Archive for the ‘War in Burma’ Category

Suffering Continues in Burma

In War in Burma on May 11, 2008 at 12:23 pm

The Suffering Continues in Burma

By Antonio Graceffo


New figures from the UN have the death toll, possibly, a 216,000.


The junta still hasn’t allowed any aid workers into the country. They allowed two plane loads of food and medicines in but then immediately commandeered everything. Now the US refuses to send anymore aid, unless aid workers are allowed to accompany the materials and see to their distribution.


A relief team leader had this to say about sending material into Burma without aid workers to look after it. “The dictators of Burma continue to directly attack their own people and in the case of the cyclone provided no warning, nor did they provide any immediate response to help people in need. An ongoing challenge will be to ensure that relief materials and funds go to those in need and are not diverted by the dictators. We will be sending help through the network of individuals and churches that we have now in Burma and we will be relying on them to account for and report on the relief assistance.”


Another aid worker said it even more succinctly. “You can be sure that only pennies on the dollar will be given to the people.”


Leading general, Than Schwe (who should die slowly), hasn’t been seen since last Saturday. He even refused to meet with or even talk with the UN by telephone. In the face of all of the insanity involved in refusing aid, the junta marches forward, determined to hold a referendum, the result of which will basically keep the current government in power in perpetuity.


Far from the watchful eye of the world’s media and aid workers seeking to help cyclone victims in and around Yangon, the SPDC (Burmese army) launched attacks against the Karen ethnic minority people. They burned homes, destroyed villages and attacked refugee camps (IDPs).


I tried to imagine something more horrible than launching a military strike against people in the wake of such a terrible disaster, but I couldn’t.


When asked what steps the junta had taken to help their own people, an aid worker had this to say. “There is no plan of action internally. There is limited infrastructure. The military is working only limitedly. The constitution will be voted on next week and must be monitored by force. There was not even a forklift at the international airport to take off initial supplies from Thailand.”

Another aid worker explained that so much of the suffering was avoidable. “The military are making this so Much worse. This is a textbook example of how not to respond to a disaster. They had 48 hour warning from India, yet they didn’t warn the people, especially not in the Irrawaddy Delta, the worst hit area. Now they are delaying the vitally needed aid agency workers by placing conditions on their work and not giving them unfettered access to the worst affected areas.”


France has demanded that the UN enact a byline which gives the UN the right to enter a country and render aid, without permission, if there is a major catastrophe and the local government refuses aid. Basically, the UN has the right to enter Burma and save lives in spite of the wishes of the generals.


I know from my own experience with 911 that in a crisis, more good people surface than bad. People forget their former problems with each other and they help, they simply help because it is the right thing to do. Probably 90% of the communities who donated food, money, clothes, and medicine to New York were poorer than New York. But they didn’t care. When a catastrophe effects others, you need only ask yourself, “What if that were my family, my wife, my children? What would I want others to do for me?” The answers are clear. You have to help.


In the last forty-eight hours I have received a steady stream of emails from people asking if I could get them into Burma and asking where and how to volunteer or send money. God bless them all.


Strong words of support have come from some unlooked for corners. China, who vetoed the UN proposal for forced aid in Darfur and Burma, is now asking the generals to open up and accept western aid.


George Bush, who I wouldn’t normally think of as a humanitarian said, in a quote in the Economic Times,  “Our message is to the military rulers: Let the US come to help you, help the people. Our hearts go out to the people of Burma. We want to help them deal with this terrible disaster. At the same time, of course, we want them to live in a free society,”


To my knowledge, this has been the first major statement, by a US politician which hints at forcing the junta to allow democracy in Burma.


An article in the Irish Times said, “President Bush urged Burma to allow US damage assessment teams into the country while at a ceremony Tuesday, where he signed legislation to give a Congressional Gold Medal to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest in Burma.”


Look at your watch, wait five minutes. Someone just died in Burma. Most of the deaths which will happen over the next two weeks will be completely preventable if aid could get in. One aid organization said they are trying to partner with organization already inside the country. Even aid organizations with permanent offices in Yangon are being denied additional visas for more staff. And of course, there is the issue of planes cargos being confiscated when it arrives in Burma. 

”India & ASEAN are getting some in, maybe China, so far. The SPDC will skim what it can.” Explained one aid worker yesterday. But now it looks like even the trickle of aid coming from Asia is drying up.

If people in USA want to send money, where should they send it?


“So far I’ve recommended Mercy Corps here in Portland, they are v. effective in these situations, and US Campaign for Burma has a donate button on their site. World Vision is in country already but have religious baggage, also Save the Children is operating there already.” This was a quote from a noted Burma author. Luckily the Junta don’t read books, so she can maintain her anonymity.


Commenting on the impact of the cyclone, she said, “Mangrove destruction made this much worse, also siltation of Irrawaddy due to deforestation.”


The generals are known for selling off Burma’s timber, absolutely wrecking the environment. “The Generals are safe and sound in Naypyidaw.”


Last year, the incredibly superstitious junta moved the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw.

“The date for the referendum was probably set by astrologers, so they are locked into that.” She went on to speculate, “But this could affect army unity — many have family in the Delta.”


It is highly likely that a very small percentage of Burmese soldiers actually support the junta. Most are conscripts and are themselves victims of brutality and abuse at the hands of their superiors. And of course, relief aid is not reaching the families of privates, only top ranking officers.


“We are now facing a health disaster with severe risk of malaria, cholera and other water born diseases. Over a million people spent their seventh night without good water or shelter last night.”


The long term effects of this disaster will be a staggering death toll.


Plese, say a prayer for the people of Burma.



Antonio Graceffo is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.




Disaster and Repression in Burma

In War in Burma on May 11, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Will the World Please Step in!

By Antonio Graceffo


“20,000 dead, over 40,000 missing and 1 million displaced.”

FBR Relief Team Leader



During forty years of totalitarian rule, the SPDC, the junta which rules Burma,  has demonstrated time and again that they view the civilian population as adversaries. Burma maintains one of the largest standing armies in the world, although they have no external enemies. Obviously, the purpose of the army is to maintain the junta’s power, to protect the government from the people. In light of the horrendous day-to-day situation in Burma, how can the world expect the junta to react with compassion and save its people after an horrific natural disaster?


To get an idea of how the situation is on the ground, I conducted interviews (mostly by email) with members of various aid organizations and pro-democracy groups concerned with Burma.


The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) is one of the leading and most well-respected organizations working on the Thai border. An FBR Relief Team Leader, had this to say.  


“We hope that the SPDC allows the international community to come in and give assistance to those in critical need at this time.”


Kind souls from around the world have written me and asked if I could get them inside of Burma. Sadly, I cannot. I work in the tribal areas, which we can access through the jungle. But Yangon, where much of the destruction took place, is only accessible by airplane, and you need a visa, issued by the Burmese government to enter. Many aid workers are frustrated. They sit with their medicines and food packages, waiting for visas to enter. So far, the junta has been slow about granting entry to aid workers.


“It’s already slowed it down — they are obsessed with the referendum. Making UN personnel wait for visas like tourists because they suspect journalists coming in to cover the stupid referendum.” Said another relief team member.

The immediate need is for foreign aid to get into the country, to feed, cloth, house, and care for those who need help. A long term concern, however, is that aid can be used as a tool, by the junta to strengthen their own position.


“Foreign aid should only go in with proper monitoring and accountability for its use.” Said an aid worker.


