In April 1994 I took over the Burmese Border Consortium Field Coordinator position from S-. I was based in the small town of Sangkhlaburi, midway up the 2416 Km Thailand-Burma border, not far from Three Pagodas Pass. In those days, the only other BBC field coordinator was based in Mae Sot further to the north. There was also an office in Bangkok, with three or four staff, including my bosses.
There were four camps housing ethnic Mon refugees who had fled Myanmar Army abuses back home in Burma: Halochanee – straddling the border between Thailand and the New Mon State Party (NMSP)-controlled ‘liberated zone’, a few kilometres south of Three Pagodas Pass; Pa Yaw – the only camp still fully inside Thailand, which was in the process of closing down as the Thai authorities put pressure on the refugees, and thus on the NMSP to agree a ceasefire with the military government; and Tavoy District and Bee Ree (‘Ye River’ in Mon) – inside the NMSP-controlled triangle of territory east of Ye Town in southern Mon State.
I thought I had better survey my domain. Bee Ree had been set up during the previous 1994 dry season, to house newly arriving Internally Displaced People, and also refugees returning from Pa Yaw. Although there was an NMSP ceasefire in prospect, the dry season had seen further Myanmar Army attacks on the NMSP’s Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA) positions, and more killing and other abuses against Mon civilians. Therefore, any refugees forced out of Thailand would be taking refuge in the NMSP-controlled “liberated zones” (soon to be “ceasefire zones”), rather than moving to government-controlled areas, where they had well-founded fears of persecution.
It made sense to inspect the new camp as soon as possible – or so I thought. Plus I wanted to show my new Mon friends that they couldn’t just include a new camp in monthly reports, and expect the BBC to start shipping rice. Very silly Ashley South – insistent on visiting the new site, rather than taking Mon National Relief Committee advice to wait until after the rainy season.
Despite their polite protests, I and Nai B-, Nai K- and one of their staff set off from Sangkhla by longtail boat very early one morning in June 1994. It was cold and misty on the lake. An hour-and-a-half later we pulled up to the riverbank at the old refugee camp site of Loh Loe, which had been dismantled the previous year and was already reverting to jungle. A quick stroll to Pa Yaw, where we walked among the bamboo and thatch huts and met some of the leaders. This was my first meeting with the Mon National Education Committee. Half a dozen eager, thoughtful and obviously intelligent young people, most of whom had “joined the revolution” after the 1988 democracy uprising, or the government’s violent suppression of the 1990 election results. We talked about providing rice to Mon schools in the refugee camps, and setting up primary schools in the new locations across the border in Burma. This was also the first time I met the legendary NMSP Chairman, Nai Shwe Kyin (already in his 80s, and since deceased). Like everyone else who met him, I was struck by Nai Shwe Kyin’s seriousness of purpose, excellent command of English, and searching questions.
Our discussions in Pa Yaw were fairly brief; we had a long walk ahead. First, an hour or so on well-trodden paths through secondary forest. After that, an old logging road twisted up and through a low (but to us, steep enough) ridge of hills which constituted the border. Back in those days, the Thailand side – although a national park – was quite heavily de-forested, especially in lower lying areas closer to the river. In those days, Burma-side was still thick jungle.
On another occasion, a year or so later, we were walking the same route and stopped to sleep in the jungle. After cooking and eating rice for dinner and washing in a nearby stream, we settled down for early an night in our hammocks or sleeping mats on the jungle floor. Whiskey was sometimes drunk in moderation before the evening meal, but not afterwards. Before turning in for the day, I asked why my friends were stoking up the fire just before we went to sleep. “In case of tigers” I was told. I assumed this was a joke – or more likely, that my Mon companions couldn’t bother explaining to the dumb foreigner something which was obvious to them. I learned better in the morning when, after cold rice and curry from the night before, we hoisted backpacks and headed off into the green and misty dawn. A few dozen metres from our campsite were distinctive tiger tracks (which I have seen four times – although never the beast itself in the wild). A tiger had been circling our campsite not more than a few hours ago.
