Getting used to jungle life

by Sophia Lee

Posted on Tuesday, November 24, 2015, at 9:11 am

WORLD reporter Sophia Lee is traveling through Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries. She’s sending us regular reports of what she sees, feels, and does—Nellie Bly–style. Currently, she’s in the remote mountains of Burma (also known as Myanmar) visiting 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—There’s a delicious feeling in the morning when your mind is leisurely wading through the surface of consciousness, your body is well-rested, and your limbs are sliding across the bed, slowly stretching loose muscles into warmth.

That was me the very first morning I woke up at Tau Wah Camp (“White Monkey” in Karen, named after the founder’s eldest daughter), the main training quarters for Free Burma Rangers (FBR) in eastern Karen State.

After two full days of hiking up and down mountains, bathing in ice-cold streams, and swimming across a lake (in which we almost lost a horse because of the strong currents), I wanted to kiss the ground as we finally walked past the sign greeting us to the camp—but I didn’t, because the ground was littered with fresh, glossy horse poop. That night, I had no complaints about turning in to bed—a sleeping bag over a mat—before 9 p.m., and was knocked out seconds after my head hit the pillow (my backpack).

At dawn, I was still clinging onto that delicious morning feeling, when “BOOM!!” A thunderous crack exploded somewhere not too far from my wooden hut. My eyes flew open and my heart somersaulted. I wondered if someone had stepped onto a landmine—a common tragedy in these areas, where both the Burma Army and resistance ethnic armies plant explosives against each other. Now fully awake, I listened and heard a few Rangers outside muttering, but there were no sounds of panic or anguish. I reckoned one of the students’ guns must have gone off, so I went back to sleep. (Later I found out it may have been a firecracker to simulate an attack for students’ practice; none of the students carry real bullets.)

Life here at Tau Wah Camp is very much a mix of military and civilian life. Though FBR’s mission isn’t to raise soldiers, it does provide military-style strength training, because the Rangers have to trek to difficult places, sometimes even dodging bullets from the Burma Army. So two times a day, FBR students grunt and roar back to their instructor’s cries, rolling in the dirt and jogging up steep hills with giant loads strapped to their backs. Some of them are women—petite ladies with mud smeared on their round cheeks, short muscled arms chopping back and forth as they run ahead of their male teammates.

A lot of these students come from cities, so like me, they are not used to jungle life. I asked one tall, gentle-looking 29-year-old student from the Shan State why he gave up a good job at Yangon to join FBR. Currently, the Burma Army is still attacking parts of the Shan State, destroying villages, killing residents, and stealing the land’s natural resources. He replied, “If not us, who will fight for our people? If I live in the city with a nice job, I’ll just be living for myself. I want to live for my people.”

Throughout our 40-minute interview, he sat upright with both hands planted firmly on his knees. He bent his back once—maybe twice—but quickly tightened back up again like a sturdy tree trunk. These students are highly disciplined, steely in both will and body. They make such animal sounds and beastly expressions in their physical trainings, tumbling and leaping like ninjas, that I thought, “Those Burmese military guys better watch out!”

But then there are other times, like this evening after dinner, that they reveal an adorable side. A group of students was having a class in English, and their teacher Amy, a curly haired American with a wide, pearly white smile, was teaching them Christmas carols. They sang after her verse by verse, “Young round virgin, mother and child …” At times their voice cracked a little at the high pitch, and Amy sang that verse again so they could get the tune right. I kept giggling as I heard them sing, “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” because it sounded just so sweet and cute.

The evening I arrived at Tau Wah Camp, the hiking team and I introduced ourselves to the students at the main meeting hall, which is basically a long construction of wooden planks and tin roof. I bowed and said, “Annyonghasaeyo!”—“How are you?” in Korean—and was shocked when everyone bowed and greeted me back in perfect Korean. Evidently, the reach of Korean pop culture is long and deep, and Burma is already changing rapidly despite its lack of sound economy and democracy.

The recent election, in which the opposition party won by a landslide, has stirred some buzz among the Burmese people about long-awaited change. But among these ethnic peoples, who are still repressed and didn’t get to vote, the road ahead is long and dark. They don’t know how much longer they have to train and fight and patch up suffering people—but each person I asked tells me they’ll never surrender.

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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