All of the workers, from the various organizations, asked me to keep their identity secret because they are in the process of applying for visas. The Burmese government often does checks of foreign press and blacklists people with close ties to the media.


Some Muslim magazines are very concerned that the people of the Arakan, who largely follow the religion of Islam, will be completely marginalized and no help will reach them at all. 


“The Rohingyas in Arakan are in an especially difficult situation and will need a focused effort to provide the assistance that they need.”


Some international aid organizations, who are willing to accept the Burmese government’s tight restrictions, maintain permanent offices in the capital. The tribal people, however, are largely served by small aid organizations, often faith based, who are ill-funded, but risk life and limb to save as many lives as possible. The Muslim people of the Arakan are in an extremely unfortunate geographical location. They are only accessible from Bangladesh and India, where there are very few foreign aid teams.


As an open request for help, I would be willing to serve as Emergency Medical Technician on any aid mission who wishes to try and help the people living in Arakan state or those who have fled over the border. The photos that I have seen of the refuge camps in Bangladesh are heart breaking with people dying of starvation and disease daily. If any Muslim organization, or anyone with a heart and a checkbook, is willing to help support aid to these people, I would be proud to help. Contact me


Even the UN is waiting in line to help, but the junta has failed to answer. “The UN has requested access to provide relief but we are not sure of the status of those relief efforts.”


Many people know of my work with the Shan State Army, in Shanland. Unfortunately, although the cyclone missed the major tribal areas, the ethnics are still suffering at the hands of the SPDC.


“In the mountains where the IDPs are under attack by the Burma Army, attacks by the Burma Army continue. There the storm is, however, less severe and there have been no reports from our teams of large scale damage in eastern Burma. However, the ethnic Karen in particular in the Delta region were badly affected by this storm as they make up a large percentage of the population in the area worst hit by the cyclone.”


“There is an immediate need for drinking water, sanitation, food, shelter, blankets, cooking implements, and medical care. We are trying to develop a network to assess the needs, purchase or order supplies, package them, transport and distribute them in the most caring and efficient manner and account for and report on the assistance.”


“Right now the greatest problem is getting access from the SPDC to go help the people now. We hope that the international community will help those in need immediately.” 


Caring folks around the world have asked how and where they can send aid money.


They can send it to World Aid (checks payable to World Aid)

2442 NW Market Street, PMB# 434

Seattle, WA 98107


Designate: Cyclone relief 

Our tax id is 94-3116991


Contact World Aid directly at: 


Now needs to be a moment of action. We, the world community need to send aid, volunteers, and workers. We need to pressure the junta to allow life-saving medicines and technologies to enter. Moving forward, however, let this disaster be the catalyst, the first step toward permanent and meaningful international intervention in Burma. The Burmese people, the Burmans, the Shan, the Karen, Karenni, rohingas, Pa-O, Palong, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, and all the various ethnic groups have the right to live in freedom and peace. They have the right to self-determination. They have chosen Aung San Suu Kyi, so let us help her take her rightful place as the leader of a new Free Burma.


Please say a prayer for the people of Burma.


Antonio Graceffo is a qualified Emergency Medical Technician, as well as an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.




Gone Kurtz, on the Burma Border

In War in Burma on April 5, 2008 at 2:18 pm


By Antonio Graceffo



American Thomas Bleming sees himself as the new Karen liberation fighter, but does anyone else?


“Let me tell you about the army. The army is some guy you don’t know, sending you out to wack some other guy you don’t know.”

Al Pacino, “Donnie Brasco”


Mercenary, soldier of fortune, fast-gun for hire, even the job title sounds awesome. “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Dogs of War,” and most recently, “Blood Diamonds,” mercenaries have been the subject of so many great action movies that appeal to teenage boys.


I remember on my twelfth birthday thinking, “I wish I was half as cool as Han Solo and half as tough as Charles Bronson.” Sadly, my dream came true. I am only half as good as either of those movie characters.


If the movies are to be believed, mercenaries are shadowy blokes, lurking around bars in exotic places, like Biafra, East Timor, or Mae Sot. They are hard drinking, hard fighting men who will soldier for anyone, if the price is right.


Sixty-two year old Thomas Bleming, a Vietnam War veteran, the latest in a string of Americans who have shown up on the Burma border to fight for free, is one of the loudest mercenaries in history. He holds press conferences, gives interviews, and appears in several youtube videos.


Bleming claims to be a soldier for the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army), one of the armed resistance groups fighting against the Burmese junta. More than just a soldier, Mr. Bleming claims to have been appointed as the ambassador to the US, representing the Republic of Kawthoolei, the name which the Karen Republic will take after they win independence.


Because of my own involvement with the Shan State Army, the other major armed resistance group, many people have asked for my take on Bleming.


First, before this article becomes a long rant on how I believe the man to be “misguided,” let me begin by saying, the conflict in Burma is a just cause. The Karen, the Shan, the Palong, the Pa-O, and all of the many other ethnic minorities of Burma have lived under a regime of torture, execution, and genocide for decades. The SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) as the Burmese Army is called, is one of the most terrible entities in the world. Reports claim that Burma spends as much as 70% of their GDP on the military. Since they have no external enemies, the only purpose of the Burmese army is to kill the Burmese people.


And don’t forget that this conflict has been going on for sixty years. The citizens of Burma have suffered at the hands of their own government for sixty years.


These statistics are scary enough to make a normal person angry.  But, when you are living in Thailand, working on the border doing aid work and journalism, it is hard not to fall over the edge and go completely “Kurtz.” You hear horror story after horror story from the kind, gentle ethnic people who were rapped, mutilated, and driven from their homes. The lucky ones live in refugee camps in Thailand. Many didn’t make it that far. Their bodies line the mine fields where they were forced by the Burmese soldiers.


If you have a conscience, if you have a soul, you wouldn’t need more than one ten-year-old to tell you that he witnessed his parents murder or one fourteen-year-old to tell you of being gang raped, until you would be willing to pick up gun.


In the early days of the conflict, rumors suggest, that the Karen actually paid military advisors from other countries to help them set up their army and train their troops. Those days are long past, however. Anyone fighting today is doing so for free.


Ex-soldiers are attracted to this conflict for a variety of reasons. Some, the best one, are probably motivated by the same humanitarian drive that makes people do medical work or aid work on the border. These soldiers feel that they have a skill which is useful and they are going to help however they can. Others are simply adventure seekers, hoping to experience combat for the first time. Some have PTSD from other conflicts and just can’t “let go.” They need a conflict to fight, but they are still basically good people and don’t want to join a terrorist group to get their fill. They prefer a “good conflict” to a “bad one.”


Many of the older US veterans, including Thomas Bleming, are Vietnam vets. Many Vietnam War veterans were either drafted into the army or joined out of blind patriotism. Either way, they didn’t know much of the background of details of the conflict itself. For a man in a foxhole, the big picture means nothing. Personal survival is everything. After the war was over they began studying the issues. Some of the most well-versed Vietnam War experts I know are Vietnam vets, who have spent the last thirty years reading and researching.


For some of them, going to fight in Burma, or any other “just war,” is a way of making up for their forced participation in war which they may now disagree with. And this feeling of, “choosing my fights,” is not limited to Vietnam veteran, all veterans, even peace time veterans, realize with hind sight that they either participated in or swore to participate in a conflict that they knew nothing about at the time, and which they maybe have strong opinions on today.

