Overview: The War in Burma, a Shan Perspective

General information about Burma

The war in Burma has been going on since before the end of the second world war. The Burmese independence army sided with the Japanese, fighting against the British and tribal forces who were defending the colony from invasion After the war, Burma was given independence. Under British rule, Burma was the richest nation in Southeast Asia and had the highest levels of education and development. Today, under military rule, Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world. One of the largest exports from Burma is human beings in the form of asylum seekers, refugees, slaves, and prostitutes.

The entire country has been subjected to much suffering at the hands of the military junta. Burma is home to countless tribes and ethnic minorities, with Burmans making up somewhere between 40%-60% of the population. The tribal minorities have been singled out for especially sever treatment by the Burman majority lead army, the SPDC (State Peace and development Council).

Tribal people are frequently driven from their homes, with their villages and crops burned. Ethnic minority people are used as forced labor, slaves, human mine detectors, and porters who are beaten and even killed if they can’t work fast enough or if they collapse from lack of food. Gang rape is institutionalized by the army and used as an instrument of terror to control villagers. Ethnic cleansing has been sanctioned by the government, and Burmese soldiers are paid a bonus for marrying tribal girls to thin out the bloodlines. Burma borders on Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Lao and China. Most of the cross border aid work is done from Thailand, where more than 2 million Burmese and ethnic people have taken refuge. There are, however, significant numbers of refugees in other countries, such as Bangladesh, who remain undocumented and unreached by western journalists and aid workers. The country is divided into seven ethnic states, but the total number of ethnicities runs into double digits. The states are not independent or autonomous in any way. They are simply administrative divisions under a single military rule.

In 1962 General Ne Win overthrew the democratic government of Burma. Since then, the SPDC has ruled the country with an iron fist. In 1988 monks lead a peaceful pro-democracy protest. The government’s reaction was to kill thousands of unarmed civilians. In 1990 an election was finally held, and the National League for Democracy, lead by Aung San Suu Kyi won more than 60% of the vote. The election was subsequently nullified by the military regime who refused to step down. Aung San Suu Kyi has remained under house arrest, off and on, since 1988. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She is currently the only Nobel Peace Prize winner who is in jail. The Burmese government, lead by General Than Shwe, has complete control on the internet, TV, and all media. The people of Burma are denied the rights of free speech and assembly. Universities have even moved to distance learning format, to avoid having large groups of students meeting one another and organizing.

Antonio Graceffo. photo © 2008In addition to its policies of repression and terror the military government has taken some strange steps such as changing the official name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and changing the name of the capital from Rangoon to Yangon. Recently, the government took the further inexplicable step of secretly relocating the capitol to a remote mountain location, in the middle of the night. The new capitol is called Naypyidaw. In September of 2007 monks lead peaceful pro-democracy protests in Yangon. Hundreds of protestors were killed and thousands of monks have since disappeared.

The level violence inflicted on the Burmese in Yangon, in the face of their protest, is what the tribal people have been faced with on a daily basis for nearly sixty years.

The war in Burma is largely financed through the production and sale of drugs, particularly opium and Ya Ba (Methyl Amphetamine). Many of the tribal armies have been guilty of engaging in drug related business in the past. Today, the SPDC is by far the largest drug dealer in the country. The KNU and the SSA (the two largest resistance groups) both profess a non-drug policy.

As a pop-culture side note, the new movie, “Rambo IV” is the first movie made about the tribal war in Burma. In the film, Sylvester Stallone teams up with the KNU (Karen National Union) one of only two armed resistance groups still fighting the junta. The other, less written about group is the one I am attached to, the SSA (Shan State Army).

The Shan People

The Shan people are a Tai ethnicity which live primarily in the Shan State of Burma. They are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the country. The population of Shan State is approximately 7.5 million, and includes approximately 1 million Palong, a significant number of Wa, as well as small numbers of Lahu and Pa-O people. There are an estimated two million Shan living in northern Thailand. The Shan originated in Southern China and migrated down to Burma more than one thousand years ago. They lived as an independent kingdom until the death of the last Shan king, approximately 500 years ago. From the 16th century onward, the Shan were divided into the Shan States, which were each ruled by a prince. This system continued even under the British rule. The Shan only came under Burmese rule shortly before Burma gained independence from Britain. Under the Panglong agreement, the Shan were given permission to succeed from the Burmese union after ten years. General Ne Win nullified this agreement, denying the Shan their independence.

