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Jungle cowboys

Life among the Free Burma Rangers isn’t easy, as they brave treacherous conditions to bring medical supplies—and a Christian witness—to remote villages

Jungle cowboys

FBR students help each other up a hill during physical training. (Kya Bon)

Chris Sinclair/Genesis Photos

David Eubank (right) performs dental work for village children and parents in Shan state.

Kya Bon

FBR students do pushups during physical training.

Sophia Lee

Rangers singing Burmese hymns during morning devotions.

Kya Bon

FBR students cross the river between Ta-U-Wah Camp and Jungle School of Medicine-Kawthoolei as a teamwork exercise.

Kya Bon

FBR students return to camp.

Kya Bon

Eubank and his three kids lead a prayer after the FBR students’ evening physical training.

Karen Eubank

FBR students carry a charcoal-coated Sophia Lee on their way to toss her into the lake.

BURMA—“Help!” Sahale Eubank, 15, screamed as she clung to a rock with one hand and held onto the reins of a panic-eyed horse with the other. River rapids dragged the poor beast toward jagged rocks.

David Eubank, 55, dashed into the icy waters without taking off his socks and hiking boots. Father and daughter splashed, grunted, and pulled until the horse—their main porter for baggage stuffed with medical and educational supplies for impoverished villagers—climbed trembling onto the rock.

Eubank, founder of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a humanitarian aid group, was on a two-day trek through the Karen State mountains of southeast Burma. His wife Karen, their three children, several FBR volunteers, and I were with him, hiking at 4,000 feet amid 90-degree heat and high humidity.

Wander into these dense Burmese jungles, and a man will risk “1 chance in 100 of survival,” declared Col. Nicholson in the classic film The Bridge on the River Kwai. Perhaps that’s true for someone like me, an urban princess from Singapore and Los Angeles. But for the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced peoples in Burma, the jungle is survival: The bamboo and timber trees provide temporary shelter from the Myanmar military.

Decades of military dictatorship and civil war have made Burma one of the most opaque, impoverished, politically repressed, and human-rights-violating nations in the world. The war’s greatest victims remain ethnic minorities who comprise one-third of Burma’s population. For almost 70 years, “home” for the Karen, one of the largest and longest-fighting indigenous ethnic groups in eastern Burma, has been a battlefield.

Land mines pockmark once-fertile soils where government soldiers have tortured men, raped women, and enslaved children. The military junta doesn’t differentiate between innocent villager and armed rebel. It terrorizes civilians by burning their villages, razing crops, confiscating land, pillaging natural resources, and force-recruiting child soldiers and human minesweepers. (Even the name of the country is a battle: The military junta changed it to Myanmar in 1989, but Burmese rebels and the United States—officially—still call it Burma. The United Nations uses Myanmar, and Barack Obama fell in line with that when he and Hillary Clinton visited the country in 2012.)

Eubank founded FBR in 1997 during the government’s bloodiest offensives against the Karen, Karenni, and Shan states. He had no long-term plan, team, or budget when he responded to a call for help from the Wa State in 1993. He did have a gut-spurred, prayer-led conviction: For such a need as this he had grown up as a missionary’s kid in Thailand and then become an Eagle Scout, U.S. Army Ranger, Special Forces soldier, Fuller Theological Seminary postgraduate, and ordained pastor. He and his wife Karen spent their post-honeymoon slogging through jungles and hauling rucksacks jammed with medical supplies and Bible teaching materials.

It’s remained for him a family affair. I first met his teenage daughters, Sahale and 13-year-old Suzanne, as they galloped bareback on full-size horses, their tangled blond hair bouncing. When their 10-year-old brother Peter was 3 weeks old, his willowy mother strapped him to her backpack and climbed hands-and-knees up steep, thorny trails lit by headlamps. Danger and death loom like next-door neighbors: Sahale almost died of typhus, Suzanne of malaria, Pete of pneumonia, and Eubank of mortar and gunfire.

