Lifting the Bamboo Curtain

As China and India vie for power and influence, Burma has become a strategic battleground. Four Americans with deep ties to this fractured, resource-rich country illuminate its current troubles, and what the U.S. should do to shape its future.
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The Son of the Blue-Eyed Shan

While the mess in Iraq has made the virtues of cultural expertise newly fashionable, champions of such experience often conveniently forget that many of America’s greatest area experts have been Christian missionaries. American history has seen two strains of missionary area experts: the old Arab hands and the Asia, or China, hands. The Arab hands were Protestant missionaries who in the early 19th century traveled to Lebanon and ended up founding what became the American University of Beirut. From their lineage descended the State Department Arabists of the Cold War era. The Asia hands have a similarly distinguished origin, beginning, too, in the 19th century and providing the U.S. government with much of its area expertise through the early Cold War, when, during the McCarthy era, a number of them were unjustly purged. One American who counseled me on Burma is descended from several generations of Baptist missionaries from the Midwest who ministered to the hill tribes beginning in the late 19th century. His father, known as “The Blue-Eyed Shan,” escaped Burma ahead of the invading Japanese and was conscripted into Britain’s Indian army, in which he commanded a Shan battalion. Among my acquaintance’s earliest childhood memories was the sight of Punjabi soldiers ordering work gangs of Japanese prisoners of war to pick up rubble in the Burmese capital of Rangoon. With no formal education, he speaks Shan, Burmese, Hindi, Thai, and the Yunnan and Mandarin dialects of Chinese. He has spent his life studying Burma, though the 1960s saw him elsewhere in Indochina, aiding America’s effort in Vietnam.

During our conversation, he sat erect and cross-legged on a raised platform, wearing a longyi. Gray-haired, with a sculpted face and an authoritative, courtly Fred Thompson voice, he has the bearing of an elder statesman, tempered by a certain gentleness. “Chinese intelligence is beginning to operate with the antiregime Burmese ethnic hill tribes,” he told me. “The Chinese want the dictatorship in Burma to remain, but being pragmatic, they also have alternative plans for the country. The warning that comes from senior Chinese intelligence officers to the Karens, the Shans, and other ethnics is to ‘come to us for help—not the Americans—since we are next door and will never leave the area.’”

At the same time, he explained, the Chinese are reaching out to young military officers in Thailand. In recent years, the Thai royal family and the Thai military—particularly the special forces and cavalry—have been sympathetic to the hill tribes fighting the pro-Chinese military junta; Thailand’s civilian politicians, influenced by lobbies wanting to do business with resource-rich Burma, have been the junta’s best allies. In sum, democracy in Thailand is momentarily the enemy of democracy in Burma.

But the Chinese, the Son of the Blue-Eyed Shan implied, are still not satisfied: they want both Thailand’s democrats and military officers on their side, even as they work with both Burma’s junta and its ethnic opponents. “A new bamboo curtain may be coming down on Southeast Asia,” he worried. This would not be a hard-and-fast wall like the Iron Curtain; nor would it be part of some newly imagined Asian domino theory. Rather, it would create a zone of Chinese political and economic influence fostered by, among other factors, American neglect. While the Chinese operate at every level in Burma and Thailand, top Bush-administration officials have skipped summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. My friend simply wanted the United States back in the game.

“To topple the regime in Burma,” he says, “the ethnics need a full-time advisory capability, not in-and-out soldiers of fortune. This would include a coordination center inside Thailand. There needs to be a platform for all the disaffected officers in the Burmese military to defect to.” Again, rather than a return to the early Vietnam era, he was talking about a more subtle, more clandestine version of the support the United States provided the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s. The current Thai administration would be hostile to that, but the government in Bangkok, and its policies, routinely changes. The military could yet return to power there, and even if it doesn’t, if the U.S. signaled its intent to support the Burmese hill tribes against a regime hated the world over, the Thai security apparatus would find a way to assist.

“The Shans and the Kachins near the Chinese border,” my friend went on, “have gotten a raw deal from the Burmese junta, but they are also nervous about a dominant China. They feel squeezed. And unity for the hill tribes of Burma is almost impossible. Somebody from the outside must provide a mechanism upon which they can all depend.” Larger than England and France combined, Burma has historically been a crazy quilt of vaguely demarcated states sectioned by jungly mountain ranges and the valleys of the Irrawaddy, Chindwin, Salween, and Mekong rivers. As a result, its various peoples remain distinct: the Chins in western Burma, for example, have almost nothing in common with the Karens in eastern Burma. Nor is there any community of language or culture between the Shans and the Burmans (the ethnic group, not the nationality, which is Burmese), save their Buddhist religion. Indeed, the Shans have much more in common with the Thais across the border.

