KAREN STATE, Myanmar — For a bold sort of European or American investor, Myanmar’s allure is almost overpowering. Long reclusive and tyrannical, now a broken nation on the mend, the country once titled Burma is Asia’s hottest frontier economy.
But here in the actual frontier, the mood is more forbidding.
This is Myanmar’s “black zone,” a government designation for territory controlled by indigenous guerrillas. Amid soaring hopes for change in Myanmar, a cease-fire signed in January has paused the world’s longest-running civil war. Ongoing since 1949, the conflict pits Myanmar’s army, commanded by the nation’s dominant Burmese ethnicity, against eastern mountain dwellers known as the Karen.
Karen territory is rich in fine teak, lead, tin, jade, a twinkling mineral called antimony and rivers mighty enough for hydro-power dams. One new survey led by an ethnic Burmese geologist portends a thrilling discovery: Karen State may hold the region’s largest untapped vein of gold.
With most sanctions against Myanmar suspended or erased, Westerners are now free to seek government blessings for operations in Myanmar. But any outsider tempted by this region’s bounty are warned: Even businessmen with central government approval face peril if they intrude against the wishes of the Karen National Liberation Army.
“First, we’ll warn and threaten them,” said Brigadier General Baw Kyaw Heh, 49, commander of the liberation army’s hardline fifth brigade and veteran of its special forces unit.
“If they don’t listen,” he said, “we’ll destroy their equipment.” His last strike against intruders took place in April, months into the cease-fire, when a Burmese outfit came to dig for antimony. The crew arrived one morning to find their instruments smashed. “That is our last option before fighting.”
War has sealed off Karen State’s hills from the modern world. With few exceptions — a solar panel here, a smuggled liter of Sprite there — village life plays out as it has for centuries. In lieu of tire tread, elephant tracks mark jungle paths. Many villagers have never seen a motorized vehicle. In the absence of cell towers, mobile phones are useless: The Karen National Liberation Army, or KNLA, relies on walkie-talkies and morse code.
In the worst-hit hills, it is difficult to find an adult who has never fled a village under government attack or lost a companion to violence. Even within their own villages, farmers feel pinned down by the army’s practice of gunning down or locking up people at will.
“It’s even difficult to trade with the next village over,” said Ko Hae, a 50-year-old farmer with an underfed, sinewy frame. “The lucky ones here eat once a day.”
Traveling, he said, is a good way to get caught by the army and tortured for information. “Just two years ago, they killed my friend,” Ko Hae said. “He was no insurgent. He was just out hunting wildcats.”
Villagers are further stuck in place by land mines scattered in the muck. Common is the sight of sun-darkened men ambling on imported prosthetic legs with mismatched caucasian skin tones. Medicine is scarce. Nibbles from mosquitoes, forever buzzing through the soupy air, bring the specter of untreatable malaria.
Isolation has bred fierce survivalists endowed with skills now absent in the developed world. Seemingly every young man can fashion bamboo stalks into shelters, catch a wild rat with his bare hands and scale near-vertical mountainsides — all while chain smoking leafy, hand-rolled cigars.
Even the components of homegrown guerrilla land mines reflect jungle resourcefulness. The bombs are fashioned from bamboo casings stuffed with steel chips and fistfuls of gunpowder.
It seems counterintuitive that a society so ruined by war would not rush toward the prospect of peace and modernity. But skeptics within the Karen describe development as a potentially destructive force.
Past and ongoing projects on Karen land are traditionally financed by Burmese businessmen who bring troops for protection. “Burmese business comes, Burmese soldiers come,” said Ten Der, a 52-year-old district leader with the Karen National Union, a decision-making political body aligned with the guerrillas. “That’s exactly what we’ve been fighting to stop.”
To safely extract timber or minerals from Karen State, an investor must compensate both the central government and the Karen. But even foreigner-led projects bring shivers to Ten Der.