In my own case, I was on alert for the Panama invasion, and later cursed my bad luck when my unit wasn’t called. Years later, I did an undergraduate thesis on American intervention in Latin America, and realized that the Panama invasion was anything but the “Just Cause” that the American government had dubbed it. I grew to respect Omar Torillos, and wondered what moron thought installing Noriega was a good idea. Oddly, this conflict is one I have in common with Thomas Bleming. One of the many wars he has participated in, as a freelancer, since Vietnam was Panama, where he was jailed.


During the first Gulf War I was a Merchant Seaman. When graduation day came and we lined up for ship assignments, just by luck of the draw, the five guys in line in front of me were sent to the Gulf. I was sent to Hawaii. They sent me one set of letters about how much their life sucked in the Gulf. I sent one about Hawaii, and I haven’t heard from them since. One of my boyhood friends, who was still in the army, was shot down in that war. He has had a colostomy ever since and is still undergoing surgeries, more than 15 years later.


Once again, at the time, I cursed my luck. Now, I am glad I wasn’t in Panama, and still not clear on Gulf War one. I am certain I am glad I am not in the current quagmire of Iraq, but would be willing to lend a hand in Afghanistan.


This is the kind of regret that both peacetime and combat soldiers can carry with them. A low intensity conflict for the right reasons, like Burma, may be just the tonic they are looking for to sooth their wounded souls.


If a man was a corporal in the “real army,” he may find himself an officer in a volunteer army. He was a trainee in his past, now he is the training officer. Low intensity conflicts are a kind of nostalgia, a way of living out the past way you wish it had been.


As far as conflicts go, Burma is one of the most comfortable. For one thing, the SPDC is so unbelievably, clearly wrong. Not since Hitler has their been such a clear-cut bad guy. So, if you fight in Burma, your conscience won’t eat at you. The tribal people need help and protection, and you are giving it to them. Case closed.


Physical comforts are also present in Burma. You sleep relatively safely in a base camp. You eat large quantities of pork and rice. And, you only go to “the fighting” when you want to. You sleep late. You wear what you want, and do what you want. It is like soldiering without all the hassles of a legal military commitment. And the best part, when you want to leave, you leave.


As far as I was able to verify, Thomas Bleming only spent six weeks in Thailand/KNLA on his first trip. It is not clear how long he is planning to stay on this, his second trip. But it probably won’t be a four year enlistment, as it is for the soldiers in Iraq.



When you make your way across the border to one of the rebel military camps, the rebels are happy to see you. They welcome you, and share what little they have. Your presence, even just seeing your face, raises their hopes that the world hasn’t forgotten them. They hope that you will be the one who will go back and tell the US government to take action on their behalf. Or, maybe you are a scout for the US military and soon, tanks, made in Detroit, will roll over the hills and take all their problems away.


To this end, the rebels will do nearly anything in their power to please you. They will offer you honorary citizenship or ask you to open an “embassy” in your home country. I personally saw an American offered the position of “Ambassador” three hours after arriving in a military camp.


The rebels are desperate for foreign aid and recognition. Many of the men who show up to fight are just desperate. The two together can be an unhealthy combination.


For most foreigners involved in the Burma conflict, the way in is through Thailand. They come to Thailand for one reason or another and at some point, by accident or by providence, they meet someone associated with the conflict and get hooked. For me, it was when I was living in a monastery, learning Muay Thai. All of my training brothers were tribal, and most were Shan. When I learned about the war in Burma and how these people suffered, only to come to Thailand to live on the streets and get hooked on Yaba, methamphetamine, I began looking for ways I could help. Another friend told me that his house cleaner asked for $30 to save a tribal kid from deportation. When he realized that a human life could be spared for such a paltry sum of money, he began doing full time aid work.


Every border worker has his or her unique story, but the similarity is that they usually spent a lot of time in Thailand, learning the language and the culture, before getting involved. Once in, they read voraciously. If you mention the name of any book written about this conflict, nearly every aid worker will tell you he has read it. In short, the people working on the border are informed. They understand the culture and the nuances of communication. Thomas Bleming only spent a few weeks in the country. He probably doesn’t speak Thai or Karen, and much of what he is quoted as saying suggests that he really doesn’t understand what he is involved in.


He is caught up in the fact that he was taken to the top echelons of the local KNLA unit. But, all foreign visitors are received by the highest ranking people. This is normal. He was allegedly awarded a political position. Once again, these are handed out like candy. He believes he was asked to be the US representative. The rebels are nice people and it is against their culture to disagree with anyone. If you asked, “Can I represent you in American?” they would definitely say “yes.” This would either be because they desperately need representation or because they don’t want to refuse a friend. But again, this great “honor” is bestowed on everyone. Bleming was quoted as saying that he was the only American or foreign soldier with KNLA. Not true, there have been many, and several were killed in the 1990’s. He also said he wrote the only book about fighting with the KNLA. Again, not true. Shelby Tucker wrote about KNLA in his book, “With the Insurgents,” and a silly marine, names Mike Tucker, wrote a terrible, 93 page book about his hair raising seven days with the KNLA.


One has to ask, what good would a 62 year old white soldier do for the KNLA? The terrain is absolutely brutal, up and down mountains, with no roads. Patrols last a minimum of one month, during which time, you carry your rice in a sock wrapped around your waist. You walk all day and sleep a few hours, maintaining noise and light discipline. It would be difficult for a fit US soldier in his twenties to keep up on such a patrol. It is extremely unlikely that a man in his sixties could even survive it. And if he slowed down the column or got tired or sick, he could get the whole team killed. Beyond the physical limitations, a foreigner is just a liability inside Burma. Any tribal person who sees a foreigner and fails to report him could be executed by the SPDC.


One of the things Bleming says he did for the KNLA was teach them how to use landmines. This conflict has been going on for decades. Even a slow learner would know how to use a landmine by now. It’s not like the KNLA were sitting on huge stores of munitions with no idea how to use them.


The KNLA and SSA (Shan State Army) don’t need foreign soldiers. One soldier more or less won’t have any impact on the outcome of the war. What they need are doctors, teachers, engineers, people who help them keep their people alive by building irrigation systems or rendering medical aid. They need material aid, clothes, food, medicine, and munitions. They also need journalists and writers who can tell the world about their struggle. Lastly, they need political activism. They need every person who reads this story to call his congressman and say, “please help the people of Burma.”


Another thing Bleming doesn’t seem to understand is that the war is real. The aid workers who cross the border every day are the real heroes. They can’t be photographed or go on TV, once their cover is blown they would be in grace danger. So, they live quiet lives, risking their lives for free, brining necessities to a tortured people.


I interviewed the leader of an aid mission in Shan State once, and asked, “What do the children need?” he answered, “What they need, I can’t give them. They need independence and peace for their country. But apart from that, they need clothing, food, medicine, education, and safety, like children everywhere.”


Bleming’s loud behavior has put a lot of people at risk. Also, Thailand can’t be seen as harboring dissidents or actively supporting the war in Burma. Every time a story of someone like Bleming comes up, the border suddenly closes and food and medicine can’t get in to the people who need it.