In the early 1960’s the Burmese government cracked down on the Shan States, killing most of the Shan royalty. Those who survived sought refuge in foreign countries. Today there are a number of Shan princes and princesses living in the USA, UK, and Canada. The Shan formed a defensive army to resist government attacks. Genral Khun Sa was the original commander of the MTA Mon Tai Army. He made his way onto the FBI most wanted list as the largest drug dealer in the world. The US sought to extradite him to stand trial. Kun Sa surrendered to the SPDC and lived under government protection in Yangon, in opulence, until his death. In Shan State, a new army was formed, under Colonel Yawd Serk. The SSA (Shan State Army) has adopted a non-drug policy. At present, the SSA has between 6,000 and 10,000 troops. SSA has two large permanent bases near the Thai border, Loi Tailang and Loi Krovan. Both camps have become islands of safety for IDPs (internally displaced people) driven from their villages in Shan State.

photo © 2008 Antonio GraceffoLoi Tailang, the focus of my project, is home to 350 refugee families. There are nearly 1,000 students at the school on the base. The dormitories house more than 600 unaccompanied minors. Two hundred and fifty of them are actual orphans. The others may have one or two parents still living, but their families have given them to the SSA, so that they could continue their education and live in safety. The government schools inside of Shan State are terrible, with the worst teachers and the least resources being made available to the minority peoples. It is illegal to teach Shan language inside of Burma, so most Shan children only learn to read and write their native tongue after coming to Loi Tailang. In addition to Shan language, the children at Loi Tailang learn Thai, English, and Burmese. It is arguably the best school in Shan State.

My project, “In Shanland”

Defying the Burmese government’s ban on journalists, Antonio crossed the border under the protection of the Shan State Army, and began filming interviews with IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) within the war zone. When Sai Lieng came back to his village he saw the head of an old man hanging from a tree. His father was already dead. When he found his mother, she was still breathing, so he dragged her to the temple and asked the monks if they could help her. She died a few minutes later. After the next attack, he found his sister dead in a pool of blood behind a hut. Unable to care for his six year old brother alone, he left his brother at a monastery. Eventually, Sai Lieng made his way to the Shan State Army headquarters at Loi Tailang, where he attended school for the fist time in his life.

He was ten years old.

This is only one of thousands of stories at the Loi Tailang camp.

“In Shanland” video project will document the lives, joys, and suffering of the internally displaced people, orphans, soldiers, and civilians living at the Loi Tailang facility. The Shan young people are intelligent, literate and thinking. This project will allow them to tell their story to the world, a world that has ignored their suffering.

The original plan for the “In Shanland” project was to publish (for free) one print story and one video per week for twelve weeks, then to make a full length movie, entitled “In Shanland” put it on a DVD and make it available to pro-democracy and Burma organizations as well as human rights groups. But, now the project has changed a bit. I still plan to produce a final DVD movie, “In Shanland” by the end of April or beginning of May. But, I am planning to continue posting one video and one story per week for a year.

See all the YouTube posts to date.

This is a unique project which will hopefully gain momentum and help build awareness about the Shan and the war in Burma.

So far, we are into about the eighth week of the project.

The youtube posts will continue until the end of the year unless I get killed or captured. I had a bad accident on the border this week which made me realize that anything could happen and I need to get the DVD finished as soon as possible so that if I am killed or captured my silent partner could continue doing the posts. To continue this work I need donations to finance travel in and out of Burma, food and accommodations, internet access fees, and money to pay for film editing service. I also need to get a better quality, HD video camera, because I am currently shooting with a low quality home video camera donated by a kind person in the USA. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal. Click the link below.

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