I first went to Burma in 1969 when it barely cracked the door open for three-day visits. It was a natural as I lived in Thailand over two years on a ninety-day tourist visa which required frequent trips to other countries. I quickly learned that Burma was not ready for tourism at that time as there was no transportation from the airport to town and the famous Strand Hotel was in shambles though one was required to dress for dinner. Over the ensuing years, I have made numerous trips there and even evaluated potential oil exploration opportunities. However, I never felt the place had ever shaken off its military camouflage and gone legit even when Aung San Suu Ky was “freed” from prison and formed her own political party. That sham lasted until the military marauders realized they had lost control and reverted to their old habits one year ago with a coup.
The listening post for Myanmar has always been their good neighbor, Thailand. From that vantage point, John Reed of the Financial Times has been quite active the past year with his coverage of the events. There is a level of death and destruction that is becoming unacceptable to even the most swashbuckling profiteers. Thailand is highly dependent on Myanmar natural gas to generate the power to keep their neon signs and air conditioners alive. However, PTTEP, the Thai national oil company, may have to take over the operatorship and ownership of the offshore natural gas fields as the French and American companies are leaving. You know things have reached a new level of bad when the “laissez faire” French depart a military regime.
Moreover, during the troubles in Southeast Asia, the porous border between the two countries was the source of massive opium smuggling to fuel the illegal war in Laos. Accordingly, I spent “adventure holidays” on the border in Karen villages and came to know that hill tribe reasonably well. Those villages and border towns have now become flash points between the Karen National Union and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) with considerable Karen casualties. A Karen friend sent me a personal cell video of Tatmadaw planes dive bombing civilian Karen villages. In fact, I still have relationships with the Karen as we buy previously worn, handmade fabric to sell at The Elephant Story and often apply the fabric to articles of clothing.
Another well-known journalist and good friend, Gwen Robinson shown below, of Nikkei Asia Review is a recognized Myanmar scholar who just published a piece entitled Yangon Calm Masks Myanmar’s Pain 1 Year After Military Takeover. The Elephant Story web page on Elephant Conservation contains several interviews (https://youtu.be/tmZwpFFG9Po) Gwen conducted with John Roberts and me regarding the elephants in the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar join.
I would love to see Gwen interview the heartless and cowardly coup leader, Min Aung Hlaing, whose image is superimposed over a montage of demonstrations against his government. She is a lovely lady but she could make the Tatmadaw military thugs run home. I am always happy to be on Gwen’s side and hope to share some wine with her in Thailand very soon.
Gwen published her article under the “place line” of Mae Sot, Thailand which is the main clearing house of people, gems, teak, food products and illegal drugs between Myanmar and Thailand. Apparently, a new normal has descended on the Myanmar capital of Yangon. People are out and about subject to curfews but there is a continuing level of unease relative to the threat of bombings and assassinations by urban “hit squads” targeting public officials or government informants. Moreover, a growing number of resistance groups have heightened the danger of being caught in their crossfires with the Tatmadaw forces. Protesters organize flash mob rallies like the one shown below that usually disburse when the military show up.
The violence has since migrated to large areas away from the big cities approaching China, to the north and northeast, to the west next to India and somewhat lawless southeast states next to Thailand. In central Myanmar, entire villages have been destroyed with burning deaths of civilians. Various research groups have estimated the total casualties of the conflict to be on the order of 12,000. The Kayin and Kayah states are home to some of the oldest ethnic armed groups including the Karen National Union. Entire villages have been attacked using aerial bombings, drones and ground troops displacing some 160,000 people.
During the Southeast Asia troubles, I was camped in a small Karen village with Colonel Chang of the Thai Communist Suppression Organization who needed to cross into Burma. I was keen to go but he said I should stay on the Thai side as the Karen would not understand my presence. It turns out another Thai associate and I remained behind. However, we had a bit of trouble with an opium smuggler who crossed over from the Burma side with two Karen women carrying pungent opium bales on their heads. The guy carrying the M-16 did not understand my presence either. As indicated below, fifty years later, some things never change as the Karen side still gather at the river to bathe and cross over to Thailand to trade.
On the other side of the border, Mae Sot, Thailand has been besieged by refugees from Myanmar. U.N. agencies recently reported that at least 406,000 people had fled their homes in the past twelve months. The economy in Myanmar is sinking with the U.N. warning that as much as one-half the population of 54 million people will be living below the poverty line by mid-year. The Tatmadaw target specific villages in rural areas and conduct “clearance operations” against terrorists. The image of Mae Sot at night makes it look rather sinister. That impression is not totally inappropriate, but it is certainly a safer place than most anywhere in Myanmar across the river. Nonetheless, Gwen let’s have our glass of wine in Bangkok rather than Mae Sot.