One aid worker, who requested that he remain anonymous, said: “Oh man, that Bleming guy is a real piece of work.  He’s walking around, giving out his business cards which he autographs for you, talking loudly in all the wrong places about going to Burma, blah blah. The Karen have issued all sorts of statements saying this guy is his own work, denying almost everything he says, etc.  The KNLA and KNU have worked for years at cultivating a good public relations, this guy goes and sets that back decades.  America just took ex KNLA combatants off the Homeland security terrorist risk list for refugee resettlement, and this guy goes and makes them look like a bunch of well armed terrorists again.  Plus he is big, loud, obnoxious and arrogant.  That equals dangerous in my book.”  


It is easy to point a finger at Thomas Bleming, or any of the foreigners showing up on the border to fight, and label them thrill seekers or, at the very least, slightly disturbed. But in the modern world of confused sides, things are never that simple.


Training in Muay Thai, I wind up training with a lot of security contractors. These are basically mercenary soldiers, employed by private firms to do military operations for the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan. They normally work on rotations, so many months in combat and so many months on vacation. Many of them chose to take their holidays in Thailand, where they can live cheaply, and where they can squeeze in some martial arts training before returning to work.


An enlisted US soldier in Iraq earns about $3,000 USD per month. A contractor earns between $10,000 -$20,000, and a volunteer in Burma earns $0. Being a contractor or US soldier, fighting where you are sent, is legal, admirable, profitable, and won’t land you in jail. Being an unpaid volunteer soldier in a conflict of your choosing, on the other hand, is illegal, not paid, and can get you labeled as a terrorist which could have long-term negative impact on your life.


Taken to the strictest limits of the law, the same negative effects could befall an unarmed, non-combatant, who crosses the border to inoculate children living in a rebel refugee camp.


Once again, I have to ask, what kind of world have we created where rendering medical aid to children could be construed as a crime?



On the one hand, Bleming may have gone Kurtz.


“I’d never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.”

“Apocalypse Now script” by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola


He may have gotten so wrapped up in who he thinks he is or what he believes he is doing, that he is certifiable. On the other hand, if the UN would step in, or if the US would sanction this war, there would be no need for the Thomas Blemings of this world. All it would take is a single stroke of a pen from the UN Secretary General or the American president, and foreign soldiers could enter Burma and render the humanitarian aide so many are dying to receive.


As always, please say a prayer for the people of Burma.



Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” recently he has been working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.





Living to Help His Shan People

In War in Burma on April 3, 2008 at 3:01 pm


By Antonio Graceffo


“Inside Shan State we cannot teach Shan language. And, when youth talk about politics there is retaliation. Even talking about the meaning of democracy, even thinking about the meaning of democracy is dangerous.” Said twenty year old Kawn Wan.


After his family was murdered and his village Burned, Kawn Wan completed his education and became a teacher and caretaker of orphans in Shanland, Loi Tailang, Shan State Army (SSA) Headquarters.


“You foreigners, when you aren’t happy with something, you go and change it. You protest and fight. But here in Burma, it is impossible for us.” He explained.


Kawn Wan sits in the bamboo hut he shares with several other teachers. The orphan dormitory is just across the way, and the boys are busy hiking a mile, down the mountain to bath in the river and wash their school uniforms for the next day. The uniforms are comprised of Shan trousers and pressed white shirt.


“It takes an hour to get the shirt clean.” Said a boy, toiling to bang out the wrinkles with a rock. Life in Loi Tailang is predicated on schedules. Kawn Wan and a few other grown-up orphans are the official caretakers of the young kids, but the children know their daily chores and for the most part, they do them. This includes the two mile river hike, daily, as the thrice daily hike all the way back to the school, on the other side of the camp, where they get their meals.


Some boys who have finished with their laundry are playing takraw, a game similar to volleyball, where the feet, rather than hands, are used to get the rattan ball over the net. The orphan area is surrounded by defense trenches and air raid tunnels, where the boys know to take refuge in the event of an attack. Further down the hill is a line of punji, sharpened stakes, designed to keep out the enemy. The steaks serve as a warning, to keep innocent people from walking into the landmines.


Seeing the boys laugh as they struggle to kick the ball over the net, you would think this was a normal school, at recess, anywhere. But it isn’t anywhere. The school, the dormitory, the base, and Shanland itself are inside of Burma. And, if it wasn’t for the thousands of Shan State Army soldiers protecting them, the orphans, as well as all the other refugees, would be killed by the forces of the SPDC, the junta that rules Burma.


“In Shanland, even the little children when you ask, what is your dream, they say, I want to go home.” Said Kawn Wan.


Most of the children came to Shanland because the SPDC burned their villages or killed their parents. They seem happy to be living in a place where they have so many brothers to play with, but like people everywhere, their instinct is to want to go home. Unfortunately, there is no home to go back to. And, until the war is over, or until Shanland wins its independence, a trip to Loi Tailang is one way. It would be too dangerous for the children to consider going back.


Kawn Wan came to Loi Tailing in 2001, and has now spent nearly half his life living as an orphan and Internally Displaced Person (IDP).


When the SPDC killed his mother and forced Kawn Wan to leave his village, in 1996, he was so young he couldn’t carry his own gear.


“The SPDC soldiers came to our village and told us we had to move into the town.”


The Burmese government forces frequently forcibly relocate villagers in order to better control them. Those who resist relocation are often murdered, and their homes are burned. In Kawn Wan’s case, his village was forced to move into a city.


“In the city it is hard for us to survive because we are countryside people. We don’t know how to get food in a city. Some people escaped from the town. From when I left until now, I didn’t hear anything about my family. They left the town to look for food. Then people told me the SPDC caught them.”


Eventually, Kawn Wan made it to Loi Tailang. He finished school and Shan college. Now, in addition to taking care of the other children, he works as a teacher of English and Shan Kung Fu. Kawn Wan teaches the nearly lost Shan martial art to the children in the hopes of preserving their culture.


“If we do not win,” said a Shan military officer, “Some day, if you want to know about Shan culture, you will need to go to a museum.”


Some of the boys living in the orphanage are not orphans in the strictest sense of the word. One or the other of their parents was still alive when they came to live in Loi Tailang. Inside Shan State, the SPDC has made life very difficult.  Parents cannot take care of their children the way they want to. Shan children don’t have access to education. At Loi Tailang, at least the parents know that their children can attend school and get three basic meals per day.


“They come day by day.” Says kawn Wan. “Some come alone, and some come with a relative. Their Uncle or the headman bring them here, because inside Shan State life is so bad. The government doesn’t allow us to teach Shan language at school.”


The orphans here are not only Shan, but also Lahu, Pa-O and Palong. The student body is composed of all of the ethnic groups who live in Shan State. Colonel Yawd Serk, the military and political leader of Shan State Army stresses the importance of racial tolerance. All of the many ethnic groups in Burma have suffered at the hands of the Burmese Army, but the SPDC has long used disunity as a tool for controlling the ethnics. If they combine their forces, under a single military ruler, the many tribes far outnumber the Burmese in the tribal areas. The Burmese soldiers are conscripts, who suffer oppression at the hands of their superiors. The tribal people, on the other hand, are fighting for their homes and families. United, there is no way they would lose.


“All the ethnics can bring children here to study.” Explained Kawn Wan. The term Shan State Nationalities is often used to describe the many peoples living in Shan State. “Some of them can’t speak Shan when they arrive here. So, they learn it. We also teach them English, Thai, and Burmese.”


“When I lived in Shan State I didn’t know what is democracy, what is human rights, what is other countries do. I didn’t know. I came here and I was sent to Shan college, and I learned. And now I can use my skill to help other people.”


