Gone Kurtz, on the Burma Border

American Thomas Bleming sees himself as the new Karen liberation fighter, but does anyone else?

“Let me tell you about the army. The army is some guy you don’t know, sending you out to wack some other guy you don’t know.” Al Pacino, “Donnie Brasco”

Mercenary, soldier of fortune, fast-gun for hire, even the job title sounds awesome. “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Dogs of War,” and most recently, “Blood Diamonds,” mercenaries have been the subject of so many great action movies that appeal to teenage boys.

I remember on my twelfth birthday thinking, “I wish I was half as cool as Han Solo and half as tough as Charles Bronson.” Sadly, my dream came true. I am only half as good as either of those movie characters.

If the movies are to be believed, mercenaries are shadowy blokes, lurking around bars in exotic places, like Biafra, East Timor, or Mae Sot. They are hard drinking, hard fighting men who will soldier for anyone, if the price is right.

Sixty-two year old Thomas Bleming, a Vietnam War veteran, the latest in a string of Americans who have shown up on the Burma border to fight for free, is one of the loudest mercenaries in history. He holds press conferences, gives interviews, and appears in several youtube videos.

Bleming claims to be a soldier for the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army), one of the armed resistance groups fighting against the Burmese junta. More than just a soldier, Mr. Bleming claims to have been appointed as the ambassador to the US, representing the Republic of Kawthoolei, the name which the Karen Republic will take after they win independence.

Because of my own involvement with the Shan State Army, the other major armed resistance group, many people have asked for my take on Bleming.

First, before this article becomes a long rant on how I believe the man to be “misguided,” let me begin by saying, the conflict in Burma is a just cause. The Karen, the Shan, the Palong, the Pa-O, and all of the many other ethnic minorities of Burma have lived under a regime of torture, execution, and genocide for decades. The SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) as the Burmese Army is called, is one of the most terrible entities in the world. Reports claim that Burma spends as much as 70% of their GDP on the military. Since they have no external enemies, the only purpose of the Burmese army is to kill the Burmese people.

And don’t forget that this conflict has been going on for sixty years. The citizens of Burma have suffered at the hands of their own government for sixty years.

These statistics are scary enough to make a normal person angry. But, when you are living in Thailand, working on the border doing aid work and journalism, it is hard not to fall over the edge and go completely “Kurtz.” You hear horror story after horror story from the kind, gentle ethnic people who were rapped, mutilated, and driven from their homes. The lucky ones live in refugee camps in Thailand. Many didn’t make it that far. Their bodies line the mine fields where they were forced by the Burmese soldiers.

If you have a conscience, if you have a soul, you wouldn’t need more than one ten-year-old to tell you that he witnessed his parents murder or one fourteen-year-old to tell you of being gang raped, until you would be willing to pick up gun.

In the early days of the conflict, rumors suggest, that the Karen actually paid military advisors from other countries to help them set up their army and train their troops. Those days are long past, however. Anyone fighting today is doing so for free.

Ex-soldiers are attracted to this conflict for a variety of reasons. Some, the best one, are probably motivated by the same humanitarian drive that makes people do medical work or aid work on the border. These soldiers feel that they have a skill which is useful and they are going to help however they can. Others are simply adventure seekers, hoping to experience combat for the first time. Some have PTSD from other conflicts and just can’t “let go.” They need a conflict to fight, but they are still basically good people and don’t want to join a terrorist group to get their fill. They prefer a “good conflict” to a “bad one.”

Many of the older US veterans, including Thomas Bleming, are Vietnam vets. Many Vietnam War veterans were either drafted into the army or joined out of blind patriotism. Either way, they didn’t know much of the background of details of the conflict itself. For a man in a foxhole, the big picture means nothing. Personal survival is everything. After the war was over they began studying the issues. Some of the most well-versed Vietnam War experts I know are Vietnam vets, who have spent the last thirty years reading and researching.

For some of them, going to fight in Burma, or any other “just war,” is a way of making up for their forced participation in war which they may now disagree with. And this feeling of, “choosing my fights,” is not limited to Vietnam veteran, all veterans, even peace time veterans, realize with hind sight that they either participated in or swore to participate in a conflict that they knew nothing about at the time, and which they maybe have strong opinions on today. In my own case, I was on alert for the Panama invasion, and later cursed my bad luck when my unit wasn’t called. Years later, I did an undergraduate thesis on American intervention in Latin America, and realized that the Panama invasion was anything but the “Just Cause” that the American government had dubbed it. I grew to respect Omar Torillos, and wondered what moron thought installing Noriega was a good idea. Oddly, this conflict is one I have in common with Thomas Bleming. One of the many wars he has participated in, as a freelancer, since Vietnam was Panama, where he was jailed.

