Adventure Writer Looks at Forty Part II by Antonio Graceffo

Out of desperation, I took a teaching job in Korea. In exchange for me signing a one year contract, they flew me to Asia, and gave me an apartment and a good salary.

I was miserable in Korea. To keep myself busy I studied Korean language and began working on a masters thesis, tracing the origin of the Korean language from Lake Baikal in Russia, which is a common origin for Manchurian language as well as many tribal languages spoken by nomads in central Asia and the Asiatic parts of Russia.

I published one article on the subject, comparing Korean and Chinese, and received a lot of recognition for it. But because I am more practical than theoretical I also received a lot of criticism for what I wrote. That and a lot of my articles are very insulting and if people don’t like it I threaten to Kung Fu their ass. I can beat up most of the serious linguists I know.

I was offered a scholarship to do my PHD at Dong-A university in Busan, Korea. But I didn’t fancy spending five more years in Korea. I also didn’t want to be in a classroom teaching Korean kids. And I didn’t want to do all my research from a book. I wanted to be back in the field. If westerners don’t use deodorant, we reek, and most Asians don’t. But, for whatever reason, if Koreans smoke or drink alcohol, they stink way worse than other people. And of course they eat kimchi three times a day. I quit after seven months and returned to Thailand. I had a lot of unfinished adventures there.

My first order of business was to hook up with my old friend, Dave, who is the other half of our small production company called Two Guys from Brooklyn Productions. We had met years ago, in an Akha tribal village. He was doing a film. I was writing. We always said we’d work together again. Our first story was a documentary on the Long Neck Karin, one of the most exploited hill tribes in the world. Refugees from Burma, they are locked in tourist villages, like human zoos, where people pay money to gawk at them. You can google “Antonio Garceffo Long Neck Karen” and find the story.
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Next we did a documentary on a Spanish monk, named Kru Pedro, who taught ancient spiritual Muay Thai. I lived in Bangkok and studied Thai in an experimental program called ALG Automatic Language Growth. It was something I had read about when I was at graduate school in Germany. I got heavily involved with the program and began working on a book on Thai linguistics. To date, I have published a number of articles on ALG as applied to Thai language. At one point I went to stay in a temple in Khmer Surin, a part of Thailand which used to belong to Cambodia. I was there studying with one of my best friends, a Khmer monk, named Prah Sameth, also I was there to train with Tony Jaa’s martial arts teacher, “In the Footsteps of Tony Jaa.” While there I also did an article on the difficulties of constantly switching between Khmer and Thai, two languages, which, without sharing a common origin, share 30% of their vocabulary. It’s a long funny story, “Tongue Tied in Surin.” All my linguistics articles are actually pretty funny.

In Thailand I signed a one year teaching contract but lasted only three weeks. That was my record. I quit the job and went to Philippines to study martial arts and write on an island called Palawan. Somewhere in here I worked on a Discovery Channel show called “Fight Quest.” Then I went to Cambodia to do a show for History Channel. After the show, I returned to Thailand briefly writing and studying more Muay Thai. I went back to Philippines to write on an island called Coron. In Philippines I write a lot about the indigenous people. There are countless tribes here, nearly a hundred, and an incredible number of languages and dialects. There are also a lot of martial arts, so Philippines is a good place for me. On my way back to Thailand I lived with a martial arts master, named Master Frank, in Manila. We are still friends and I still study Kuntaw with him.
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I left Philippines and worked on a show called “Human Weapon” in Cambodia. I was employed for about three months writing and doing field research, although I only appear on screen for about two seconds. Very cool, one of my jobs was to find and fight every master in Cambodia and write my opinion of them. It took weeks of following up on rumors and traveling into remote rice paddies and villages to find these guys. Most of them were pretty fragile from malnutrition and never having recovered from the Khmer Rouge years, so I only played around sparring. The wrestlers were good, though. And try as I might, they made me look pretty silly, wrestling in the mud in their villages.
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I went to Vietnam for a couple of weeks to explore Kampuchea Krom, a Khmer province which was given to Vietnam fifty years ago. I also documented Vietnamese martial art and sparred while I was there.
Somewhere in all of this I turned 40. I went back to Cambodia to work on a History Channel show called “Digging for the Truth,” and got about fifteen minutes of screen time. My big break. Also, my last date with Hollywood. Since then, we have kissed and flirted, but not yet married. I have come close to getting my own show, but it hasn’t happened. I do, however, have an internet TV show, called “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which airs on youtube. So, that is better than nothing.
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I went back to Thailand to follow up on the most important and life changing adventure of my life. We are getting to the most important part of the story here.

Because of the Monk, Prah Kru Bah, who took me in when I lived in the jungle on the Burmese border, and because of the numerous tribal stories I had written, I had always been very interested in the war in Burma. A westerner I knew in Chiang Mai several years before had been heavily involved with the Shan State Army. There are a lot of Shan people living in northern Thailand. In fact a lot of my friends at the monastery and around Chiang Mai were Shan. They are extremely good looking people. I call them the proto-Thais because they were the original Tai people who migrated down from China to settle in Burma. The Thai, The Shan, and The Lao are all part of the Tai ethnic group and share a language which is 70% similar. The culture and the religion are also very much alike.