Between leaving his village and coming to Loi Tailang, Kawn Wan lived as a novice monk in Thailand.


“I was a temple boy, cleaning the temple and studying with the monks, but could not go to regular school because I had no Id card.”


Many of the Shan leaders were monks in Thailand at some time in their lives. Up to about age fifteen the Thai police are rather forgiving about asking for ID. But, once the boys reach adulthood, they have to have legal papers to remain in Thailand, or they have to go home. The problem for the Shan, of course, is that they have no home to go back to. Luckily, Kawn Wan found a home at Loi Tailang. 


“When we live here, our heart is warm. These children don’t have parents, so I love to help them and be an older brother for them.”


What is the future for Kawn Wan’s young students?


“When they graduate, they don’t have to be soldiers.”


The Colonel gives the boys freedom to chose their own career.


“They can be teachers. They can be whatever they want. They can go to work in an NGO, or in a government department.”


The government of Shanland is called the Reconciliation Council of the Shan State (RCSS). The governmental departments are in place, and staffed with bright young Shan waiting for the world to recognize them as an independent country.


“If we have only soldiers, we cannot build our country. So, we need to educate our people, to have skills, to help develop our country. Even me, I lived with soldiers for a long time, but I didn’t want to be a soldier. I want to be a teacher. I don’t want to have a high position. I just want to stay with the orphans and take care of them. This is my dream.”


“It is important to teach the children what are human rights so they know the good way for them.”


The Shan all respect Aung San Suu Kyi, but they are realists.


“I think the NLD (National League for Democracy) cannot do anything for us inside of Shan State. We have never seen them. They haven’t visited us.


“I like other countries, they have democracy. I like Thailand. I only don’t like that I don’t have the ID card, but our food and everything comes from Thailand. I like the Thai King.” All Shan people respect His majesty, King Rama IX of Thailand. On the day of his 80th birthday, no one worked in Shanland. The villagers put on their best clothes and met at the temple to pray for the King’s health.


“We teach the children to respect Him.”


On the wall in his bamboo hut, just above his Buddhist shrine, Kawn Wan, like so many other Shan, has a trinity of kings. These include, the last Shan King, King Rama V of Thailand, and King Rama IX.  


“Even if we don’t know the future, our leader is trying his best to find our victory. Some of us work in different ways, but we have the same goal. Some work like soldiers. Some have skills and can help a lot of people. Even if we cannot go live inside Shan State we can have our school, and we can teach the children freely. Inside Shan State we cannot teach Shan language. And, when youth talk about politics there is retaliation. Even talking about the meaning of democracy, even thinking about the meaning of democracy is dangerous.”


Kawn Wan is fully committed to the path he has chosen.


“I don’t think about getting married. I think about my students. I sacrifice my life to help them.”


I asked Kawn Wan what message he would like to send to the American people.


“I want the American people to know that we have a country, but we cannot live in it. We have no human rights. The Burmese government doesn’t do anything for us. We want the Americans to help us, to tell the SPDC to give us democracy.  We want the power in the hands for our people. We want to live freely, like other countries. I think because in America they have freedom, and in democracy country, they have rights, and they will use their rights to help us. Please share our information with other people.”

    Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries: is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.


New Burma Video: Overview of the War in Burma

In War in Burma on February 21, 2008 at 9:51 am



Overview of the War in Burma

A Shan Perspective

By Antonio Graceffo


Although many people in the west know about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the monk protests of 2007, they don’t understand the overall conflict in Burma (Myanmar). Antonio Graceffo made this video in the hopes of educating the west and raising awareness of the suffering inside of Shan State, Burma.


Watch it on youtube:


Robbed by the SPDC

In War in Burma on February 18, 2008 at 5:59 am

Robbed by the SPDC


By Antonio Graceffo


Every person living in the IDP camp at Loi Tailang has a story of the pain they suffered at the hands of the Burmese military. Every one of them has had some fundamental part of their life stolen.


Hseng Mun was twenty-three years old when he stepped on a landmine while fighting the SPDC inside of Shan State. His leg was crudely amputated at the knee joint. Field medics often lack bone-saws and are forced to cut through the tendons at the knee joint, with a knife, removing the entire lower half of the leg. He was brought to Thailand for treatment and his lived in Loi Tailang ever since.  


Another amputee says that he was a hunter stepped on a landmine while trying to get food for his family.  “We are being helped by the army now, so we don’t have to worry about food.”


Neither man has had any contact with his family, back in Shan State, in years.   


The SPDC robbed them each of a leg and of their family. They were also robbed of their livelihood as well as their freedom and dignity.


Hsai Wee is 10 years old, but he looks much younger. Malnutrition causes many of the children to develop late and to never achieve their full-height and weight potential. He’s been living in Loi Tailang for five months. “We came here because the SPDC always came to our village and destroyed everything. They took what they wanted. They took the animals, cows and pigs. We walked here through the jungle, it took four days.”


Hsai Wee doesn’t smile. He should be a normal, happy child. Instead, his child’s face looks tight with worry and his brow wrinkles as if he were deep in thought. Perhaps this is because his village was burned or because he was separated from his father and doesn’t know if he lived or died.


The SPDC robbed Hsai Wee of his childhood and his dad.


Kown Kydwa, 43 years old ,came to Loi Tailang three months ago after escaping from SPDC soldiers. At that time, he had been a porter for almost four years. He showed us the huge scars on his arm where Burmese soldiers tortured him with knife.

“Life was very difficult.” He said, sadly. He tells us that he was beaten repeatedly.


“They hit me with their riffle butts. The SPDC soldiers broke some of my ribs and they never healed properly.”


Kown Kydwa is now nearly deaf. “The soldiers restrained my hands and the officer slapped me in both my ears.”


On the day he was captured, Kown Kydwa was on his way to work in the fields. The soldiers saw him and arrested him, forcing to work as a porter. The SPDC soldiers only fed him and roughly 200 other porters the heart of the banana, an inferior food, which is normally only used to feed pigs.


“When the SPDC fought a battle against the Karenni they used us porters as human shields. They put rifles on our shoulder and hid behind us, firing.”


Once, when the soldiers sent him down the hill to haul water, he made his escape. He went into the jungle with no food or equipment. He moved through the jungle for seven days, sneaking and eating wild foods that he found himself. He hid in the day time and moved at night. He didn’t know where he was or where he was going, but he kept moving.


Eventually, Karenni soldiers found him. They took him to a field hospital where he was given food and clothing. Kown Kydwa counts himself lucky. “Other people who escaped lost their way in the jungle.”


Knowing that he was Shan, the Karenni soldiers then took Kown Kydwa to Loi Tailang, so he could live among his own people.


He looks around at the dusty bamboo hut he shares with other disabled IDP men and sums up his life. “I have no family. I have no extra clothes. I have difficulty walking because it hurts inside.” He points to his abdomen and to his ribs which were broken with a rifle-butt.


Kown Kydwa has four children, but has no information about them.


“I don’t know if my family is alive, and they don’t know where I am, only that I disappeared from the farm. Now, because I am deaf and injured I can’t go back in the jungle and look for them.”


The SPDC robbed him of his family and his health.


