Posts Tagged ‘Army’

Martial Arts Odyssey Re-Release (Part 1)

In Uncategorized on November 15, 2015 at 4:22 pm

Back to the beginning, rereleasing all of the videos
By Antonio Graceffo

Martial Arts Odyssey, the video series which follows the Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo on his journey through martial arts across Asia has been running since 2007. The video series grew out of a series of magazine articles and books which began in 2001, when Antonio left New York to go to Taiwan, learn Kung Fu and Mandarin and then train at the Shaolin Temple in Mainland China.

Since the beginning there have been about 400 martial arts videos, featuring the Monk studying diverse martial arts, such as Kuntaw in the Philippines, Muay Chaiya in Thailand, Selambam in Penang, Vo Co Truen in Vietnam, Bokator in Cambodia, shuai jiao in China and many, many more.

In order to share all of these wonderful martial arts with a new generation of fans, Antonio is rereleasing the episodes, in the order in which they were originally released, at a rate of one per day.

MAO: Kuntaw in the Philippines was the first episode shot and the first episode released, in 2007. At that time, Antonio didn’t even own a video camera, so the video was shot and edited by a TV crew in the Philippines. This video features Grand Master Frank Aycocho.

Digging for the Truth: Angkor Wat, from the Philippines, Antonio flew to Siem Reap Cambodia, where he and his Bokator instructor Grand Master San Kim Saen collaborated with a New York based film crew to shoot this documentary about the traditional Cambodian martial art, Bokator.

Between 2007 and 2008 numerous episodes were shot with borrowed equipment, but Antonio lacked expertise and money for editing, so the tapes collected in a backpack until late 2008 when they were finally edited and released, but not in the order in which they were shot. The third episode to air was MAO: Training with the Shan State Army 1, which was shot in 2007.

This video was shot in Burma during the saffron revolution when foreigners were banned from entering Burma. It is thought to be the first video ever to feature the kung fu of the Shan ethnic group, called Lai Tai. MAO Laitai 1

Pra Kru Bah, the muay Thai monk is the abbot of the Golden Horse Monastary, Wat Achatong on the Thai Burma border. In 2003 he took Antonio in and became Antonio’s first Muay Thai teacher. He taught Antonio Muay Thai, Thai language, and Thai culture. It was in this monastery that Antonio first heard about the war in Burma and vowed to someday help the Shan people. Prah Kru Bah Story Part 1

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a lecturer at Shanghai University. He is also a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of sport, writing his dissertation on comparative forms of Chinese wrestling, in Chinese, with expected graduation in June of 2016. He is expected to graduate his China MBA, from Shanghai Jiaotong University, in January, 2016. Antonio is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey”, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and several others. He has published hundreds of articles in the fields of linguistics: second language acquisition, as well as martial arts. Antonio is the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
The Monk from Brooklyn, the book which gave Antonio his name, and all of his other books, the book available at His book, Warrior Odyssey, chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia, including stories about Khmer and Vietnamese martial arts as well as the war in Burma and the Shan State Army, is available at
See Antonio’s Destinations video series and find out about his column on
Brooklyn Monk fan page
Brooklyn Monk on YOUTUBE
Brooklyn Monk in Asia Podcast (anti-travel humor)

