A bright and lively life in the jungle

by Sophia Lee

Posted on Saturday, November 28, 2015, at 8:01 am

WORLD reporter Sophia Lee recently traveled through Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries. She has been sending us regular reports of what she saw, felt, and did—Nellie Bly–style. This week she was in the remote mountains of Burma (also known as Myanmar), where she visited the main training camp of Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group that trains and sends relief teams to the ethnic people of the country.

KAREN STATE, Burma— I realized something very soon after my arrival at Tau Wah Camp: Compared to many of the people in Burma, I’ve been floating on an inner tube along the river of life.

Last Saturday I visited a 42-year-old Karen woman named Paw Toe Ki (“Parrot flower” in Karen) who’s a teacher and the wife of a village school headmaster and Karen National Union district leader. With a rather matter-of-fact expression, she told me that soon after she was born, the Burmese army threw her and her mother into a dark hole, where they sometimes tortured the mother. Her father, a village headman, had run away into the jungles after being tortured by the army for helping the Karen National Liberation Army, which has been fighting the Burmese government since 1949.

She then spent her childhood hiding in the jungle with her family, scrambling from place to place whenever the Burma army encroached, subsisting on watery gruel when the family’s rice supply dwindled. Her biggest desire when she was a little girl was to attend a real school with the other kids.

“I think our stories are all similar,” a 33-year-old Karen Free Burma Rangers (FBR) medic called “Silver Horn” told me, letting out a soft chuckle after listening to another Karen man’s life story. Both men spent the first decade of their lives in insecurity and terror: building a temporary “home” among jungle trees until they heard gunshots and mortar fire, always ready to make the next mad dash to another remote spot, always leaving precious belongings behind. They spent the other half of their lives in cramped refugee camps.

Since their childhood, they constantly were aware of an active enemy. And from the fear and anxiety in their parents’ eyes, they knew whenever the Burmese army approached. They envisioned the Burmese army soldiers as some kind of “wild animal” with claws and fangs ready to pounce on young flesh. “But now,” said Toh Thaw Thei Win, another Karen FBR medic, “I pray for the Burma army soldiers too.”

Here at Tau Wah Camp, I received one-stop access to a concentrated assembly of diverse ethnic groups in Burma: Kayin, Kayah, Kachin, Shan, Chin, Rakhine—and these are just the major ethnic races that divide further into various distinct ethnic groups. Burma (also known as Myanmar) is home to 135 officially recognized ethnic groups, most with their own distinct culture and language.

Some of them, like the Karen, are currently enjoying a season of uneasy peace after their armed groups signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the Burmese government. But ethnic groups that did not agree to the NCA, such as the Shan and Kachin, are still facing attacks by the Burmese army, which is using helicopter gunships and jets against civilians. The day I arrived at Tau Wah Camp, the Burmese army was launching airstrikes at certain parts of the Kachin State.

Ostensibly, FBR students are gathered at Tau Wah Camp to train for hard times during a decades-long, ever-bitter period of injustice and conflicts. But they are not repressed or depressed individuals. Each day I awoke to the sound of these students whistling or singing before their 5:30 a.m. physical training, and throughout the day I would see them laugh much and play hard. The rest of Burma might be under economic, political, and social suppression, but here in the middle of the jungle, there’s something bright and lively going on.

Last Sunday afternoon, several students took turns climbing onto a stubborn brown horse, comically thwacking the horse’s rear with their straddled feet when it refused to move, and then howling “Wao-aaa-aahhh-hahaha!” when the horse geared into a gallop. A crowd of amused observers swelled around the scene, hooting and cackling.

Then that evening after dinner, I sat on a wooden table etched with love notes and observed as the students watched the 1997 movie Bean, a slapstick comedy I once loved as a kid. This time, though, I laughed not at Rowan Atkinson’s ridiculous antics but along with the students’ carefree, belly-deep guffaws, which for some reason tickled me more. No matter how bulging their biceps, most of these students are still kids, and some of them call me “Big Sis.”

If I were a psychologist I would be doing a study on the students and rangers in FBR: What are the psychological and spiritual effects of such generations-long oppression and persecution on distinct people groups? Mostly, I’ve been impressed at the teeth-gritting human tenacity to survive and maintain normalcy under the most intense, unending trauma. Although there are bound to be long-term scars that each generation inherits, I wonder if these people gain unexpected, unique blessings from their sufferings, too.

One of the worthy programs of FBR focuses on the physical and spiritual health of the next generation. The Good Life Club, inspired by FBR first lady Karen Eubank, translates FBR’s mission of bringing help, hope, and love to the people of Burma into music, dance, games, and skits. I couldn’t stop giggling as I watched the Good Life Club counselors, all young FBR students of various ethnicities and religions, shake their hips, hop to the left, and wiggle to the right, all while belting out a boppy, catchy song (see video clip below).

Some of the songs they sang were fun kiddy ones about crows and basic anatomy, but many were also Christian, and their staple play is “The Good Samaritan,” which they rehearsed with much animation and infectious laughter.

“There are all levels of evangelism taking place here,” Eubank told me with an excited grin, adding, “This is all God! I can’t take credit for any of it.” And then she jumped into the fray to dance and sing alongside them.

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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