Sao Nong (not her real name) is a thirty-six year old woman whose hard life has aged her well beyond her years. She has two children, a four-month old son and a six-year old daughter. “SPDC soldiers always came to the village and took what they wanted they also asked money from the villagers. They came often. They killed some people in the village.” She said. “It’s better to live here than in the village. It is free and I don’t worry about food and no one asks us to pay taxes like the SPDC.”


She lost her husband. “I was working in the fields. When I came back my husband had been arrested by the SPD. I haven’t had any word from him yet.”


They forced people to be porters abut once a month and kept them for twenty days. They took five to six people each time.


The SPDC forced people to grow opium for their benefit. They have to pay tax on the opium. She grew opium SPDC made her. They said half was for them and half was for here but they took taxes from the half which was left for the villagers. Then sometimes they just burned what was left and the villagers got nothing. In the village 40 families half had to grow opium also grew crops but SPDC would destroy their other crops and punish them if they refused to grow opium.


In spite of the horrible realities of her life, Sao Nong still can dream of a better future.


“I dream that the SPDC would go away from our village. I also want freedom of movement. And human rights.”


Before I left, Sao Nong made a request.


“Please tell this story to other people.”


Antonio Graceffo has been embedded with the Shan State Army inside of Burma. This article is part of the “In Shanland” project. To raise awareness about the plight of the Shan people Antonio will release one print article and one video per week for a year. He is giving these media away for free to ensure that they will reach the largest audience. You can watch all of the Shan videos released to date on yuotube.

Antonio is self-funded. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal, through the Burma page of his website. 



New Burma Video: Victims of the SPDC

In War in Burma on February 16, 2008 at 6:49 am



Victims of the SPDC, the latest video in the series A Life in Shan State, by Antonio Garceffo is now available on


In this new episode, Antonio interviews a monk, who is a veteran of the 1988 pro-democracy protest, the bloodiest protest in Burmese history. The video also features an interview with an innocent 14 year old Shan girl who describes the horrors of her torture at the hands of Burmese soldiers.


Antonio is self funded and humbly seeks donations to continue his Shan State video project.


“Many thanks for all of the support I have received so far. I hate to ask, but the only way I can keep up this project is if people would be willing to help finance my work to document the lives of the Shan people and to uncover the animal behavior of the junta.”


If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal. Through the Burma page of his website.


Casualties of War in Burma

In War in Burma on February 10, 2008 at 7:47 am

The deaths don’t stop at the border. More tribal lives are destroyed after they flee the war zone.

By Antonio Graceffo


Soldiers and innocent civilians are killed directly in a war, but the human cost of the war in Burma extends to the millions of tribal people whose lives were completely destroyed when they fled across the border. How many became prostitutes? How many became day laborers, struggling to earn $5 for 14 hours of backbreaking work? How many were sold into slavery? How many became drug addicts? How many became alcoholics? How many were sucked into crime? How many just disappeared, another undocumented death that makes those who know breath a sigh of relief. How many were arrested? How many died in front of hospitals that refused to treat them?


I witnessed tragedy firsthand this week. This one will be reported, because foreigners were present to do the documentation, but worse scenes are played out daily, with no one there to tell the tale.


On a narrow mountain pass, near the Burmese border, a Lisu tribesman lay dying in a puddle of his own vomit and blood. Soldiers in starched fatigues step over him, careful not to dirty their American-made jump boots, as they ask about the two foreigners and what we were doing in the border region. My friend is loosing blood quickly. A Shan soldier, Lieng, is about to be captured. My head is pounding and I can barely stand. I want nothing more than to just lie down and sleep for a thousand hours, but I seem to be the only one who knows anything about battlefield first aid. 


Two Shan soldiers had been taking another journalist and me into the war zone. When we reached an army check point, the Shan explained to us that, to avoid arousing suspicion, the two foreigners would have to go through on a single motorcycle. The Shan would follow a half hour later, on one motorcycle. After that, the two Shan would continue to act as our drivers. The problem was, neither of us journalists knew how to ride a motorcycle off-road. Literally thirty seconds after we got on the bike, we were hit, head-on, by a Lisu man who had been drinking.


I check the Lisu man’s airway, and make sure he isn’t choking on his own vomit. I crawl over to my friend, Unten, a photo journalist and artist from the United States who has come to do a sculpture project about the Shan people and how they suffer under the Burmese SPDC military forces. His hand is shattered and he is already worried he will never be able to work again. I am more worried about the blood pouring from his wound. He says he feels faint. I feel faint. I ask a soldier if he has a pressure bandage, but he only has an M-16. He can kill, but he has no idea how to save a life. What’s more, he doesn’t know that it is normal for American soldier to be trained to do both.


I wasn’t sure which system made less sense, theirs or ours.


A group of desperately poor Lisu, probably the man’s family, gather around the periphery of the action. Their colorful tribal dress is covered in mud, reminding me that they haven’t just put on a costume. This is how they dress when they work the rice paddies. But today, they aren’t working the rice paddies. Instead, they have come to watch in silence as their relative slips closer and closer to death.


They do nothing. They say nothing. They are undocumented tribal people, refugees from the war in Burma, living at the whim and generosity of a country who hates them.


The soldiers continue to question Lieng, our Shan soldier. He is my friend, and I have worked with him during all of my trips into Shanland. I forgot that he was undocumented and subject to arrest. I forgot about the Lisu man. In fact, I forgot everything, except that I needed to try and stop the bleeding on Unten’s arm.


Unable to find anything better, I grabbed a mass of newspaper and wrapped the injury. It wasn’t even a pressure dressing. I was too out of it for that. I felt like I was drunk or more accurately, like I do when I have been given a standing eight count in boxing. I felt fuzzy and slow. I knew that I knew things, but my brain refused to work. I forced that sluggish organ to think, but all I could manage to do was wrap the wound with filthy newspapers. The other Shan soldier hands me a bungee cord, which I use to hold the newspaper in place. I tell Unten to elevate the wound, holding his arm across his chest.


“I’m fine. I can keep going up the mountain.” Unten tells me.


No way! He needs to get to a hospital.


Within minutes, he tells me he is starting to feel like passing out. I envy him. The two Shan soldiers are in civilian clothes. The Army has only singled out Lieng because they thought he knew us and would know what we were doing there. Now, they are checking him for documents, and of course, he has none. The other Shan soldier has escaped detection. He needs to go, quickly, before someone realizes he is not Lisu. I could set Unten onto the back of the motorcycle, and have the Shan soldier drive him to the hospital, nearly 40 km away.  But there is a high probability he will pass out, and wind up splattered all over the road. If he stays where he is, resting at the side of the road, he will continue loosing blood and could slip into shock. At the moment there were only two soldiers in uniform, investigating. They were probably illiterate farm boys, or lads on their national service. Soon, their superiors would come. And they would be men with experience on the border war. They would be instantly suspicious, and hard to fool.


The Shan soldier implores once again, telling me has to go, instantly. We put Unten on the bike with him and they speed, down the trail, toward town. I pray that I won’t see Unten slip off and die because of the choice I made.


Minutes later, a pickup truck arrives, overloaded with tribal people heading to the city to see if they can find day labor for $1.50 per day. In the tribal area, their cash income tends to be less than $15 per month. They make room for me, and I tell the driver to take me to the hospital. At no point did anyone consider putting taking the Lisu man with us. I am as guilty as the rest. The tribal people are invisible to the average person.