In the company of such hardy, mission-driven individuals, along with Sahale’s cantankerous pet monkey, Kid, I humbly swallowed my complaints. Twenty-four hours before this trip, I was rolling in bed retching, paying penance for enjoying too many dirt-cheap pork satays. The first night in an open-air bamboo hut reeking of pig feces, I shivered and twisted all night under a thin sleeping bag over hard bamboo floors.

I had also busted my knees, ironically from overtraining. During my first phone conversation with Eubank, he asked me if I was “fit.” I told him I run every day. “Good,” he said. “Just keep on running hills 10 miles a day, and you’ll be fine.” Ten miles? Hills? Realizing that my daily “run” was probably Eubank’s post-dinner stroll, I doubled my workout overnight and pounded pavement until my knees mutinied. That meant during the trip, I plodded with joints that ached like my granny’s on a winter night, while middle-aged Karen men traipsed past wearing rubber flip-flops and 40-pound rucksacks.

SINCE THE START OF CEASE-FIRE NEGOTIATIONS IN 2011, civil fighting in Karen State has waned (see sidebar). That has allowed certain roads to expand, little village “shops” to pop up, and FBR teams to travel in broad daylight without fear of military patrols. “None of these roads existed just a few years before,” Eubank told me as I struggled to keep up with his long strides. “We used to move only at night.” That day, we greeted people running mundane errands—mother and son roaring up steep hills on a motorcycle strapped with goods, an elderly couple traversing a stream with man-sized, vegetable-packed cane baskets slung across their foreheads.

Due to the ongoing conflicts, many villages across Burma keep to themselves in remote, underdeveloped, and underreported areas, where people have no basic medical care or education. FBR fills some of these gaps by training, supplying, and dispatching more than 350 local teams of “rangers” to any area needing help. I saw the 12th annual training at Ta-U-Wah Camp, where 137 men and women aged 18 to 40 were doing an intensive 10-week program that includes lessons in land navigation, medical training, land mine removal, and spiritual development. Eubank calls it “a combination of Ranger School, Special Forces training, and Bible school.”

Those 137 students represented nine of Burma’s 135 indigenous ethnic groups: Arakan, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Lahu, Naga, Padaung, Pa-Oh, and Shan. They come from various religions and regions and have diverse motivations and dreams. But all top leaders profess Christ and imbue activities with Christian themes and messages. Every decision, every meeting, every crisis begins and ends with prayer. At any time, Eubank lays his hands on Buddhist or animist shoulders and prays Christian prayers out loud.

The camp is a homey base of two dozen bamboo-and-wood lodges, including a chapel/schoolhouse. A hop across rushing streams, FBR’s Jungle School of Medicine-Kawthoolei operates as a teaching clinic providing free basic services such as vaccinations and malnutrition care for 13 neighboring villages. The two mountains sandwiching the camp hinder unwanted intrusions, which also means no decent plumbing, telecommunication, or electricity. A few communal sites flicker with solar-powered electricity. A timber, cobweb-laced “office” spurts out spotty satellite dish internet service.

I appreciated the simple life in Ta-U-Wah Camp—bathing in an icy lake wrapped in a longyi (Burmese sarong), scrubbing laundry by hand, and drinking boiled mountain water that tasted like charcoal. After sunset, I lay under a mosquito net in my bamboo hut or gazed into the diamond-dusted sky, listening to chirping insects, rustling creatures, soft guitar strumming, and my neighbors’ ubiquitous guttural spits.

Every morning at 4:30, I awoke to shrieking whistles preluding the stomps of 137 students dashing into the yard with a crescendoing “Yeeeeaaaaaaaaaa!” They counted out their pushups and pullups, then stampeded up the hills chanting, “Free Burma! Rangers! Free Burma! Rangers!” After training, they trudged toward the cafeteria (a cliff-edging shed constructed of wooden poles, tin roof, and dirt floor) for breakfast, swinging their tin plates. With brown faces already scrubbed clean, they squatted on wooden benches, stuffing firewood-steamed, curry-drenched rice into their mouths with their right hands.