As we proceeded further west, up into the hills and across the border, the forest became thicker, stretching for miles in every direction. When travelling through the forest by elephant, one has a higher elevation and gets better views. On foot as we were back then, it’s mostly an enclosed experience – although on occasional hilltops a glorious view of far-spreading forest is revealed. Mostly though, it’s a damp and green world; noisy too: shrilling insects (particularly in the evening) and burping rivets from innumerable frogs; monkeys howling and shrieking. Perhaps most magnificent of all, the boom of giant hornbills. These are mostly heard not seen, but once in a clearing, the boom from above was particularly loud. Moments later we were lying on our backs, looking up as dozens of huge hornbills flew overhead, silhouetted against the fast darkening sky.
All well and good – but by this time we were getting seriously tired and, especially since we started heading uphill in the afternoon, soaked through with sweat. Then the rain came again, and in the evening cool there was a nasty combination of humid and uncomfortable trudging, giving way to shivers when we stopped to rest. After a while, I noticed that my companions proceeded with increasing trepidation. At first I put this down to tiredness, but eventually had to ask if we were on the right track.
Nai B- and Nai K- were not sure. It turns out that, Bee Ree camp being new, no one they knew had taken this route before, except for a couple of smugglers, briefly interviewed the night before back in comfortable Sangkhla. From being tired but basically fine, our little party quickly descended into exhaustion and panicky accusations. I was simultaneously furious with myself for having made an obviously poor decision in insisting on this trip, and with my colleagues for bringing me ill-prepared into who knew what doom. They felt more or less the same. Some years later, Nai K- said that he had been quite worried: I seemed to be on the point of collapse, and apparently close to tears. (So he says.)
We took more than one false trail, resulting in us (mostly them, with me straggling behind) needing to hack through the jungle to regain our path. Late into the night and sodden, we found ourselves on a more permanent trail, which eventually led down into the back of NMSP headquarters (“Central”). Somewhere up there in the hills we had crossed the border into Monland (specifically, the watercourse hills above the Ye River, in eastern Ye Township.)
Over the years, I have visited half-a-dozen rebel headquarters in Burma. The NMSP HQ is in some ways the least “developed”, with most buildings made of wood and bamboo. Spread out along a tributary of the Ye River, this part of Monland at least remains quite heavily forested, with huge trees offering some cover to the NMSP leadership, limiting opportunities for Myanmar Army surveillance from the air. Better not say too much about the layout, beyond noting that the inner party offices are upstream, in elevated and more forested areas. In all my many subsequent visits, never again did I feel quite so relieved to arrive, be offered tea and comfort, and later good food.
I never did get to inspect the civilian sites at Ree Ree on that trip. After a couple of weeks of heavy rains, the Ye River was swollen and the jungle, as we had already experienced, very tough going. I was easily persuaded that the camp visit should wait until later in the year, after the rainy season. When we did visit in September, all was in order. The Mon National Refugee Committee had done a fine job building and basic wood and thatch houses for hundreds of vulnerable and needy civilians, who were denied refuge in Thailand so had to shelter in the NMSP-controlled zones.
On subsequent occasions, at least until the Thai authorities closed this route a couple of years later, we would wait until the dirt road opened up the rains, then drive to Central and beyond (a journey of five or six hours). Sitting on a veranda at NMSP headquarters, the taillights of occasional four-wheel-drive cars labouring up the hill back into Thailand looked like planes taking off (albeit rather slowly).
Dr Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Between 1992 and 1994, Ashley worked as an English teacher along the Thailand-Burma border. This was followed by three years coordinating relief supplies to ethnic Karen and Mon refugees and internally displaced people, who had fled armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, he has mostly worked as a consultant for the aid industry and in academia, focusing on ethnic and humanitarian politics in Myanmar, and the southern Philippines. Most of his publications are available at: www.AshleySouth.co.uk.