PHOTO ESSAY The Karen rebel yell
By Pepe Escobar Photos by Jason Florio
BANGKOK - It's an honor to be part of a group that includes the spectacular
Malaysian-born film superstar Yeoh - of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame,
among countless others - confirmed this week she was deported on arrival from
Burma/Myanmar on June 22, "for no reason and without providing any
Well, the unstated reason is that for the military junta in
Rangoon/Yangon/Naypyidaw, Yeoh is more lethal than the kung-fu chicks she
played early in her Hong Kong film career.
Yeoh stars as Aung Saan Suu Kyi in the upcoming biopic The Lady,
directed by Luc Besson, about the relationship between the
1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and her late husband, British academic Michael
Aris. And on top of it, Yeoh met The Lady last year in her house by the lake in
Call me old school, but for me and countless others who have fallen in love
with the land, the people and the culture, it's Burma - not Myanmar. And it's
Rangoon, not Yangon. Unlike the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the junta's Year Zero
has been slightly more sophisticated, manipulating language to erase history.
But make no mistake; Burma is a Southeast Asia gulag. With no North Atlantic
Treaty Organization "humanitarian" intervention on the horizon - because major
ally China would never allow it.
He is 25, works in the KNLA's media division - they make videos of the
atrocities committed against Karen civilians by the junta’s army, as well as
video battles for training purposes and propaganda.
Just like Yeoh and many other journalists who have covered Southeast Asia, I'm
blacklisted in Burma since the late 1990s. Many of us share the frustration of
being in Bangkok and not being able to cross the border; the best we can do is
to read books like Emma Larkin's poignant Finding George Orwell in Burma,
recently republished in paperback by Penguin - while staring at our Burmese
He is 35, a sergeant-major in the KNLA special forces.
Larkin's (a pseudonym for an Asian-American journalist) thesis is absolutely on
the mark; Orwell's trilogy of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen
Eighty-Four does explain in minute detail, decades before the fact, the
tragedy of modern Burma/Myanmar.
He's 21, a volunteer with the KNLA carrying a M78 grenade launcher.
Recently my close friend, photojournalist Jason Florio did cross the border to
Burma. Since the late 1990s, I had the pleasure of working with Florio in
Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Thailand and - of course - Burma,
before the junta found out I was a "subversive" element.
He's 28, a Corporal in the KNLA Special Forces.
As Florio tells it, "I was smuggled into Karen state in the cover of darkness
and then I made a 10-day hike into Karen state - about 120 km of extreme
hiking, crawling up steep hillside and along thick jungle paths to remote
villages, reaching KNLA - Karen National Liberation Army - outposts. All the
KNLA that helped me are non-paid volunteers."
He's 26, has been with the KNLA since he was 16 (now men under 18 cannot join)
with an M78 grenade launcher.
This is a side of Burma the junta does not want the world to see - the
underbelly of the sparkling new capital Naypyidaw or the marvels of relentless,
massive Chinese investment. The KNLA is the military wing of the Karen National
Union - which since 1949 has been fighting the central government in
Rangoon/Yangon for the self-determination of the Karen people, via an
independent state called Kawthoolei.
He's 35, has been with the KNLA for 15 years, with 'born to kill'.
So meet some of these warriors who are carrying out the Karen rebel yell. For
security purposes, Florio cannot disclose their real names. They are commonly
referred as "thra" - which means "big uncle", but is commonly used in
Karen lands as the American "buddy".
He's a KNLA medic, 29; lost his leg after stepping on a landmine.
The portraits were made at three KNLA bases - whose location, for obvious
reasons, cannot be disclosed. After all, just like Michelle Yeoh, in the
unlikely event these warriors would board a plane to Yangon/Rangoon, they would
also be deported on arrival - if not shot on sight.