American warrior extends clandestine aid to Myanmar's ethnic minorities

Founded by a former Green Beret, the Free Burma Rangers train ethnic minorities to run their own humanitarian missions in war-torn regions. Myanmar has reached a tentative peace deal with ethnic insurgent groups. 

Nathan Thompson/Freelance writer
Thi Nain of the Free Burma Rangers, a covert humanitarian group in northern Myanmar, displays a tattoo that says, "never surrender."

Thi Naing stands in a doorway and holds up his hand revealing a tattoo that runs the length of his ring finger. “Never Surrender,” it reads in blurry English. In the room behind him, more young men gather around a computer to learn how to edit videos. Others take turns swinging at a nearby punch bag.

The men have come from all over Myanmar, also known as Burma, travelling jungle paths and border crossing without passports or permission. Not that the Burmese government would grant them permission in the first place. As members of Myanmar’s ethnic insurgent groups, these men have been locked into the world’s longest running civil war since they were old enough to lift a gun, carry medicine, or keep lookout.

The shared goal of the guerrilla soldiers at the training is greater autonomy for their ethnic minorities that make up 30 percent of Myanmar’s population. And their trainers are the Free Burma Rangers, a covert humanitarian group that has organized aid missions in Myanmar for nearly two decades.

On Tuesday, the Myanmar government and representatives from 16 armed ethnic groups signed a draft cease-fire agreement, offering the latest glimmer of hope in the decades-old conflict. Government officials say a final agreement could be reached with months. Still, in many border regions fighting rages on, and access for humanitarian aid is highly restricted, which is why groups like the FBR, which run clandestine missions, are in such demand.

The FBR offers survival and humanitarian training to guerrilla soldiers and civilians who have lost their homes and livelihoods in the fighting. Because of its clandestine operations, its founder insists on anonymity “to protect the sensitive nature” of his work. (This article refers to him as Ben, a pseudonym. An online search reveals further details of his group and his identity.)

Ben, the son of an American missionary, previously served in the US Special Forces. At 23 he led a platoon of 40 men on missions in the Panama jungle. He commanded anti-narcotics operations in Peru and trained foreign Special Forces in high altitude parachute drops. Inspired by his father, he quit his military career and entered seminary school. “I yearned for the satisfaction I saw in my father’s eyes,” he says.  

But before Ben completed seminary school, U Saw Lu, then foreign minister for the Wa, an ethnic group in northern Myanmar, reached out to him. The Wa wanted to reduce their reliance on opium cultivation but had grown frustrated with the lack of assistance from international aid organizations. They instead turned to missionaries, including Ben’s father, who recommended his son for the job. (U Saw Lu also reached out to the US Drug Enforcement Administration and was captured and tortured by Myanmar’s military rulers for threatening their lucrative trade.) 

Ben first traveled to Myanmar in 1993. Six years later he formed the FBR. “In the conflict zones there was a bunch of people fleeing their homes who had no access to outside aid; we decided to fill that gap.” He’s yet to move back to the US. “I want to stand with those people who are suffering,” he says.

An elusive peace

FBR training lasts two months and covers everything from trauma management and dentistry to orienteering and swimming, all skills essential to surviving in the rugged borderlands.

“We train our teams to avoid contact with the Burmese army,” Ben says. “But we are not pacifists. We don’t encourage them to carry guns but we know they sometimes do for self-defense.”

Today the soldiers are indoors learning how to document and report human rights abuses. At the end of the day, when the sun grows heavy, they emerge offices stretching and yawning for a game of soccer. Soon, FBR staff and Ben’s young children join them.   

The number of clashes between the armed ethnic groups and Myanmar’s army has begun to drop after successive rounds of peace talks with the semi-civilian government that replaced the former junta in 2011. This fledgling peace has allowed civilians in some areas to return to their homes or find new ones.

Still, violence continues to flare in northern Myanmar. Last month fighting erupted in the Kokang region, forcing tens of thousands to flee into China’s Yunnan Province. China said this week that Myanmar had apologized after its warplanes dropped bombs on the Chinese side of the border.

Kya Bon La Hi, a Wa pastor who attended FBR training, says fighting has intensified around his hometown in northern Shan State. “I don’t see an easy resolution,” he says.

Stories of human rights abuses and forced land grabs remain commonplace in regions where fighting continues.

“The recent escalation of violence is of major concern,” Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, says via email. “The problem now is the lack of access for any international monitors to report on the situation on the ground.”

In the absence of international monitors, the FBR and other such groups serve as the world’s eyes on the ground. For example, an FBR-trained team got the word out about the torture, rape, and murder of two volunteer Kachin teachers in January. FBR say the perpetrators were rogue soldiers n the Burmese Army.

“I hate those people and I want to kill them,” Ben says. But rather than rush into the jungle to enact brutal justice, he prays for the perpetrators to experience a “change in their hearts and lives.”

Cautious optimism

One solution to the conflict, which started more than five decades ago, would be a federal system that devolved power to ethnic groups in their regions. But optimism that national elections this year will help bring an end to the war is cautious at best. For one thing, the army holds a veto over constitutional changes and is loath to cede power to ethnic insurgents.

“At present, we have a president who has committed himself in principle to a federal system, but a Myanmar Army which seems unwilling to change,” says Ashley South, a Myanmar specialist at Thailand’s Chang Mai University.

As Myanmar’s political parties prepare for the upcoming elections, the complex peace process continues – albeit at a snail’s pace. For Thi Naing, the young man with the “never surrender” tattoo, an end to the conflict can’t come soon enough.

“I want my people to be free from fear, to be allowed to say our background openly and [to] have self-determination in our homeland,” he says.

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