Robert Young Pelton heads deep inside the jungle of Burma to meet rebels, mercenaries, missionaries, and monks. All are engaged in the world’s longest running civil war. At the center of this conflict are the Free Burma Rangers, led by a former US Special Forces soldier known as The Father of the White Monkey.
I ask Doug why he calls his operation “Free Burma Rangers.” Like many of Doug’s decisions, it is intuitive and simple. "I made up the name when I climbed Mt. McKinley, and I had to write down a name. Kind of like the Texas Rangers or the Army Rangers.” He started in 1997 with one local media team and now trains five- man teams from volunteers. They are trained in security, communications, media, medical skills and morale. But Doug makes the point that this is being done by the Karen, not him. Koala Bear, a small, hard-as-rock 37-year-old Karen commander, is in charge of training.
Doug has the unnerving habit of interrupting our interview with a prayer. “Robert, what kind of Christian are you? I need some prayer.” I don’t know what to say after seeing the godless wastelands of insurgency and terror in 36 wars. Without an answer, he prays for my success and the Karen. Then just as quickly pops back into interview mode. The Free Burma Rangers now have 15 different teams, and do two-month missions to document and help Karen that are attacked by the Burmese army. Volunteers spend four years inside FBR and then move on to military, support or political arms of the KNU. Currently he has 11 different ethnic groups at the camp, and even one Muslim. Doug estimates FBR burns through about $1 million a year, mostly donated from church groups. “We have 55 teams out there, but we are treading water. Help, hope and love is how they survive. We do our best to send out information, to help the people, stay with the people.” Looking to define it better, he then adds, “I cannot run away.”
Although Doug is a devout Christian, who grew up in Thailand and whose parents are Baptist missionaries, he insists that no one is trying to change anyone’s religion here—though there is a distinct sense of religious zeal and devotion in the camps by both instructors and students. “We have been here seven years, have four other training sites and eight teams operating from the Indian side. Since I was five years old, I wanted to be a soldier and then missionary.” His dad was a missionary when Thailand was still rural and undeveloped. Dave was sent to a boarding school at age seven. “That’s when I gave my life to Jesus. I got dengue. I was crying under my pillow. I was alone and sick I asked Jesus to help. And I felt this warm love come over me.” Growing up in Thailand shaped him. He used to hunt, fish, hike and ride horses while his missionary father dug wells and built schools. This beautiful mountain landscape with raw rivers and pristine hills is also his home. He owns 150 acres and wants it to be a national park. He bought it for $1,500 after the owner’s elephant trampled the rice crop when he was a way.
Doug’s history is both religious and military. He joined the Army, then wanted more of a challenge so he went to Ranger school. Because of his Thai language skills, he then became Special Forces. “In 1992 at my ten-year point I could have gone CAG (Delta Force) or Defense Attaché but got married. I met a lady and she left me. We were both immature, selfish people.” Doug’s life seems to be a constant battle between success and failure.
We talk about the conflict of religion and military life. He tells me a story. “Robert, when I was 27 years old and I was a Ranger, we were preparing to overthrow the dictator in Surinam. My job was to take out a group of Cubans at Paramaribo Airport. Bad dudes. To get to them we were going to have to run a mile and a half with full gear and then call in coordinates for an air strike. I was supposed to give them a minute to surrender before calling it in. But good old Ranger Lieutenant Eubanks was going to run in and just let them have it. The operation never happened but later my commander, General Mayer heard this and said, “You were going to give them one minute weren’t you.” Doug was surprised that Eubanks had no problem killing dozens of people without hesitation. He said, “You may be in the army but you serve a higher force. I thanked Mayer. That’s when I learned that I serve something higher.”
The higher force, despite the military structure, has kept FBR funded by humanitarians, church groups and individuals. One day, instead of the normal PT that keeps them lean, they are practicing singing songs, throwing Frisbees and making each other laugh—a task to cheer up demoralized and abused villagers. Their weapons are whatever the students can beg, borrow, buy or scrounge. I saw less than a dozen very old M1s and AR 15s in the camp.
The other odd part of Doug’s life is that his wife, his two young daughters and son live with him. “We want to be together as a family. The locals asked us to bring our family. It shows them that here it is safe. There are no locks on the door here. The Karen break a candy bar and break it into five pieces. We have two days warning if the Burmese are on the move.” He is proud that his son Peter did a 30-mile movement at age four. I ask him about the new attack helicopters. He says he doesn’t think it will be a problem and then says, “Yeah, we should probably think about digging bunkers.”
He said he was first mobilized to do something when he met the leader of the democratic party. “I met Aung Sang Syu Khi in the States in 1996. Even though she is a Buddhist, I gave her a bible and asked if I could pray for her. She said we need the prayers of people. I said I would be obedient until death. Just like the Lord says. Be obedient till death… So I am obedient until death.”
