Posts Tagged ‘myanmar’

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

Burma Martial Arts video Lai Tai 1

In Martial Arts on February 28, 2008 at 7:46 am


Martial Arts Odyssey : Lai Tai (Part 1)

The Kung fu of the Shan People of Burma

By Antonio Graceffo


The Shan people migrated from China to Burma centuries ago, brining with them their own special brand of Chinese Kung Fu. Travel with Antonio Graceffo as he makes his way into the war zone of Burma to learn this ancient martial art at the military headquarters of the Shan State rebel Army. See the first Lai Tai video ever


Meet twenty year old Kawn Wan who first learned Lai Tai from monks in his village. After the Burmese government burned his village and killed his parents, he came to live in Li Tailang, Shan State Army headquarters, where he teaches Lai Tai to the orphans so that the Shan culture will not die out.


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 youtube.

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: 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:


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.