Tea with the Colonels

I am in Mae Sam Laep, a small frontier post on the Thai side of the Salween River, eight hours by elephant from Ban Houei Pho, which is downriver from Mae Sariang. The village consists of a dozen bamboo houses, a coffee shop and a general store. I’ve come here to meet the leader of the Karen Independence Army, General Bo Mya. Yesterday I met a beautiful and mysterious young lady wearing the insignia of the KIA. She would leave for General Bo Mya’s camp today . Would she take me? She was suspicious but I persisted, and she told me to meet her in the morning. Now, sitting on the rocky bank of the river by the boats, waiting for her to appear, I am filled with a growing conviction that she has dumped me and I will never see her again.

Suddenly a young man in military shirt and sarong appears before me and hands me a piece of paper. There is a printed letterhead in Burmese script, beneath which is written: Dear Friend! Why not come up to my place and wait for the lady who is taking you to General Mya’s camp. Friend.

He takes me to a house perched on the riverbank. I climb a rickety ladder and step on to the verandah. There is a resounding crack as the bamboo gives way beneath my weight, and chuckles from within. It is not an impressive entrance.

Inside, a dozen men are lying around in repose. From the corner, one of the men rises and extends his hand. “Good morning, my good friend,” he says in excellent English. “Let me introduce myself. I am Colonel Jordan of the Patriotic Liberation Army. Would you care to take some tea?” We drink tea and talk. He tells me about himself and about the liberation armies. The PLA is the military arm of the Parliamentary Democracy Party, outlawed by General Ne Win. Jordan himself was jailed for four years. He used to be the parliamentary representative for Moulmein, Burma’s third largest city. The PLA is led by Generals U Nu and Laya. U Nu was once premier and is handing over leadership to General Laya because, says Jordan, he doesn’t like fighting. He estimates the PLA’s present strength to be almost 10,000 men and women.

I ask him where the arms come from. He says: “There is much smuggling along the border. General Bo Mya’s army is 15,000 strong, and the combined Shan armies number 20,000. All these armies work in close collaboration with each other.” Where were the PLA troops active? “Mainly in the vicinity of Moulmein. The General HQ was situated 75 miles South-East of Moulmein.” If liberation was achieved, what would be the objectives of the liberation forces? “To form a federal union in which each state would be autonomous and have representation in Rangoon, which would remain the capital of the Union.”

We discussed ‘aid’. He found my conception of economic aid as the new imperialism amusing. Yes, they would accept aid, but only as much as was necessary, and without incurring any political commitment… What about the present economic situation? “Formerly, Burma had been one of the largest exporters of rice in the world. Now, its own people were starving because of inflated prices.” Colonel Jordan was obviously an intelligent and sensitive man, more of a politician than a soldier, but too much of an idealist to last. I had the feeling he would see the inside of a jail again. We ate a delicious meal of mutton curry and dried prawn with rice, eating with our fingers in Burmese style. The cook, a short fat fierce-looking man, used to be a film director, Jordan told me. He was now planning his next epic, a documentary of the liberation.

As we were drinking tea (with milk of course), Colonel Gladstone of the KIA arrived with his aide, en route to Bangkok to have his kidneys checked. General Bo Mya, he said, had left for Mae Sot that day, so my meeting was cancelled. ‘Gladstone’ was just a name out of my school history book, along with Disraeli and Julius Caesar. I had never before actually met a Gladstone, and I have never met another since. He was a portly gentleman with a round face and beautiful languid eyes, and he seemed filled with a great sadness.

We parted later that evening with much handshaking. Jordan seemed concerned that I intended to walk back alone the next day. Why not take an elephant? I had been sitting on one for 8 hours to get here. It was enough. Then perhaps I would go with one of his friends, a colonel (they were all colonels) of the Kayah Independence Army? Perhaps I would.

@Colin Grafton 1972 (Excerpt)

49 years later… (May 1st, 2021)

Karen rebels and the Myanmar army have clashed near the Thai border in the weeks since Feb. 1st, when Myanmar’s generals ousted the elected government. On Tuesday 27th April, Karen fighters overran a Myanmar army post on the west bank of the Salween opposite the village of Mae Sam Laep, in a predawn attack. The Karen said 13 soldiers and three of their fighters were killed. The Myanmar military responded with airstrikes in several areas near the Thai border.





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