At What Cost?
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For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question

Living with the crazy, fearless young men who risk life and limb to document Burma's genocide.

This explained the physique of Htoo Moo, he of the silent h and the constant smiling and the never talking to me and the stupefyingly round and hard-looking ass. "How long are they gone?"

"Depends. Maybe three months."

"Do they just hide around the jungle that whole time?"

Burmese Army Atrocities

"Yes!" Htan Dah said. "If they are caught, they could die."

 

HERE'S HOW IT worked: Somebody had to document what was going on in Burma—and stealthily. One activist who gave an interview to a foreign reporter served seven years in prison. Another was sentenced to 25 years for giving an interview critical of the regime to the BBC in 1997. Of the 173 nations in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2008, Burma ranked 170th, behind every other country except the "unchanging hells" of Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea. Burma has the third most journalists in jail. As for coverage of eastern Burma, ground zero of the Karen war...forget about it.

So a couple of times a year, Htoo Moo, one of Burma Action's human rights documenters, shouldered a bag carrying what he wasn't wearing of nine shirts, three pairs of pants, two pairs of shorts, four pairs of underwear, and two pairs of socks—plus a tape recorder, six tapes, a notebook, three pens, a digital camera, a battery charger, a kilo of sugar, cold, sinus, and stomach medicines, a bottle of water, and 150 bucks' worth of Thai currency—and trekked clandestinely into his homeland.

His most recent trip had started with a six-hour drive, five hours in a long-tail boat watching the banks of the Salween River and a darkening sky, and two days of walking over mountains and jungle trade paths subsisting on just sugar and found water until he reached a village. Even by Karen standards, this settlement was pretty remote; a fish-paste purchase was a day's walk away. At night, he slept outside on the ground, and during the day he stood thigh-deep in a river, trying—though he couldn't get the hang of the procedure, however effortless the villagers made it look—to net fish while chatting up villagers about abuses by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which is what the government of Burma calls itself.

After a month, Htoo Moo walked two days to interview escaped porters. He took pictures of lesions the straps left in their shoulders—raw, pink holes infested with flies and maggots. The porters told of being starved and dehydrated and repeatedly beaten with fists, kicks, and bamboo, of how prisoners who still fail to get up are shot or left to die, of doing double duty as minesweepers. SPDC offenses can be partially charted by the trail of porters' corpses.

Dodging land mines, Htoo Moo walked to the next small village. He entered it to find that some sort of plague had landed on all 10 houses, and most of the people were dying. One house contained a dead boy whose father, the only family member left, was too sick to bury him. The villagers encouraged Htoo Moo to look, to bear witness, and he did, but left after a few days, because there was nothing else to be done.

By the time he walked two days to another village, listened to and documented the story of a boy who was shot along with his father and brother by Burmese soldiers while cultivating rice, by the time he'd looked at the fresh bullet holes in the boy's shoulder and ass, and at the bloody track another round had grazed into the side of his head, by the time the boy had explained how he'd sent other villagers back to the field to get his brother and father as soon as he'd staggered home but it was too late, they were already dead, by the time he took pictures of the boy's wounds, which had been treated with only boiled water and cotton dressing, Htoo Moo was ready for a rest.

"The SPDC is coming," the chief told him.

So this is the drill: You flee, carrying everything you can—big heavy loads, as much rice as you can stand on your back in giant baskets, any clothes or anything else you want to own for maybe the rest of your life, your baby. Htoo Moo helped the villagers hide rice, salt, fish paste, and some extra sets of clothing among the surrounding trees before they all took off together in the early evening. He followed the 80 villagers along a path hidden beneath tall grass. Figuring a six-hour walk put them far enough out of harm's way, they stopped at midnight and Htoo Moo slept, finally, on the forest floor.

But the next morning, a scout told them the SPDC was coming; everyone needed to leave. Htoo Moo had slept through breakfast, and there wasn't time to make more. Neighboring villages had evidently joined the flight; there were 200 people in the makeshift camp now. They had with them one KNU soldier. Not wanting to further strain the villagers' rations, Htoo Moo stalked an enormous rat he'd spied lumbering around and killed it with one strike of a piece of bamboo. When he smiled, pleased with his efficiency, an old man next to him laughed. "Before you woke up," he said, "I tried to kill that. I think it was already tired."

The villagers fled until noon. Some of the children with no shoes lost flesh and bled as their feet pounded the ground, and some of them cried silently as they ran. Htoo Moo carried his bag on his back, the dead rat in one hand, his digital camera in the other, occasionally snapping pictures of the exodus. When they stopped, he dug his fingers into the rat's skin and ripped it off. He tore the meat into pieces and went in on lunch with another man, who provided a pot, chilies, and salt. Five minutes later, his belly was full of seared rat meat. He closed his eyes as sleep slowly started to overtake him, and then—gunshots.

