Dogmeat Diaries 3: On the Ye River

Dogmeat Diaries 3: On the Ye River

This post is part of the series of ‘Dogmeat Diaries’ by Ashley South. (Read the first entry here for an explanation about the title choice.) The Dogmeat Diaries recollect (not necessarily accurately) and reflect upon Dr South’s experiences working in and on Burma/Myanmar over several decades.

I’ve dislocated both shoulders on several occasions – although fortunately, not at the same time. With the corpse-like limb dangling from its socket, any movement is acutely painful. I find the best solution is to grasp the limp wrist with my remaining good hand, and slowly twist outward and downwards in a clock-wise spiral. This results in the shoulder popping back into its socket – very painfully, but rewarded with great relief. The problem is, one needs to be relatively relaxed for the manoeuvre to work. Not easy in the circumstances.

This was a couple of months before the June 1995 ceasefire between the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Burmese military government.

The first time my shoulder dislocated was in 1996. I was travelling on the Ye River in southern Burma with a small detachment of Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA) soldiers and two or three Mon relief workers – who did most of the hard work, organising the supply of basic food items to the displaced villagers we were there to visit. This was a couple of months before the June 1995 ceasefire between the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Burmese military government. Negotiations to end the fighting were already underway, and both sides were on high military alert. The Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) was attempting to push the MNLA back from its forward positions, in order to increase pressure on the Mon insurgents to agree a ceasefire, and also to limit the amount of territory under NMSP control.

At dawn two days earlier, we had left Sangkhlaburi (in Thailand, halfway up the long border with Burma), taking a chilly boat ride across the misty lake, and then upstream on a tributary to a Mon refugee camp. From there, we had walked for about eight hours, up one side of a heavily forested mountain – the top ridge of which was the  border – and then steeply down to the NMSP’s jungle headquarters on a tributary of the Ye River. Along the way we had seen and heard hornbills – their giant wings booming as they flew between the treetops overhead – and wild boar rustling and snorting in the undergrowth. As usual in the rainy season, we had to continuously pick leeches off our ankles, before they inched up under our longyis.

The next day we set off down the Ye River to visit people displaced by the recent fighting. With the long-tail motor chug-chugging noisily in the background, I had been half-snoozing in the back of the dug-out boat – when a great cracking noise erupted seemingly inches (but actually several feet) from my ear. One of the soldiers in our party had spotted a four-foot monitor lizard basking on a branch, overhanging the river. He had let off a round with his M16 rifle and killed the creature with great skill. I was frightened, first by the shock and then by worry that this might alert the Myanmar Army to our presence, if they happened to be nearby. However, I assumed the MNLA guys knew what they were doing, which they did.

We pulled over, hauled the poor dead lizard into the boat, and the MNLA shooter proceeded to butcher it and prepare a lunchtime curry to be consumed while we continued down-stream. The lizard curry was pretty tough and tasteless. However, when we had the rest of it that evening, it tasted superb. In part of course, we were just plain hungry after a long day; also though, I think enzymes had broken down the lizard’s flesh during the long hot afternoon it had spent in the bottom of the boat. This is why ‘game’ meat needs to be hung for a while before eating.

With lunch over, and following a twenty-minute rest in the shade, we continued on our way, walking single-file along the narrow path running parallel to the river. To begin with, the journey continued in a relaxed enough manner – but then the signals Sergeant attached to our accompanying party of MNLA soldiers received some alarming news. The day before, a Tatmadaw column had set out from Kanni (a few miles up-river from Ye town, and a dozen miles west of our current position) – but MNLA intelligence had lost track of the enemy troops in the jungle. The Mon soldiers suspected that a Myanmar Army unit might be heading east, in order to launch a surprise attack on the NMSP headquarters area. If so, they would be heading our way with aggressive intent. The Tatmadaw had recently burned down more civilian villages, in an effort to pressure the NMSP into surrender, and were reportedly spoiling for a fight.

This information was revealed to me in dribs and drabs over the next few hours, as we moved forward as quietly as possible – but for crackling twigs underfoot, and occasional bouts of radio communication. Half-a-dozen MNLA men would go ahead a few hundred yards, check out the path in front, then signal back down the way to my three Mon civilian friends and me, the other soldiers from our bodyguard; we would scamper as quickly and quietly as possible up the path to the forward group, at which point we began again. Our slow progress continued thus for three or four exhausting hours.

By this time, we were proceeding along a very narrow path, the edge of which dropped in a steep ravine down to the tumbling and boulder-strewn river, perhaps fifty feet below. These days, the fertile land along that stretch of the river is mostly planted with rubber with occasional thickets of bamboo; in those days, glorious green vegetation abounded, with still many large trees remaining. I was quite tired by now, and the novelty of our situation having worn off, was not concentrating fully on the task at hand. In fact, as so often, I was daydreaming.

I slipped, and a flip-flop clad right foot skidded off the path, and over the edge. Fortunately, as my body lurched downwards, I shot out my left arm and instinctively grabbed some vine-like stuff, which was loosely cladding a  nearby tree. With a jerk, I pulled myself back onto the path, and rolled over in shock – and pain. Although I had saved myself from a dangerous tumble down the jagged, rocky riverbank, I had in the process yanked my left shoulder out of its socket.

Although I had saved myself from a dangerous tumble down the jagged, rocky riverbank, I had in the process yanked my left shoulder out of its socket.

No one knew what to do. After a bout of trial, and very painful error, I worked out how to re-locate my shoulder – and we continued on our way.

This little episode prepared me well for the next time my arm popped out. This was about a year later, while ice-skating with friends in Portsmouth (on the south coast in the UK). We were happily careering round the edge of the rink, when I fell (not for the first time) – and reached out to save myself, by grabbing the perimeter railing. Out popped my shoulder, with a searing jolt of pain, and I skidded across the ice. I crawled on my knees to the side of the rink, and hauled myself upright with my good right arm. With the dodgy limb dangled uselessly and painfully by my side, my left hand was a good six inches lower than the right.

Several of our fellow skaters stopped to stare, which attracted the attention of the ice rink staff. Not wanting to assume liability, none of them (including the twitish ‘First Aid Officer’) would help, beyond muttering about ambulances and hospitals. I gritted my teeth and twisted the shoulder back into place.

The next time I dislocated my shoulder, there was a slight twist (excuse the pun) involved. I was in Brussels for a Burma conference, had just shaved and dressed, and was preparing to head downstairs to breakfast. Putting on my suit jacket, I flung back my right arm – and out popped my previously sound shoulder. Having stumbled painfully around my hotel room for a few minutes, pathetically trying to tie my tie, I took the lift down to the breakfast room. In the elevator on the way down, I finally got my arm back in place.

 

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.

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