During the first Gulf War I was a Merchant Seaman. When graduation day came and we lined up for ship assignments, just by luck of the draw, the five guys in line in front of me were sent to the Gulf. I was sent to Hawaii. They sent me one set of letters about how much their life sucked in the Gulf. I sent one about Hawaii, and I haven’t heard from them since. One of my boyhood friends, who was still in the army, was shot down in that war. He has had a colostomy ever since and is still undergoing surgeries, more than 15 years later.

Once again, at the time, I cursed my luck. Now, I am glad I wasn’t in Panama, and still not clear on Gulf War one. I am certain I am glad I am not in the current quagmire of Iraq, but would be willing to lend a hand in Afghanistan.

This is the kind of regret that both peacetime and combat soldiers can carry with them. A low intensity conflict for the right reasons, like Burma, may be just the tonic they are looking for to sooth their wounded souls.

If a man was a corporal in the “real army,” he may find himself an officer in a volunteer army. He was a trainee in his past, now he is the training officer. Low intensity conflicts are a kind of nostalgia, a way of living out the past way you wish it had been.

As far as conflicts go, Burma is one of the most comfortable. For one thing, the SPDC is so unbelievably, clearly wrong. Not since Hitler has their been such a clear-cut bad guy. So, if you fight in Burma, your conscience won’t eat at you. The tribal people need help and protection, and you are giving it to them. Case closed.

Physical comforts are also present in Burma. You sleep relatively safely in a base camp. You eat large quantities of pork and rice. And, you only go to “the fighting” when you want to. You sleep late. You wear what you want, and do what you want. It is like soldiering without all the hassles of a legal military commitment. And the best part, when you want to leave, you leave.

As far as I was able to verify, Thomas Bleming only spent six weeks in Thailand/KNLA on his first trip. It is not clear how long he is planning to stay on this, his second trip. But it probably won’t be a four year enlistment, as it is for the soldiers in Iraq.

When you make your way across the border to one of the rebel military camps, the rebels are happy to see you. They welcome you, and share what little they have. Your presence, even just seeing your face, raises their hopes that the world hasn’t forgotten them. They hope that you will be the one who will go back and tell the US government to take action on their behalf. Or, maybe you are a scout for the US military and soon, tanks, made in Detroit, will roll over the hills and take all their problems away.

To this end, the rebels will do nearly anything in their power to please you. They will offer you honorary citizenship or ask you to open an “embassy” in your home country. I personally saw an American offered the position of “Ambassador” three hours after arriving in a military camp.

The rebels are desperate for foreign aid and recognition. Many of the men who show up to fight are just desperate. The two together can be an unhealthy combination.

For most foreigners involved in the Burma conflict, the way in is through Thailand. They come to Thailand for one reason or another and at some point, by accident or by providence, they meet someone associated with the conflict and get hooked. For me, it was when I was living in a monastery, learning Muay Thai. All of my training brothers were tribal, and most were Shan. When I learned about the war in Burma and how these people suffered, only to come to Thailand to live on the streets and get hooked on Yaba, methamphetamine, I began looking for ways I could help. Another friend told me that his house cleaner asked for $30 to save a tribal kid from deportation. When he realized that a human life could be spared for such a paltry sum of money, he began doing full time aid work.

Every border worker has his or her unique story, but the similarity is that they usually spent a lot of time in Thailand, learning the language and the culture, before getting involved. Once in, they read voraciously. If you mention the name of any book written about this conflict, nearly every aid worker will tell you he has read it. In short, the people working on the border are informed. They understand the culture and the nuances of communication. Thomas Bleming only spent a few weeks in the country. He probably doesn’t speak Thai or Karen, and much of what he is quoted as saying suggests that he really doesn’t understand what he is involved in.

He is caught up in the fact that he was taken to the top echelons of the local KNLA unit. But, all foreign visitors are received by the highest ranking people. This is normal. He was allegedly awarded a political position. Once again, these are handed out like candy. He believes he was asked to be the US representative. The rebels are nice people and it is against their culture to disagree with anyone. If you asked, “Can I represent you in American?” they would definitely say “yes.” This would either be because they desperately need representation or because they don’t want to refuse a friend. But again, this great “honor” is bestowed on everyone. Bleming was quoted as saying that he was the only American or foreign soldier with KNLA. Not true, there have been many, and several were killed in the 1990′s. He also said he wrote the only book about fighting with the KNLA. Again, not true. Shelby Tucker wrote about KNLA in his book, “With the Insurgents,” and a silly marine, names Mike Tucker, wrote a terrible, 93 page book about his hair raising seven days with the KNLA.