Rice is their staple—a group of six polishes off a truck-tire-sized pan of long-grained rice. Their other staple seems to be betel nut, a chewable stimulant that stains many Burmese teeth into rank, reddish stumps. One ranger offered me a marble-size piece. I almost broke a tooth and rushed out onto the porch to spit out the unbearable bitterness as rangers cackled.

Critics sometimes caricature FBR as riffraff—as gun-toting, liberty-tooting, Jesus-preaching wild cowboys. Eubank doesn’t particularly disagree: “I like cowboys. Cowboys go out and do wild things. But in our case, we surrender to God. We look at something; we pray; we try not to be led by comfort, fear, or pride. And if God says do this, then OK!”

MY KOREAN BLOOD earned me instant celebrity status. A 23-year-old Kachin lad named Naw Ja gushed in Mandarin, “You’re the first Korean I ever met! I’m so happy!” He told me he often binged on Korean drama, while his two Kachin friends smiled shyly with eyes averted. They called me “dajie” or “big sis” in Mandarin. Others yelled out “Annyeonghasaeyo!” (“hello” in Korean) and “Oppa gangnam-style!” whenever they saw me, and I responded enthusiastically until they begged me to sing and dance a K-pop song.

Proud and tough as these rangers are, they are quick to help, ever ready for mischief, and blessedly innocent. One of them drew a naked lady on Karen’s tambourine. When she informed him the tambourine was for village children, the ranger meekly colored in a dress over the offensive parts. A visiting district governor translated for me the inscriptions students carved onto wooden tables, and we both guffawed at the cheesy, ardent love poems. One inscription moaned, “You are my queen, oh light of my life!” I particularly loved the group that gathered faithfully for morning devotions and Sunday service, pensive for Scripture and worship. Four students asked to be baptized after graduation.

My visit to Ta-U-Wah Camp ended with a bittersweet surprise farewell. I was observing the students’ morning physical training, when all of a sudden, they charged at me with a gleeful roar. Outstretched sooty hands rubbed charcoal all over my face, then they hoisted me up and flung me into the clear, chilly lake.

I later asked Eubank how he persists with FBR when ethnic conflicts in Burma remain unresolved and people still suffer without justice. He turned silent for a while before answering: “I’m reminded that God takes care of the results. We are responsible only for obedience and action. And so I’m free. I will love as much as I can, speak as much as I can, help as much as I can.”

Illusory progress?

The Economist, Britain’s most influential newsweekly, called Burma the country that “improved the most in 2015” because the National League of Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won 77 percent of the vote. But all the ethnic people I met did not vote, nor did they view election results with much optimism. One Kachin said, “Before, we had no democracy. Now, we have fake democracy.”

On Oct. 15, 2015, eight ethnic groups and the Burmese government signed the final version of the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), which critics pan as “inconclusive” and “hollow.” Two heavyweight rebel groups signed the deal: the Restoration Council of Shan State, based in southern Shan State, and the Karen National Union (KNU), representing the Karen people—the first agreement any Karen group had ever signed with the central government since Burma’s independence in 1947. But the other signatories are small, inconsequential groups, and many ethnic groups refused to sign.

Few civilians expect the NCA to bring lasting peace. Even amid peace negotiations, the Burmese military were (and still are) attacking Kachin and Shan territories. KNU Vice President Zipporah Sein said, “We cannot implement the NCA because not everyone took part.” Meanwhile, the Burma Army is also building new roads beyond KNU-authorized territories, extending and arming camps that overlook agricultural fields and setting off explosions to exhibit might and presence.

Many Karen people believe that if they fight back, they’ll be accused of breaking the cease-fire agreement. “There’s still no peace,” said a Karen schoolteacher. “We’re still living in fear.” —S.L.

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

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