Myanmar, formerly Burma, is literally half way around the world from New York. We flew from JFK up over the Arctic, and down to Hong Kong, which took 16 hours. After a 3 hour layover in Hong Kong we took a 3 hour flight to Bangkok and stayed in that teeming metropolis (13 million people) for 4 days to get rid of our jet lag before proceeding into Myanmar.
Our trip started in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, which was the old capital of Burma before the military took over and changed Burma to Myanmar and moved the capital to Naypyidaw, some 100 miles north of Yangon. In Myanmar we traveled by plane, train, ox cart, horse and buggy and by foot. There is no cell phone service in the country, unless one buys a local SIM card, which enables local calls with lots of static. We were able to receive e-mails at hotels via Wi-Fi, but a snail moves faster than the connection speed in most places.
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Myanmar accepts American money, but ONLY brand new bills. Any U.S. bill that has a tear, a fold, a crease or a stain will not be accepted. The country is the size of England and France combined, with a population of approximately 50 million people, and it seemed like there were almost that many tourists during our visit there! November through May is the best time to visit Myanmar, as from June through October is the monsoon season. The country was controlled by the British in the 17th century, and there are many buildings and statues that represent that occupation. Lord Mountbatten restored a sacred relic to the country after he learned it had been pilfered and sent back to London.
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We visited Yangon, Pagan, the site of almost 3,000 pagodas, teak monasteries, and gold-leafed Buddha’s. One of the pictures that accompanies this story is of a 372 foot high gold-leaf pagoda built in the 16th century, and repaired after a large earthquake did major damage in 1978.
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We also were also in Mandalay and took a river boat trip on the Irrawaddy river (over 1,100 miles long), to see fisherman using the ancient method of using the almost extinct Irrawaddy river dolphins to herd fish into their nets. There are only 65 of these dolphins left in the world, and we saw at least 20 of them!
I suppose the highlight of our visit to Myanmar was at the end. We flew from Mandalay to Heho, took a van for an hour and arrived at the jetty town of Shwei Yang, and were ferried to the Inle Princess hotel set on the shore of beautiful lake Inle.
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Our room was magnificent, with a terrace right over the lake (picture of the sunset was taken from that terrace). The staff at the Inle Princess was extremely well trained and catered to our every wish. Each day we rose early, had a wonderful buffet breakfast, and loaded in boats for excursions to see lacquer factories, silk workshops, fishing villages and the boat people of Myanmar.
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Needless to say we loaded our suitcases with wonderful locally made products. These remarkable boat people have lived on the lake for centuries, and have prospered through the use of their wits and incredible skills at fishing and other creative industries.
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After our 11 days in country we flew back to Bangkok for one night before rising early to start the long trek back to New York. Myanmar was certainly magical, but the ever-rising tide of tourists is and will continue to make the country something it was never intended to be. I’m glad we went when we did.

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All over the village boys are fashioning bows from natural materials, preparing to compete in the big archery contest. Small children kick a Tagrow ball, a small hollow ball made of rattan. I pull out my camera, but the mothers quickly tell the children to hide their faces. Photographing people who are planning to live permanently at Loi Tailang is OK. But photographing civilians who plan to return to Burma is a No-no. If the photos get into the wrong hands, THEY, the SPDC, could find out that they have ties with the Shan State Army, and kill them.
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Just past the village square, we buy some treats at the SS Mart a convenience store chain, with three locations, conveniently located through out Loi Tailang. Each SS Mart proudly displays its colorful logo, with a Shan flag background. Perhaps you could be the first to open a franchise in your province. Walking along the main street, you won’t see the Cu Chi Tunnels, but the Shan have dug their own, less touristy tunnels and trenches as part of their defense system one more reminder that these kind, gentle people are living in a war zone.

 

There are about five restaurants in Loi Tailang, mostly serving noodles, which my translators Hsai Lern and Tun Yee love to eat. Some of the restaurants have my favorite, fried chicken. The boys know when I come to Loi Tailang they get to eat every time I do. They are always excited about eating noodles, it is a big treat for them. The normal Shan diet consists primarily of rice and soy bean. The Soy bean is sometimes ground and pressed into paddies, which are dried. These patties can be backed on a grill and used as a meat substitute. The other common source of protein is eggs. But not everyone can afford them. I let the guys order whatever they want.