Since I began the “In Shanland” video project, documenting the war in Shan State, people have been writing me from all over the world asking about the Burma videos and stories. The rebels need as much press as they can get, so I have been open to taking other journalists across the border, to help raise international awareness of a nearly forgotten conflict. Familiarity with the situation has led me to be a bit lax on matters of security, and I sometimes forget that war zones are dangerous places.


My most recent attempt to cross over and report on the war ended in tragedy, reminding me how desperate the situation really is. Once again, the message came home to me because I was touched personally, as one of my friends was severely wounded, and another was captured.


At the hospital, it was determined that Unten had shattered his hand, and would need surgery to implant pins, which would hold the fragments together until they mended. The Lisu man finally arrived in the hospital and was still vomiting, while doctors tried to force a tube down his throat to keep his airway open.


The Shan soldier who delivered Unten slipped away in the crowd when the police arrived.


“Who was driving the motorcycle?” The policeman asked.

When I told him Unten had been driving, he lost interest in me. He didn’t take a statement from me or record my name or information. The first question he posed Unten was, “Were you going to Shan State Army headquarters, in Loi Tailang?”

“No, we were going to look at the waterfalls.” Said Unten, repeating the story we had rehearsed.


The interview lasted less than ten minutes. Unten had given his passport to the doctor, so was unable to give the number to the police officer.


“I must go investigate the accident scene.” Announced the policeman, with gravity. He got back in his car and drove to Burma. This was the last we saw of him.


The Lisu man was loaded into an ambulance at 4:00 PM when it was announced that he was in critical condition and needed to be taken to the big hospital in the city, nearly 200 km away. Unten and I would be riding in the same ambulance, as Unten would need emergency surgery on his hand. He was in extreme pain, but the doctors couldn’t give him any drugs because of his upcoming operation. We wouldn’t arrive at the next hospital until ten o’clock that night. Like a real trooper, Unten endured excruciating pain in silence, frequently asking after the health of the Lisu man.


The Lisu continued fighting for his life as the inept hospital staff prepped him for his long journey to town. At 5:30 the doors of the ambulance finally closed, and we were about to begin our trip. The ambulance rolled about ten feet when suddenly the Lisu family in the back decided that they needed to get out. The milled about the parking lot, babbling in their language for another thirty minutes before getting back in and allowing us to take the man to a better hospital. It was 6:00 PM, two hours since he had been loaded into the ambulance, three hours since the accident.


En rout, we had to stop several times, so the nurse could stabilize the patient. She repeatedly vacuumed out his throat, sucking up large quantities of pink blood, which collected in a glass beaker.


“Do you think they have any idea what they are doing?” asked Unten.

“I don’t see why they would.” I answered.


A few minutes outside the city, the nurse apologized to me.


“I am so sorry. We will have to take the critical man to the state hospital first. After that the ambulance will take your friend to the big, private hospital. Sorry for the delay.”


She was genuinely sorry that the foreigners had been inconvenienced by the death of a tribal person. This single event illustrated the callousness which added to the misery of people escaping the war in Burma.


The Lisu man was left at a state run hospital, where he may or may not receive treatment. Foreign aid workers have told horror stories of trying to bring tribal people to the hospital and being turned away. Unten was taken to a large, private hospital, where he immediately went under the knife. I jumped out of the ambulance and disappeared into the city. I was Unten’s only link to the rebels. If he should be questioned by the police, he could honestly say that he knew nothing.


The next morning, I sat at breakfast with my friends, telling them what had happened. I had a black eye and was pretty certain I was suffering from a mild concussion, probably from where the back of Unten’s head smashed into my face. The Lieutenant called to say that the Colonel had intervened in favor of the Shan soldier, Lieng, and that he had been released from custody. If he had been captured on the Burmese side of the border he would have been tortured and killed. In fact, if the accident had happened on the Burmese side of the border, we would all have been tortured and killed.


I couldn’t go near the hospital for fear of implicating Unten. When I called, he said that he had his surgery and was told that he would need two months to recuperate. He was still worried that he might not be able to continue his career as an artist. His main concern, however, was that he wanted to find out how the Lisu man was doing. Unten wanted to pay the man’s hospital bill and give some money to his family. So far, it seems impossible to find the man. We don’t know his name. He has no ID card. And the hospital staff may not even have filed a report. I once took a tribal boy to a hospital to bring food to his father, but the boy didn’t know his father’s name, and the hospital didn’t bother to record his admission. The father was there for several weeks till we found him.


If there was no war in Burma, the Lisu man and his family wouldn’t have been driven off their land. They would still be farming rice in Burma, happy and safe. If it wasn’t illegal to help the tribal people in Burma or report on their war, Unten and I would never have taken a stupid chance, driving a motorcycle on a precarious mountain road. If there were no war in Burma, Lieng, would never have risked being arrested by crossing the border to take us in so we could report.


We don’t know if the Lisu man lived or died. But at the very least, his family will suffer great economic hardship as a result of this accident. After a long recovery, Unten will be Ok. I am always OK. But the tribal people of Burma will continue to suffer.


This was the first tragedy I witnessed first hand. Until now, I was just a tourist in a war.

 Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries: is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website  

If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal. Through the Burma page of his website.   

New Shan Burma Video Colonel Yawd Serk

In War in Burma on February 9, 2008 at 4:48 pm

In Shanland: Interview with Colonel Yawd Serk, Commander of the Shan State Army

Antonio Graceffo


See it on


Genral Khun Sa, the original commander of the MTA Mon Tai Army, made his way onto the FBI most wanted list as the largest drug dealer in the world. The US sought to extradite him from Burma to stand trial in America, but Kun Sa surrendered to the SPDC and lived under government protection in Yangon, in opulence, until his death.


In Shan State, a new army was formed, under Colonel Yawd Serk. The SSA (Shan State Army) has adopted a non-drug policy. At present, the SSA has between 6,000 and 10,000 troops. SSA has two large permanent bases near the Thai border, Loi Tailang and Loi Krovan. Both camps have become islands of safety for IDPs (internally displaced people) driven from their villages in Shan State.


Travel with Antonio Graceffo as he interviews the Colonel and finds out about his anti-drug policy, as well as the broken promises made by the Burmese government, and his people’s suffering at the hands of the SPDC. The Colonel hopes that one day, the Shan people will gain their independence and establish a democracy, and that they can return to their villages and live in safety and peace.


Antonio is self funded and will continue the “In Shanland” film and print article project until he is killed or captured. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal through the Burma page of his website


Tags: Shan, State, Army, Burma, Burmese, War, SPDC, SSA, Antonio, Graceffo, Shanland, Yawd, Serk


The War in Burma, a Shan Perspective

In War in Burma on February 9, 2008 at 4:45 pm

An introduction to the displaced people of Loi Tailang and my work with them

By Antonio Graceffo

 General information about Burma 

The war in Burma has been going on since before the end of the second world war. The Burmese independence army sided with the Japanese, fighting against the British and tribal forces who were defending the colony from invasion. After the war, Burma was given independence. Under British rule, Burma was the richest nation in Southeast Asia and had the highest levels of education and development. Today, under military rule, Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world. One of the largest exports from Burma is human beings in the form of asylum seekers, refugees, slaves, and prostitutes.


The entire country has been subjected to much suffering at the hands of the military junta. Burma is home to countless tribes and ethnic minorities, with Burmans making up somewhere between 40%-60% of the population. The tribal minorities have been singled out for especially sever treatment by the Burman majority lead army, the SPDC (State Peace and development Council).


