a bullet hole in the side of his loose jacket. A man rocking the tiniest sleeping baby and complaining about the Burma army because his wife died during childbirth in the jungle while they were running. He worries that he has no idea how to take care of this child without her. Tears streaming hard and quiet down the face of a woman mindlessly fingering her jacket zipper with one hand, standing among the ashes of her old village, in which her husband was killed. A toddler barely grown enough to stand picking his way through the jungle as his village flees, carefully parting the brush with his chubby little fingers and stepping through with his bare, scratched legs and feet. Three more stills: a dead villager facedown on the ground. A dead villager faceup on the ground. A five-year-old with a bullet in his leg. Video of yet another land-mine casualty, medics holding a bleeding, seething, sinew-dripping, mangled hunk of something vaguely human looking, recognizable as a foot only because it comes at the end of an ankle. An FBR team leaves a group of IDPs and the IDPs call out please don’t leave us, please come back. A man keeps hiding his face it’s so contorted with sorrow as he says, sobbing convulsively, “I don’t understand why they killed my children. They didn’t even know their right hand from their left hand,” while the woman next to him weeps silently and gnashes her teeth. The video ends with a quote from Galatians on the screen: Let us not grow weary while doing good. In due season we shall reap if we don’t lose heart.
Currently, FBR is running some forty full-time teams on monthlong missions in Burma throughout the year, treating about 2,000 people in each, trekking hundreds of miles. They find malaria, AIDS, gastric disease, dysentery, colds, diarrhea, severe vitamin deficiency and malnutrition, worms, anemia, skin disease, skin infections, respiratory infections. When the Burma army massacred villagers in Htee Law Bleh in 2002, rangers were there to treat people who didn’t die from their gunshot wounds and photograph a pile of dead children. Sometimes the team members get shot at. Sometimes they fall fatally ill or are captured and tortured. If FBR personnel are caught, or get a disease, or step on a land mine, they can be killed. Sometimes, they are: six of them in the organization’s first ten years.
“I can’t believe I never heard of any of this before I got here,” I told the guy who showed me the video. “Seriously, my friends are really smart. Nobody I know has ever heard of this.”
“So,” he said, nodding emphatically, “you will tell everybody in America.”
It was easy for even my really smart friends to be ignorant of this war, the world’s longest-running war, such an active war; it didn’t get a lot of media play. “I don’t think there’s enough news in [this] war itself,” a New York Times Magazine editor told me once. He was absolutely right. As juicy as the real-time footage was, the situation is, as even Tha U Wa A Pa once put it, “not a car wreck. It’s a slow, creeping cancer,” a conflict that’d started sixty years ago, which is actually the opposite of news. Every year, when the United States Department of State slams Burma in its “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,” saying that the government rapes and tortures and kills people and indiscriminately and indefinitely and illegally detains people and blah-blah-blah, the media ignore it.
Except the Burmese media, which report how the Burmese government is flabbergasted by these absolutely flabbergasting charges. Take this press release from the Permanent Mission of the Union of Myanmar to the United Nations Office and Other International Organizations, in Geneva. It’s a re-release of the press release whereby Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejects 2009’s State Department report. It’s titled, aptly, “Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Myanmar rejects US State Department’s human rights report.” It explains how the US has, due to its dire need of fact-checkers, made Burma sad, and how, further, Burma is rubber and the US is glue:
The United States Department of State released on 25th February 2009 its 2008 Country Report on Human Rights Practices of over 190 countries, including Myanmar. As in the past, the report repeated its unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations of human rights violations in Myanmar.
It is saddening to find that the report contained the usual sweeping accusations of human rights abuses in Myanmar without verification of the validity and accuracy of the information and reliability of its sources. Instead of making false allegations at other nations regarding human rights matters, the United States should concentrate on uplifting its own human rights records.
Myanmar has long been a victim of a systematic disinformation campaign launched by anti-government elements, generously funded by their foreign supporters. The rootless allegations of human rights violations which invariably emanated from anti-government elements have found their way into the reports of the U.S. State Department. Thus, there is a need to verify all information before it is judged fit for inclusion in official reports.
Verify this: even if you haven’t had the pleasure of opening a database of the interviews and reports aid workers like the rangers collect and being assaulted by the headlines—a woman gang-raped and stabbed to death in murng-su; guide beaten to death by [BURMA ARMY] troops; a woman cut to death in the throat, in kun-hing; villagers robbed, arrested, tortured and killed in nam-zarng; a handicapped woman gang-raped, causing death, in lai-kha—it’s possible you may have actually seen some of the FBR footage I watched. PBS’s Frontline did an episode called “Burma: State of Fear” in 2006 that followed the “mainly Christian medics who bring aid to villagers being targeted by the Burmese government” and even borrowed some of their film. Rambo, the 2008 one, which takes place on the Burmese border, opens with some FBR footage that’s as disgusting as the outlandishly gory effects in the rest of the film. And even if you’ve missed all those, and your media aren’t reporting the story, you don’t have to take my word or the State Department’s word that the regime is violating international law and human decency to an astounding degree every day.
FBR has a website. And a Wikipedia entry. You can just google the organization’s name. The guys have it all on tape, filmed in bloody, handheld real time. You can verify that shit on YouTube.