 

In the school yard and in the various houses throughout the village, young people gather together to sing and play guitar. Singing clubs are easily the number one source of entertainment in Loi Tailang. Takraw is a close second. But nearly all Shan people sing well. They are the most musical people I have ever been around. When possible, the singing clubs like to hold a gin jot, a happy eating, when they all gather around mu gu taw, Thai barbecue. They sing and eat and drink beer, for hours, if they have the money. But for most of them this activity would be limited to Shan New Year when they get a small bonus from the Shan government.
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On Shan New Year, every soldier was give 200 Thai Baht. That night, all of the restaurants were full. Some soldiers had looked forward to eating noodles for months. The next day, there were gin jots in many houses. The Shan are normally a happy, positive people to be around, but when they have meat and beer, and there are guitars close by, there is no group I would rather be with.

 

Beside a small house, we meet a woman making thatch for roofs. It was toward the end of the dry season, when people would begin re-thatching their roofs in preparation for the rains. The army provides the civilians with food, but there isn’t a lot of cash floating around. Making and selling thatch is one way that people can earn extra money. The woman, Bamat, was forty-three years old and had lived in Loi Tailang for five years, since the SPDC had driven her people from their village. Now, her husband, an SSA soldier, was in hospital at Loi Tailang. He had injured his hand on a landmine out on the front lines. She had three of her children living with her. The other two left home, seeking work. She has had no word of them and doesn’t know if they are in Shan State or in Thailand. She told us that in the rainy season, they had a farm to grow some crops, but during dry season, she could only raise animals. The bulk of her family’s food came from an NGO who supports the IDPs.
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Most Shan would rather live free in their Shan State, but Bamat was not unhappy with her life in Loi Tailang. She was pleased that her children could attend the school on the base.
“It is safer here, and we have enough food. Back in Shan State, there was a school, but it cost money, so my children didn’t attend.”

 

The monk is Tun Yee, a young soldier, a former monk, who thought his family had been murdered. when he heard a rumor that his mother was alive in Thailand, he became a monk again and went with the head abbot to Thailand to look for his mother. Sadly, the story turned out to be a rumor. Shan people don’t have family names, so it is sometimes hard to match missing children with their parents.

 

At another home, an amputees, fifty-one year-old Tong Sai looked like he was seventy. He told us his sad story, of how the SPDC forced him to walk ahead of the Burmese army, as a human landmine detector. They had stolen him from his village and forced him to work as a slave, an unpaid porter, carrying the army’s heavy equipment through the jungle. He was initially arrested because the SPDC accused him of having had contact with the SSA rebels. After four years, they took him out of the jail and forced him to work forced labor.

 

“I was tortured frequently.” He told us. “We were fed a steady diet of soy bean and rice, twice a day. They forced us to work, digging by hand with no tools. And they beat us all the time.”

 

After he stepped on the landmine, the SPDC simply left him to slowly bleed to death. He spent six days, lying there, slowly dying, but luckily, he was found by an SSA patrol, who took him to Loi Tailang. In addition to tearing off one of his legs, the landmine had broken his remaining leg and one of his arms.

 

He showed us the massive, ghastly jagged scars on his elbow and his remaining leg.

 

“When I lay in the jungle, the insects were eating the flesh of my broken leg, and it never grew back.”

 

His leg wasn’t enough. The SPDC took even more from him. “I had a family before, but I haven’t seen them for years.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to get a message to his family, so they think he is dead. He heard from others that his wife had remarried.

 

He didn’t have any information about his children. He shook his head and repeated. “They think I am dead.”

 

Tong Sai said he cant go back to Shan State. First of all, missing a leg, it would be impossible to walk so far. Even if he reached his village, the SPDC would arrest him, and probably torture and kill him.

 

“I will live here in safety till I die.”

 

He lives with another family now, and the children call him grandfather. He likes to come sit in the sun and watch all of the neighbor children playing football. When they take a break from their play, the children all gather around their adopted grandfather, climbing on his back or on his lap.

 

Hsai Lern told me that most of the children probably don’t have a grandfather because their grandfathers were lost in the war, or lived far away in Shan State.

 

I handed out cookies and drinks to the children. There wasn’t enough for all of them, so they imnmediately began sharing.

 

A little girl offered half of a cookie to Tong Sai. The old man smiled a toothless grin. The leg was missing, but his heart remained.

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Recently, I went into Burma to do a story with the Shan State Army, a rebel group fighting the Burmese government. The government doesn’t allow any journalists into the country. They control the Internet and citizens have to use a thumb-print reader if they want to logon. They control the phones, mail, and cable TV. Basically the only news that can get in or out of Burma is by people crossing illegally, under the protection of one of the tribal armies.
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When I lived in the Muay Thai monastery, above Chiangrai, with Pra Kruh Ba a few years ago, there were a lot of Shan monks. Shan are even more religious than Thais and close to 100% of Shan boys will serve as monks at some point in their lives. At that time, I discovered that I really liked the Shan people. They aren’t a tribe in the sense of some of the other tribes I have written about. They are an ethnic minority, if you can call 10 million people a minority. They have had their own government and their own state for centuries. Originally they had a Shan king. Later, the country was divided into states with each state being ruled by a prince. That was still the system, going into World War II and after. The last princes were either murdered by the government, or forced to abandon Shan State in the 1960s.