The Plight of the Shan People of Burma

In War in Burma on August 30, 2008 at 1:58 am

By Antonio Graceffo
Genocide, Torture, and Ignorance: The Shan are dying and the world takes no notice.
“When I fled my village in Burma I had to leave my baby behind. She was too small to survive the jungle.” says Nang Ga a 25 year old Shan tribe’s woman.
She hid in the jungle after the State Peace and Development Council, (SPDC) soldiers of the Burmese army demanded that one member from every family be forced to work as porters or be killed.
With tears filled eyes Ga says; “The SPDC said we weren’t allowed to go into the rice fields anymore. How could we survive if we couldn’t grow food?.. They told us if we ran away they would shoot us!”
Many westerners have never heard of the Shan, even though they are the largest ethnic minority group in Burma with a population of approximately seven million. In a brutal war that has been going on for nearly sixty years the Burmese junta occupy Shan ethnic villages to control the rural populations. Rape, torture, murder, slavery and forced relocation are common. Parents are often killed or separated from their children, leaving tens of thousands of orphans living in refugee camps in Thailand or IDP camps in Burma. The Shan are not eligible for refugee status as a result most work illegally as servants, laborers or prostitutes. Children, twelve years old or younger, eke out an existence as undocumented migrant workers in Thailand.
When the SPDC raided her village, Nan Ga’s husband, 21 year old Non Geet, was away from home, serving in the Shan State Army (SSA), a tribal defense force, battling for the independence of Shan State.
Nan Ga hid in the jungle for two months before being found by a SSA battalion. She was reunited with her husband at the rebel armies’ headquarters of Loi Tai Leng.
Nang Ga and Non Geet are among roughly 3,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) who have taken refuge at Loi Tai Leng. The base which is set high upon the ridgeline, on the Burmese side of the border with Thailand, is surrounded by minefields and guarded by several thousand rebel soldiers.
Inside the villagers are trying to rebuild their shattered lives. They have built a meeting hall school, a temple, several restaurants, and a school. The children are educated in both English and their native tongue to keep their cultural traditions
Nang Ga says “Life is better here than in our village. The SSA gives us food. In Shan State we had to pay for school, but we were too poor. In Loi Tai Leng school is free.”

The young parents have no news whether their child is alive or dead. The villages don’t have telephones, and visiting the child would mean weeks of walking through hostile enemy territory.
Non Geet has never seen his child (he was with the Shan State Army at the time).
He says; “She would be four years old now.”
Nang Ga is expecting a second child dreams that someday their two children will be reunited to share their bamboo hut.
Motioning toward her pregnant belly she says “This baby will go to school and live in safety. And she will never be hungry.”
When the school bell rings for lunch break the children file out into the street and wait patiently in line for their basic issue of food, as they do three times per day. They are given rice topped off with watery vegetables. They only eat meat once a week.

Kawn Wan, 20 years old, is an English teacher at Loi Tai Lang. He learned to speak English after coming to the rebel base in 2001.
In his first English poem Kawn Wan describes his parent’s murder by the SPDC, “The sound of a gun took my family away.”

He remembers when his parents’ fateful day with vivid detail. Kawn Wan believes he has relatives who are still alive inside of Shan State.

He says, “I haven’t heard anything about them since I came to Loi Tai Lang. They left the village to look for food. Some people told me the SPDC caught them.”

Kawn Wan has lived half of life as an orphan. Now he looks after the 197 boys who live at the dormitory at Loi Tai Leng giving them the care he never had.
Pointing to two young boys who live at the dormitory Kawn Wan says, “They are orphans and have been here for about four years,” shaking his head sadly he says, “They don’t remember anything, not even the name of their village.”
The orphans, refugees and soldiers have formed a new community at the rebel camp while the war in Burma rages around them. In 2005 the base came under attack. For forty-five days the inhabitants were subjected to constant artillery barrages and frontal assaults by the SPDC and United Wa State Army. The Wa are another ethnic minority group who have come to a cease fifre agreement with the SPDC and earn their money from drug trafficking. Loi Tai Leng survived the attack but the memories of the battle are ever present in the minds of the IDP’s at the camp. Things are quiet for now but the villagers know this could change overnight.
The Shan people are part of the Tai ethnic group, which includes the Lao and the Thai. The Shan feel themselves to be the historical cousins of the Thai. The soldiers were given a day off to celebrate the 80th birthday of the king of Thailand. In every Shan home, there is a Buddhist shrine depicting images of the current Thai King, His Majesty Rama IX and the ancient Thai King Naresuen, who helped the Shan king fight against the Burmese.
The King of Thailand is credited with providing most of the outside aid to the Shan. Unfortunately, to maintain good relations with Burma, Thailand cannot officially or openly endorse the Shan resistance.
Tun Yee is a young Shan soldier. Yee says; “I am not sure if I am twenty or twenty one. It seems like a long time ago. My father died when I was very young. When I was about ten, the SPDC attacked our village when my mother was in the rice fields”.