Farming and fighting is their forte. Cutting deals with multinational firms is not. Occupied by warfare, the Karen have had little opportunity to create a savvy business class, he said. Ten Der is up front about his population’s lack of education — many are illiterate — and he fears they will be outmatched in negotiations.
“Of course we know about all the timber, jade and gold we have here. We’ve known since olden times,” Ten Der said. “But at this point, we don’t even have the skills to run our own surveys.”
“Even if we achieved peace,” he said, “we’d have to turn our attention to all the land mines here. It’s not safe for development.” And what of the guerrillas’ own mines, which draw condemnation from international watchdogs?
Ten Der and others defend their DIY mines as more humane and eco-friendly than the government’s Chinese-made explosives. “After four or five months, the batteries in our mines fail and the bamboo shell is eaten by birds,” he said. “Theirs last forever.”
Though much-celebrated on the international stage, the cease-fire is seen by many guerrillas as a government ploy to expand their commercial interests. “It’s illegitimate,” said Gler Doh, commander of the KNLA’s officer training camp. “It’s a trick to get businessmen in here so they can make money.”
In the KNLA’s Brigade Five, the heart of the black zone, there are 19 state battalions to the guerrillas’ four. Instead of withdrawing, government forces are fortifying and resupplying their camps, General Baw Kyaw Heh said.
“Just because we’re not actively fighting doesn’t stop them from preparing for future attacks,” he said. “I constantly intercept their messages and I can tell you: they’re not planning to leave.”
Jungle Conflict, American Guns
The practice of subterfuge on both sides has eliminated mutual trust. “They’re tricky,” said Lay Poe, a 24-year-old KNLA soldier. Last year, in his village, the state army invited two KNLA guards to tea in a gesture of friendship, he said. “Instead, they were tortured for information. They peeled off their skin and chopped at their arms, legs and dicks,” he said. “Then they gouged them in the chest and pulled out their guts.”
Horror tales such as this, however accurate, circulate among the guerrilla ranks. “They’re good at being sneaky,” said Kaw Mo Byar, a 27-year-old KNLA soldier. “We are sneaky too but we have fewer bullets, so ambushes are our specialty. They’ll sometimes circulate false intel and ambush our ambush.”
Kaw Mo Byar relishes in his favorite war story, an account of his platoon’s raid on an army satellite uplink tower that left five government soldiers dead in close fighting. Ten others fled into the jungle, he said. But even this moment of glory speaks to the KNLA’s lack of powerful weaponry: Their explosives were too weak to topple the tower.
Many KNLA recruits carry aging M-16s stamped with “PROPERTY OF THE U.S. GOVT” and serial numbers suggesting the guns were left behind by Americans in the Vietnam War. One M-16 spotted by GlobalPost was produced in the early 1970s by General Motors’ “Hydramatic Division,” which specialized in car transmissions. According to one KNLA major, an M-16’s black market value ranges between $1,000 and $1,600.
To cut costs, cadets in training are given M-16 facsimiles carved from wood. Sympathetic ex-officers retired from the world’s elite militaries — American, Australian and British among them — are also invited in for pro bono tactics instruction. “We’re supported by friends of the revolution,” Baw Kyaw Heh said. “I was trained by a French commando.”
But, for the time being, the guerrillas fear their combat skills may atrophy. “Change? There’s no change here,” Kaw Mo Byar said. “I can only tell you about one change and we’re not too fond of it. We no longer get to shoot at the other side.”
Money is a core driver of Myanmar’s great experiment with democracy, a movement that has seen political prisoners freed, oppression relaxed and a transition of junta power to an army-managed parliament. These are the reforms that recently convinced Western governments to peel away sanctions. The global competition to extract Myanmar’s natural treasures has commenced.
But most of those treasures — oil and gas, gems and trees — happen to lie within areas controlled at least in part by militias opposing outright central rule. Though the Karen guerrillas stand out for their defiance, they are only one of a dozen armed factions in Myanmar drawn along ethnic lines.