But Burma should not be confused with the Balkans, or with Iraq, where ethnic and sectarian differences simmering for decades under a carapace of authoritarianism erupted once central authority dissolved. After so many years of violence, war fatigue has set in here, and the tribes show little propensity to fight each other after the regime unravels. They are more disunited than they are at odds. Even among themselves, the Shans, as my friend told me, have been historically subdivided into states led by minor kings. As he sees it, such divisions open a quiet organizing opportunity for Americans of his ilk.

The Father of the White Monkey

Tha-U-Wa-A-Pa, or “The Father of the White Monkey” in Burmese, is also the son of Christian missionaries, originally from Texas. Except for nine years in the U.S. Army, including in Special Forces, from which he retired as a major, he has been, like his parents, a missionary in one form or another. He also speaks a number of the local languages. He is much younger than my other acquaintance and much more animated, with a ropy, muscular body in perpetual motion, as if his system were running on too many candy bars. Whereas my other contact has focused on the Shan tribes near the Chinese border, the Father of the White Monkey—the sobriquet comes from the nickname he has given his daughter, who often travels with him—works mostly with the Karen and other tribes in eastern Burma abutting Thailand, though the networks he operates have ranged as far as the Indian border.

In 1996, he met the Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, while she was briefly not under house arrest. The meeting inspired him to initiate a “day of prayer” for Burma, and to work for its ethnic unity. During the 1997 Burmese army offensive that displaced more than 100,000 people, he was deep inside the country, alone, going from one burned-out village to another, handing out medicine from his backpack. He told me about this and other army offensives that he witnessed, in which churches were torched, children disemboweled, and whole families killed. “These stories don’t make me numb,” he said, his eyes popping open, facial muscles stretched. “Each is like the first one. I pray always that justice will come and be done.”

In 1997, after that trip inside Burma, he started the Free Burma Rangers, a relief group that has launched more than 300 humanitarian missions and has 43 small medical teams among the Karens, Karennis, Shans, Chins, Kachins, and Arakanese—across the parts of highland Burma that embrace on three sides the central Irrawaddy River valley, home to the majority Burmans. As he told it, the Free Burma Rangers is an unusual nongovernmental organization. “We stand with the villagers; we’re not above them. If they don’t run from the government troops, we don’t either. We have a medic, a photo­grapher, and a reporter/intel guy in each team that marks the GPS positions of Burmese government troops, maps the camps, and takes pictures with a telephoto lens, all of which we post on our Web site. We deal with the Pentagon, with human-rights groups … There is a higher moral obligation to intervene on the side of good, since silence is a form of consent.

“NGOs,” he went on in a racing voice, “like to claim that they are above politics. Not true. The very act of providing aid assists one side or another, however indirectly. NGOs take sides all the time.” The Father of the White Monkey takes this hard truth several steps further. Whereas the Thais host Burmese refugee camps on their side of the border, and the ethnic insurgents run camps inside Burma for internally displaced people—even as the Karens and other ethnics have mobile clinics near Burmese army concentrations—the backpacking Free Burma Rangers operate behind enemy lines.

Like my other acquaintance, the Father of the White Monkey is a very evolved form of special operator. One might suspect that the Free Burma Rangers is on some government payroll in Washington. But the truth is more pathetic. “We are funded by church groups around the world. Our yearly budget is $600,000. We were down to $150 at one point; we all prayed and the next day got a grant for $70,000. We work hand to mouth.” For him, Burma is not a job but a lifelong obsession.

“Burma is not Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge,” he told me. “It’s not genocide. It’s not a car wreck. It’s a slow, creeping cancer, in which the regime is working to dominate, control, and radically assimilate all the ethnic peoples of the country.” I was reminded of what Jack Dunford, the executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, had told me in Bangkok. The military regime was “relentless, building dams, roads, and huge agricultural projects, taking over mines, laying pipelines,” sucking in cash from neighboring powers and foreign companies, selling off natural resources at below market value—all to entrench itself in power.

Once, not long ago, the Father of the White Monkey was sitting on a hillside at night, in an exposed location between the Burmese army and a cluster of internal refugees whom the army had driven from their homes. The Karen soldiers he was with had fired rocket-propelled grenades at the Burmese army position, and in response the Burmese soldiers began firing mortar rounds at him. At that moment, he got a message on his communications gear from a friend at the Pentagon asking why the United States should be interested in Burma.

He tapped back a slew of reasons that ranged from totalitarianism to the devastation of hardwood forests, from religious persecution of Buddhist monks to the use of prisoners as mine sweepers, and much else. But, ever the missionary, the Father of the White Monkey barely touched on strategic or regional-security issues. When I asked him his denomination, he responded, “I’m a Christian.” As such, he believes he is doing God’s work, engaged morally first and foremost, especially with the Karens, who number many Christians, converted by people like his parents. He is the kind of special operator the U.S. security bureaucracy can barely accept, for becoming one involves taking sides and going native to a degree. And yet, operatives like him offer the level of expertise that the United States desperately needs, if it is to have influence without being overbearing in remote parts of the globe.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in Washington. His most recent book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground (2007).

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