Through a series of events which I can’t publish yet, I wound up making it to the Shan State Army rebel stronghold inside of Shan State, Burma. The Shan share no similarities at all with the Burmese. They were never a part of Burma until the British drew a line on a map, around the end of World War Two. In 1962, there was a military coup in Burma, and General Ne Win took power. He began waging war, akin to genocide, against Burma’s many ethnic people. Since then, several million have fled across the border to become refugees. No one knows how many were killed exactly, because journalists and international organizations are banned from Burma, but we have been able to document countless cases of whole villages being burned and the villagers executed. The army uses gang rape as a weapon, and I interviewed a 14 year old girl, who at age eleven, was gang raped while her parents burned to death inside of her house. She could hear them screaming.
Since 1962, the Shan formed their own army and have been fighting to form an independent country, called Shanland. The right to secede from the Union of Burma was guaranteed them by the British, but so far neither Briton, nor the world has done anything to enforce this agreement.
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I hit it off with Colonel Yawd Serk, the commander of the Shan State Army. He invited me to wear a uniform and to come and go as I please in Shanland. When I am inside, I carry my cameras and document human rights abuses. I film interviews with the refugees. The Shan State Army base has become a safe zone for refugees, driven from their villages by the government forces. They have a school and a temple there and a dormitory for about 650 orphans. Many of the orphans actually have one or more living parents but the parents gave the children to the army so that the could be raised in safety and educated in the Shan State Army school, which is the best quality school in Shan State, offering a curriculum in four languages: Shan, Burmese, Thai, and English. In Shan State, it is illegal to teach Shan reading and writing, so for most kids, they don’t learn to read and write their native language.

If you are a parent, could you imagine things being so bad that you would give your child to strangers in the hopes that they would survive? Once a Shan person goes to live on the rebel army base, they can never re-enter Burma because the Burmese would capture them and torture them to find out information about the rebels. The parents don’t have phones or mail service. After a long trek, often several months of hiding, slowly making their way through the jungle, to hand their child over to the Shan State Army, the parents say “good-by” to their children, and they will most likely never see them or hear from them again.

When I am in the base, I do interviews all day, and often break down in tears. I interviewed two small boys whose parents were murdered. When I asked them, they couldn’t even remember the name of their village. They had blocked out the first several years of their lives. After they left, I told my translator hwo upset I was that two little boys should be made orphans for absolutely no reason. He said, “It’s normal.” My answer was, “It shouldn’t be.”
After more than forty years at war, there are very few Shan who remember a time of peace. “It’s normal.”
When I am inside I teach hand-to-hand combat to the soldiers. Outside, I publish my videos and articles and try to raise awareness of the Shan situation. I also coordinate donations through a great NGO who have the guts to go inside and render medical aid to the children. Most big NGOs and the UN won’t help the Shan because they have rules in their bylaws which say they can’t break the law and that they can only render aid if the government invites them. In the case of Burma, the government is doing the killing, so that invitation has been lost in the mail. Other large NGOs, who solicit millions of dollars from Americans every Christmas, have a policy of not aiding armed groups. “If the Shan lay down their weapons, we will come help them.” They said. Obviously if the Shan laid down their weapons, the Burmese would kill them all, and there would be no children to help. The orphan dormitories are surrounded by trenches in case the base comes under attack again.

There are two small NGOs who are willing to risk their lives running aid missions into Burma. I have been in the filed with them both and I have great respect for them. The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) run training programs. The leaders of the tribal armies each send a few of their men to get trained as Rangers. The FBR teach them field medicine, patrolling, navigation, and photography. The men learn to do human rights abuse documentation. FBR even gives them cameras. If you have seen the movie Rambo IV most of the actual footage of atrocities was shot by FBR teams who risk their lives to get in and film. They also give direct medical aid when they can and provide physical security when they can. Many of the refugees only made it to the Shan base because an FBR team found them in the jungle and rescued them.

I have become very close with some of the young teachers in Shanland. It breaks my heart to see their students playing football on a field surrounded by landmines and knowing that if those mines were removed, they would all be killed. The day after Chidlren’s Day, the Burmese forces surrounded the base, waiting to ambush families who were taking their children home after the festivities.

I started a project called “In Shanland.” Basically I publish one video on youtube for free and one article for free which I send to about 4,000 people and organizations. I send out one article and one video per week, and will do so for a year. Hopefully by the end of the year, the project will have gained momentum and someone important will have heard about the Shan and come help them.
I have spent some time in Philippines, attending paramedic school. I am taking as much training as I can in emergency medicine but also going to be taking courses with the police and army to get trained in close security and renew my training with heavy weapons. I plan to go back into Shanland in October or so. After I finish my training in Philippines, I may take a paying job somewhere in the world to help me continue my volunteer work in Shanland. The amazing part of this story is that I don’t work for any aid organization. I am self-funded and a number of nice people around the world have written in, making donations, helping me get through school. Among them are several deposed Shan princesses. The world is so strange. And people are inherently good.

If I weren’t so poor, I never would have reached out, asking for help. And I never would have proved just how wonderful and caring people can be. After I return to Shanland, I think I will carve out a niche for myself as a combat medic, doing aid missions in trouble zones all over the world. I love the Shan. But their plight made me realize that there are groups of displaced, stateless people all over the world and because of uncomfortable politics no one is helping them. Darfur is probably the example most people will know, but there are many, many others. And it doesn’t matter what color their skin or what language or religion, people are people, and more importantly, kids are kids, and they deserve the right to live and grow in safety.