They are incredibly intelligent people and school is the number one priority. Even in the face of the horrible atrocities committed against them, they struggle to find a way to send their children to school in Thailand or send them to monastery schools, where they can study with monks. Most of the important leaders of the revolution are former monks.
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I hit it off well with the Shan soldiers and civilians. I met Colonel Yawd Serk, the commander of the army, and he asked me to wear the uniform and teach Kung Fu to the soldiers and teach English to the children at the school. There are nearly 1,000 students at the school. Two hundred and fifty of them are orphans. Their parents were killed by the Burmese army. Some of them walked for months through the jungle to arrive at the army base and live in safety. There are children as young as ten years old who made that journey alone, or carrying a younger brother or sister. There are others who had to make the horrific choice of leaving a small sibling behind.

Once they arrive at the base, in Loi Tailang, they are no longer in Burma and not yet in Thailand. They are in Shanland, an island of freedom and Shan culture, surrounded by war.

One of my friends at Loi Tailang, Kawn Wan, who teaches English and Kung Fu to the children said, “We have people. We have land. We have a government. We have an army. We have everything except a country.”
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The Shan State is asking for recognition throughout the world, to be independent of Burma. “If you ask even the smallest children in the orphanage,” Said Kawn Wan, “He will tell you his greatest wish is just to go home.” The people of Loi Tailang can’t go home until the war is over and Shanland is independent. And even then, with their villages burned, and their families murdered, what could they go home to? “Someday, we will be able to issue you a visa to Shanland,” The Lieutenant told me.

Staying with the Shan in the jungle made me realize how much I liked them. They had almost nothing, but they shared, always giving me the best food, the best sleeping place, and the warmest clothing. It is unfair that they held no passport, had no freedom, and that they had suffered so much.
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I came back to Chiang Mai to write my stories and drop off my video tapes before going back up the mountain. I really missed the Shan when I was in town. I went back and my second trip was even better than the first. I began concentrating on filming interviews with Shan people, recently arrived at Doi Tailang, documenting human rights abuses perpetrated by the SPDC, the Burmese Junta.
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The situation of the Shan people is so sad. The Burmese government burns down whole villages. They rape the girls, murder the men, and take the boys to be in the army. They force villagers to work as porters, unpaid for periods of anywhere from twenty days to a year. One man told me he had been a forced porter, a slave, for four years. The porters are barely fed, frequently beaten, and when they collapse they are executed. The SPDC soldiers use Shan people as shields. They stand behind a Shan man, put a gun over his shoulder, and march into battle.
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The Shan Army base has several thousand residents. It is like a small city with a school, a hospital, a temple, shops, and restaurants. It is the only place where villagers are safe. The children go to school and study their own language plus Thai, Burmese, and English.

My new work partners when I am up there are a group of about six guys who graduated from a Shan college in Thailand. To even go there they had to sneak into Thailand illegally and hope that they were never discovered by immigration police. The nine month intensive course was taught all in English and open to the best and brightest of all of the tribes living in Shan State: including Lahu, Pa-O, and Shan. The students had courses in world affairs, politics, and social studies. They knew more about the outside world than most Thai kids of the same age who lived under unrestricted freedom. (Technically Thailand is also under martial law, but it is a veryweak version of martial law that doesn’t affect anything.)

These kids are incredibly bright. In some ways, they lack maturity you would see in twenty year-olds in the west. In other ways, they have seen and suffered so much, they have the wisdom of a forty-one year old. (I just turned forty.)
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On this second visit to the Shan, I came up with the idea of doing a video, interviewing refugees and having them tell their own story on film. Most people in the west have never even heard of Shan State, so how can they put political pressure on Burma to grant them independence. My new project is to do a series of articles and a video about the people of Doi Tailang, Shanland. It will tell their story, their sorrow, their joy, their hopes and dreams. I am donating all of the articles to any magazine or organization willing to print them, in order to raise awareness of this terrible situation. I will also donate the video, when it is finished. I hoped it would be shown for free at organizations around the world, and that copies could be sold by mail order, with the proceeds going to support the school and orphan dormitories in Doi Tailang.

Soso Whaley, of Moaning Dog productions, who has been helping produce my youtube videos, and David Lawlitts, of Two Guys from Brooklyn production, who worked with me on films abut the Akha and Karen tribes, are helping me to film and produce this video which I want to title, “A Life in Shan State.”