Tribal people are frequently driven from their homes, with their villages and crops burned. Ethnic minority people are used as forced labor, slaves, human mine detectors, and porters who are beaten and even killed if they can’t work fast enough or if they collapse from lack of food. Gang rape is institutionalized by the army and used as an instrument of terror to control villagers. Ethnic cleansing has been sanctioned by the government, and Burmese soldiers are paid a bonus for marrying tribal girls to thin out the bloodlines.


Burma borders on Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Lao and China. Most of the cross border aid work is done from Thailand, where more than 2 million Burmese and ethnic people have taken refuge. There are, however, significant numbers of refugees in other countries, such as Bangladesh, who remain undocumented and unreached by western journalists and aid workers. The country is divided into seven ethnic states, but the total number of ethnicities runs into double digits. The states are not independent or autonomous in any way. They are simply administrative divisions under a single military rule.


In 1962 General Ne Win overthrew the democratic government of Burma. Since then, the SPDC has ruled the country with an iron fist. In 1988 monks lead a peaceful pro-democracy protest. The government’s reaction was to kill thousands of unarmed civilians. In 1990 an election was finally held, and the National League for Democracy, lead by Aung San Suu Kyi won more than 60% of the vote. The election was subsequently nullified by the military regime who refused to step down. Aung San Suu Kyi has remained under house arrest, off and on, since 1988. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She is currently the only Nobel Peace Prize winner who is in jail.


The Burmese government, lead by General Than Schwe, has complete control on the internet, TV, and all media. The people of Burma are denied the rights of free speech and assembly. Universities have even moved to distance learning format, to avoid having large groups of students meeting one another and organizing.


In addition to its policies of repression and terror the military government has taken some strange steps such as changing the official name of the country from Burma to Myanmar and changing the name of the capitol from Rangoon to Yangon. Recently, the government took the further inexplicable step of secretly relocating the capitol to a remote mountain location, in the middle of the night. The new capitol is called Naypyidaw.


In September of 2007 monks lead peaceful pro-democracy protests in Yangon. Hundred of protestors were killed and thousands of monks have since disappeared.


The level violence inflicted on the Burmese in Yangon, in the face of their protest, is what the tribal people have been faced with on a daily basis for nearly sixty years.


The war in Burma is largely financed through the production and sale of drugs, particularly opium and Ya Ba (Methyl Amphetamine). Many of the tribal armies have been guilty of engaging in drug related business in the past. Today, the SPDC is by far the largest drug dealer in the country. The KNU and the SSA (the two largest resistance groups) both profess a non-drug policy.


As a pop-culture side note, the new movie, “Rambo IV” is the first movie made about the tribal war in Burma. In the film, Sylvester Stallone teams up with the KNU (Karen National Union) one of only two armed resistance groups still fighting the junta. The other, less written about group is the one I am attached to, the SSA (Shan State Army).

  The Shan People 

The Shan people are a Tai ethnicity which live primarily in the Shan State of Burma. They are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the country. The population of Shan State is approximately 7.5 million, and includes approximately 1 million Palong, a significant number of Wa, as well as small numbers of Lahu and Pa-O people. There are an estimated two million Shan living in northern Thailand. The Shan originated in Southern China and migrated down to Burma more than one thousand years ago. They lived as an independent kingdom until the death of the last Shan king, approximately 500 years ago. From the 16th century onward, the Shan were divided into the Shan States, which were each ruled by a prince. This system continued even under the British rule. The Shan only came under Burmese rule shortly before Burma gained independence from Britain. Under the Panglong agreement, the Shan were given permission to succeed from the Burmese union after ten years. General Ne Win nullified this agreement, denying the Shan their independence.


In the early 1960’s the Burmese government cracked down on the Shan States, killing most of the Shan royalty. Those who survived sought refuge in foreign countries. Today there are a number of Shan princes and princesses living in the USA, UK, and Canada. The Shan formed a defensive army to resist government attacks.


Genral Khun Sa was the original commander of the MTA Mon Tai Army. He made his way onto the FBI most wanted list as the largest drug dealer in the world. The US sought to extradite him to stand trial. Kun Sa surrendered to the SPDC and lived under government protection in Yangon, in opulence, until his death.


In Shan State, a new army was formed, under Colonel Yawd Serk. The SSA (Shan State Army) has adopted a non-drug policy. At present, the SSA has between 6,000 and 10,000 troops. SSA has two large permanent bases near the Thai border, Loi Tailang and Loi Krovan. Both camps have become islands of safety for IDPs (internally displaced people) driven from their villages in Shan State.


Loi Tailang, the focus of my project, is home to 350 refugee families. There are nearly 1,000 students at the school on the base. The dormitories house more than 600 unaccompanied minors. Two hundred and fifty of them are actual orphans. The others may have one or two parents still living, but their families have given them to the SSA, so that they could continue their education and live in safety.


The government schools inside of Shan State are terrible, with the worst teachers and the least resources being made available to the minority peoples. It is illegal to teach Shan language inside of Burma, so most Shan children only learn to read and write their native tongue after coming to Loi Tailang. In addition to Shan language, the children at Loi Tailang learn Thai, English, and Burmese. It is arguably the best school in Shan State. 

 My project, “In Shanland” 

Defying the Burmese government’s ban on journalists, Antonio crossed the border under the protection of the Shan State Army, and began filming interviews with IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) within the war zone.


When Sai Lieng came back to his village he saw the head of an old man hanging from a tree. His father was already dead. When he found his mother, she was still breathing, so he dragged her to the temple and asked the monks if they could help her. She died a few minutes later. After the next attack, he found his sister dead in a pool of blood behind a hut. Unable to care for his six year old brother alone, he left his brother at a monastery. Eventually, Sai Lieng made his way to the Shan State Army headquarters at Loi Tailang, where he attended school for the fist time in his life.

He was ten years old.


This is only one of thousands of stories at the Loi Tailang camp.

“In Shanland” video project will document the lives, joys, and suffering of the internally displaced people, orphans, soldiers, and civilians living at the Loi Tailang facility. The Shan young people are intelligent, literate and thinking. This project will allow them to tell their story to the world, a world that has ignored their suffering.


The original plan for the “In Shanland” project was to publish (for free) one print story and one video per week for twelve weeks, then to make a full length movie, entitled “In Shanland” put it on a DVD and make it available to pro-democracy and Burma organizations as well as human rights groups. But, now the project has changed a bit. I still plan to produce a final DVD movie, “In Shanland” by the end of April or beginning of May. But, I am planning to continue posting one video and one story per week for a year.


Click here to see all the youtube posts to date:


This is a unique project which will hopefully gain momentum and help build awareness about the Shan and the war in Burma.


So far, we are into about the eighth week of the project.


The youtube posts will continue until the end of the year unless I get killed or captured. I had a bad accident on the border this week which made me realize that anything could happen and I need to get the DVD finished as soon as possible so that if I am killed or captured my silent partner could continue doing the posts.


To continue this work I need donations to finance travel in and out of Burma, food and accommodations, internet access fees, and money to pay for film editing service. I also need to get a better quality, HD video camera, because I am currently shooting with a low quality home video camera donated by a kind person in the USA.


If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal. Through the Burma page of his website. Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries: is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website  

Antonio is self funded and will continue the “In Shanland” film and print article project until he is killed or captured. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can do so through paypal through the Burma page of his website