Gunshots. He clutched his bag and jumped to his feet. Nobody screamed. The boy with the bullet holes started running, new blood rushing from the wound in his ass. Htoo Moo took off, ahead of even the village chief, reaching a flat-out run, crashing shoulder-first through tall croppings of bamboo in his path, before realizing he had no idea where he should be going. He stopped, turned around a couple of times, and considered ditching his camera. What if the SPDC caught him? What if they saw that he'd been taking pictures of gun-shot farmers, prisoner-porters with skin disease, cigarette burns, knife wounds, raw and infected shoulders that bore the permanent scars of carrying over mountains for days or weeks at a time? Though he felt like a coward, he fell back into the middle of the throng. By the time they stopped at nightfall, news had spread through the crowd that one man in the rear had been shot dead.

Htoo Moo listened to the men next to him talking. Of the 200 people, four had guns, four or five rounds apiece. One admitted that he had only three bullets left. "No problem," another told him. "You will just aim very well."

After three days of squatting and swatting bugs in the jungle, Htoo Moo told the chief that he wanted to leave. Sometimes, villagers hide out for weeks because they don't know if it's safe to go back yet. Sometimes, it never is. Htoo Moo needed to get back to work.

"I will take you myself," the chief said. "I am ready." He was in no hurry now. He'd heard over the radio that the soldiers had killed the pigs and the chickens, and then burned the village to the ground. There was nothing to go back to.

To slow down the SPDC advance, the KNU had set up scores of new land mines, and the way in was no longer a safe way out. Htoo Moo and the chief trudged through the jungle for three days to a KNU headquarters, where they shook hands and parted, and Htoo Moo asked a KNU insurgent to guide him the rest of the way. Shortly after they started off, the parasites that had been multiplying in his liver since entering his body via mosquito burst through the cells that hosted them and flooded Htoo Moo's bloodstream. He trekked slowly, through his fever, stopping when the retching brought him to his knees. "Don't rest there!" his guide screamed when he moved toward a smooth patch of soil just to the side of the path. He'd nearly knelt on a land mine. It took another two days to reach the riverbank, where he bought antimalarial tablets with his last few baht and boarded the boat toward Thailand—which had, by default, become home.

 

"DO YOU HAVE PICTURE?" Htan Dah asked one evening. "Of your friends?"

"Let's go to the computer room," I replied. Thus were several Karen refugee activists of Mae Sot, Thailand, bestowed with one of democracy's greatest gifts: that of wasting exorbitant amounts of time on social networking websites. I logged in to MySpace, and clicked through some of my pals' profiles, talking about who they were, or where they were, or what they were doing in the pictures. Htoo Moo, working diligently at the next computer, glanced over as nonchalantly as possible. Htan Dah said very little. Once, he asked me to clarify the gender of the girl I was pointing to on the screen. "Are you sure?" he asked. "She looks like a boy." I laughed and told him that she was a lesbian, my ex-girlfriend, actually, which seemed to clear it up for him. Other than that, he mostly just stared at the monitor in stunned silence, for so long that it started to weird me out.

"What do you think?" I asked him when I'd finished the tour.

"Wow," he said quietly.

"So, those are my friends," I said. He made no move to get up or take his eyes off the page.

I asked him if he wanted to see how the website worked. I showed him the browse feature, dropping down the long list of countries whose citizens we could gawk at. "How about Myanmar?" he asked, spying the junta's official name for Burma among the options.

I was surprised it was there, and even more surprised that our first search turned up 3,000 profiles. The junta has some awesome restrictions on owning electronics, especially computers. In 1996, Leo Nichols, former honorary consul for Scandinavian countries and friend of Burmese activists, was sentenced to three years for the illegal possession of fax machines and phones. (Taken into custody, he was tortured and died.) There are Internet cafés, but café workers are required to capture customers' screenshots every five minutes and submit their Web histories, along with home addresses and phone numbers, to the state. Humanitarian geeks in other countries, though, work full time to give Burma's citizens Internet access, with proxy servers that they update when the government figures out how to block them. From the look of it, they were doing their job.

On MySpace, ink-haired Burmese teens and twentysomethings stared at us: the chin-down-sexy-eyes-up shot, the haughty chin up/eyes half-closed look, the profile with eyes askance. Their faces were surrounded by HTML-coded sparkles, animated hearts and stars, slaughtered English colloquialisms. Htan Dah paused long and hard at each picture that came up.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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