The monks who lived in his village helped Tun Yee escape.
He says, “We walked through the jungle for about a month.”

Tun Yee lived illegally in a Shan temple as a monk in Thailand until he was fifteen and he moved to Loi Tai Lang, to attend school for the first time in his life.

Tun Yee doesn’t know if his mother is alive. Recently, a newly arrived refugee told Tun Yee that a Shan woman, bearing the same name as his mother, and who also lost her son, was living in the city of Fang, in Northern Thailand.

The soldiers had to restrain the impetuous youth, to prevent him from running across the Thai border where he was sure to be arrested. Once again, the monks intervened. The head Abbot of the temple at Loi Tai Lang ordained Tun Yee as a ten-day monk. His head was shaved and he donned the sacred robes of a novice. Together, with the head Abbot, he made the long journey by car, first to Chiang Mai, and then Fang. Along the way, they were stopped numerous times by Thai military, but the Abbot talked them through all of the checkpoints, before reaching their destination.

Yee says with tear filled eyes, “It wasn’t her. I don’t even remember what she looks like. When I close my eyes, I try to imagine her face, but I just don’t see it anymore.”
At eighteen years of age Hsai Leurn is the youngest teacher at the school. Hsai Leurn is a budding artist. He has drawn portraits of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and has learned to sing the song, “Freedom from Fear.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, the brave woman who the west has chosen as the face of the conflict in Burma, won the only free election in recent Burmese history, and has been under house arrest ever since. Her party, National League for Democracy, is extremely popular among Burmese in exile. Inside of Burma, however, open support for the NLD or the mere mention of the name, Aung San Suu Kyi, could be dangerous business, resulting in arrest, torture, or execution. Her biography, “Freedom from Fear,” has become a kind of Bible for Burmese who dream of a brighter future. The book inspired a song by the same name, which has become a mantra.
Freedom from Fear could be interpreted this way. If you can release yourself from fear, you can have anything. Or maybe, it means that when the Burmese have political and spiritual freedom, they will also have freedom from the fear which rules their everyday lives.
In the free countries, when small children sleep, their parents leave a light on, so the children won’t be scared. In Shanland, turning on the lights would give the enemy a target for artillery fire. Only a free election, not a nightlight, could free the Shan children from fear.
Hsai Lern says; “We respect Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD). Although She has never made any official statement regarding the independence of Shan State, many Shan support Aung San Suu Kyi. Whether or not they gain independence, the Shan will probably have a better life under a free democracy than under a dictatorship.
Kawn Wan says, “The NLD have never visited us in the jungle. They cannot help us. They cannot even help themselves… 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. I want the American people to know that we have a country, but we cannot live. We have no human rights. The government doesn’t do anything for us. We want the international community to tell the SPDC to give us democracy. We want to live freely like other countries. In America and democratic countries they have freedom and they have rights. They can use their rights to help us. When I lived in Shan State I didn’t know about democracy. When I went to school I learned about free society and human rights… Now I want to use this knowledge to help my people.”
Adventure and martial arts author, Antonio Graceffo has lived in Asia for nearly years, publishing four books, available on and several hundred articles in magazines and websites around the world. He has worked as a consultant and writer for shows on the History and Discovery Channel and appears on camera in Digging for
the Truth, and Human Weapon. Antonio is host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey.” Antonio was embedded with the Shan State rebel army in Burma, documenting human rights abuses, and 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 Antonio@speakingadventure.
com see 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