To the north of their terrain, the Shan, the nation’s second-largest ethnicity, have long patrolled lands blanketed in lavender poppy fields. Farther north, the Wa, once infamous as headhunters, man a 30,000-strong army friendly with China. Farther north still, war simmers between state troops and the Kachin, whose forces roam turf replete with jade and exquisite timber.
The ruling Burmese have used brute force to suppress these groups and prevent the nation’s splintering into multiple Balkanized states. In areas too defiant to conquer, central reign competes with warlordism. Marginalizing minorities has driven many groups toward classic revenue sources for irregular armies around the world: narcotics, such as opium and cheap speed, as well as resource concessions with powerful foreign interests, namely from China.
Cease-fires with ethnic armies, some of which agreed years ago to act as state-sanctioned “border guard forces,” have paved the way for Burmese firms to set up industrial projects, logging zones and mines generating cash for tycoons with military connections.
Even in Karen State, business-minded KNLA commanders sign off on logging and mining enterprises for a fee. According to watchdog groups, such as the Burma Environmental Working Group, these projects can be just as destructive as their government-backed counterparts.
Along rivers where peasants once panned for gold flecks, larger mining operators blast the soil with industrial water hoses and spill toxins into the waters. One of the most lucrative extraction zones, called Shwegyin, has been a flash point for conflict between state and guerrilla forces.
“Our side gets a lot of tax money from these mines. But it destroys land that people depend on for rice and fish,” said Eha Thoo Lay Soe, a 19-year-old student whose village sits near a gold mine. “People that don’t understand politics and strategy get corrupted by payoffs. In the end, they have nothing.”
But the KNLA, unlike the government, at least offers villagers a channel to complain when projects grow too harmful, said General Baw Kyaw Heh. “It’s a calculation based on benefit and harm. We try to figure out an outsider’s motives and whether we can trust them. If we’re confident in their plans, we might let them in,” he said. “But when people complain, we stop.”
Prior to 2007, when the Thai and Myanmar governments hoped to start construction on a Salween River hydro-power dam, the general built a camp overlooking the site and posted soldiers to fend off surveyors. It worked. The roughly $3 billion dam project titled Wei Gyi — translation: big whirlpool — was halted.
“The Burmese government will sell a piece of paper to allow business here. They don’t give a damn what the KNLA thinks,” said May Oo Mutraw, a member of a Karen National Union peace negotiation team in government talks. “But business people have learned quite well that they need our approval too.”
As the Karen National Union’s leadership ages, the group is training young Karen to navigate future challenges. But like their elders, the best and brightest at the union’s “New Generation” school are shaped by childhood experiences steeped in raw violence.
“I was born in a Burmese jail,” said Poe Taung, whose name translates as “Mr. Prison.” His mother, he said, was too weighed down with his fetus to escape army intruders that shot his father dead. “In prison, my mom was too malnourished to give me milk. She was forced to give me away to a relative.”
Each of his schoolmates has an equally troubling backstory: one born in a jungle clearing, another with memories of huts set aflame, yet another who witnessed troops shooting his family’s pigs. Several were conscripted by the KNLA, which requests one healthy male or female from each Karen family.
As young men, they are not indifferent to the fruits of development: mobile phones, electricity and jobs. “What I want most is transportation,” said Htaw Gay Soe, a 22-year-old student at the New Generation school. “Look at how we have to climb a mountain just to get anywhere!”
“Cars, phones, of course we want all that,” he said. “But first we need an educated class. Without that, it’s useless, because everything will just be run by someone else. Investors can be scary to us.”
That Karen leaders are attempting a cease-fire suggests that, however cynical, they are aspiring toward change. If the war ends, some senior leaders contend the KNLA could be transformed into a regional force modeled on the US National Guard.
But when asked to describe the future, the young Karen chosen to guide their people to prosperity sound much like their elders: world weary and dry on faith.
“I will be a grandfather one day,” said Eh Htoo, a 22-year-old guerrilla cadet. “And we’ll still be fighting. Maybe between now and then I can help drive them farther back.”