One has to ask, what good would a 62 year old white soldier do for the KNLA? The terrain is absolutely brutal, up and down mountains, with no roads. Patrols last a minimum of one month, during which time, you carry your rice in a sock wrapped around your waist. You walk all day and sleep a few hours, maintaining noise and light discipline. It would be difficult for a fit US soldier in his twenties to keep up on such a patrol. It is extremely unlikely that a man in his sixties could even survive it. And if he slowed down the column or got tired or sick, he could get the whole team killed. Beyond the physical limitations, a foreigner is just a liability inside Burma. Any tribal person who sees a foreigner and fails to report him could be executed by the SPDC.

One of the things Bleming says he did for the KNLA was teach them how to use landmines. This conflict has been going on for decades. Even a slow learner would know how to use a landmine by now. It’s not like the KNLA were sitting on huge stores of munitions with no idea how to use them.

The KNLA and SSA (Shan State Army) don’t need foreign soldiers. One soldier more or less won’t have any impact on the outcome of the war. What they need are doctors, teachers, engineers, people who help them keep their people alive by building irrigation systems or rendering medical aid. They need material aid, clothes, food, medicine, and munitions. They also need journalists and writers who can tell the world about their struggle. Lastly, they need political activism. They need every person who reads this story to call his congressman and say, “please help the people of Burma.”

Another thing Bleming doesn’t seem to understand is that the war is real. The aid workers who cross the border every day are the real heroes. They can’t be photographed or go on TV, once their cover is blown they would be in grace danger. So, they live quiet lives, risking their lives for free, brining necessities to a tortured people.

I interviewed the leader of an aid mission in Shan State once, and asked, “What do the children need?” he answered, “What they need, I can’t give them. They need independence and peace for their country. But apart from that, they need clothing, food, medicine, education, and safety, like children everywhere.”

Bleming’s loud behavior has put a lot of people at risk. Also, Thailand can’t be seen as harboring dissidents or actively supporting the war in Burma. Every time a story of someone like Bleming comes up, the border suddenly closes and food and medicine can’t get in to the people who need it.

One aid worker, who requested that he remain anonymous, said: “Oh man, that Bleming guy is a real piece of work. He’s walking around, giving out his business cards which he autographs for you, talking loudly in all the wrong places about going to Burma, blah blah. The Karen have issued all sorts of statements saying this guy is his own work, denying almost everything he says, etc. The KNLA and KNU have worked for years at cultivating a good public relations, this guy goes and sets that back decades. America just took ex KNLA combatants off the Homeland security terrorist risk list for refugee resettlement, and this guy goes and makes them look like a bunch of well armed terrorists again. Plus he is big, loud, obnoxious and arrogant. That equals dangerous in my book.”

It is easy to point a finger at Thomas Bleming, or any of the foreigners showing up on the border to fight, and label them thrill seekers or, at the very least, slightly disturbed. But in the modern world of confused sides, things are never that simple.

Training in Muay Thai, I wind up training with a lot of security contractors. These are basically mercenary soldiers, employed by private firms to do military operations for the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan. They normally work on rotations, so many months in combat and so many months on vacation. Many of them chose to take their holidays in Thailand, where they can live cheaply, and where they can squeeze in some martial arts training before returning to work.

An enlisted US soldier in Iraq earns about $3,000 USD per month. A contractor earns between $10,000 -$20,000, and a volunteer in Burma earns $0. Being a contractor or US soldier, fighting where you are sent, is legal, admirable, profitable, and won’t land you in jail. Being an unpaid volunteer soldier in a conflict of your choosing, on the other hand, is illegal, not paid, and can get you labeled as a terrorist which could have long-term negative impact on your life.

Taken to the strictest limits of the law, the same negative effects could befall an unarmed, non-combatant, who crosses the border to inoculate children living in a rebel refugee camp.

Once again, I have to ask, what kind of world have we created where rendering medical aid to children could be construed as a crime?

On the one hand, Bleming may have gone Kurtz.

“I’d never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.” “Apocalypse Now script” by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola

He may have gotten so wrapped up in who he thinks he is or what he believes he is doing, that he is certifiable. On the other hand, if the UN would step in, or if the US would sanction this war, there would be no need for the Thomas Blemings of this world. All it would take is a single stroke of a pen from the UN Secretary General or the American president, and foreign soldiers could enter Burma and render the humanitarian aide so many are dying to receive.

As always, please say a prayer for the people of Burma.

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