Doug has to balance life between being a mercenary, missionary and humanitarian. He makes it clear that no one here is making money, removing the mercenary stigma. He admits that there are plenty of foreigners behind enemy lines and the main sponsors do their best to coordinate. But he defends the need for military people in this war. “When the fighting starts, the missionaries all leave, the NGOs are next…but where are the Livingstone’s? We stay with the people under attack and will not leave them. We have no program of arming teams. We also prohibit offensive action. There is always room for people’s interpretation. It’s not a clear black and white.” Then he finishes by saying, “I love this God who speaks through the voice of God.”
“I don’t know what we are going to do next,” he says. “All I know is that I have 13 years of doing this. I have been in five close firefights… I like to fight, but God has never told us to do that. We have lost eight guys, half by sickness and half by combat.” The best perspective is the most banal, “Really the biggest danger is blisters, whacking your head or malaria.”
Doug and the FBR teams are the best single source of intelligence coming out of Burma. Thanks to his teams, the tactics of the Burmese Army are well documented and distributed via his website. “The SPDC mortars the village, chase them away, shoot and loot, then burn it and leave. The idea is to drive them into camps in Thailand or surrender. They kill the rest.” He has books of photos of murdered, raped and abused villagers. Once singular event that haunts him is a seven-year-old girl, raped, shot at point blank range and left on the trail for the Rangers to find her.
I ask Doug where God was on that day. He immediately asks. “Can I pray, Robert?” His eyes clench, he lowers his head and he prays out loud for the “strength and guidance to carry on”. He looks up at me “When you experience something like that, you want to kill them all, eat their bodies and then eat their shit and piss so there is no trace of them…. But the four of us [the FBR leaders] voted on it and said, no… we will be with the people and defend them.”
Doug wants me to understand we’re in an active war zone. “Burma is divided into 10% free fire or black zones, 20% brown or army controlled and 60% peaceful. We are in a black zone. We can recon the army within two hours. But you saw from those trails, that they don’t come here. The Burmese army doesn’t want to burn villages and murder villagers, but they are forced to. We intercept radio communications where a the major said if you want to be promoted you will burn the village if you don't you will stay on the river.”
Part of fighting back is not only documenting the methodical human rights violations but also staying alive to do it. He views his position as a mouse between two elephants. “In 1997, the two governments of Myanmar and Thailand had meetings. The Burmese said these Special Forces guys were causing problems. Within an hour of the Burmese leader landing, the Thaïs arrested us. Thankfully, we were released. This Thai General said I fought for your release but God got you out. I believe in God. I don’t go for a hike and throw away my compass but God guides me. So we have a working relationship. They say don’t mention your name and never show your face in a publication and cover up all the white people who enter.” For some reason they don’t care about Christian publications. One group in the government supports his work because he keeps the Karen refugees inside Burma, the other group wants to shut him down and a third group doesn’t care either way. Today FBR is 250 people. I push him on what he really wants. He says “300 rifles?” He smiles. Doug realizes he must walk that line again. “We have zero secrets. No secret spook stuff, but if the CIA wanted to help us we would take it.
Later that day, one of the American military trainers is concerned that the story is about the "ethnics" and not “the white faces.” He was trained as a Marine Sniper and his wife is a midwife. “She was trained to bring people into this world and I was trained to take them out.” But I ask him why he is here. “There are only so many conflicts that are this right. We are only here to support them.”
At dinner, we talk again. Doug is still trying to get to the core of his motivation and his constant internal battle. “Injustice is someone who holds you down who is stronger. I am only 150 pounds, but how many times have I been unjust?”
Dave constantly asks me to focus on the Karen and not on the gullawa. But it is clear that the outside support is one of the reasons why the Karen have held out so long. Villagers, dirty, tired and smelling of smoke and urine, sit patiently for the FBR medics to take care of them. It is up the western doctors to operate on a small boy, draining the pus out of his knee. The two doctors set up a makeshift operating area across from my mat and cut in without anesthetic.
Doug’s opinion of the foreigners is that unless they stay, fight and actually are there throughout the combat operations with the Karen they trained, they are just here on vacation. He also thinks that the Rambo-like mentality of many of volunteers, like the Americans who were detonating large explosive charges right on the border simply makes it more difficult.
“The history of outside involvement probably began with Captain Hang, who was a veteran of the French-Indochina war. He was a legionnaire, Vietnamese and rose in France. He not only trained but he went and did the operations. Very tight. When I see some of Bo Jo's men operating on the river, I can see Hang trained them.
“A couple of more Legionnaires came in the French marines. They did well. By the fall of Mannerplaw in 1995, the easy access was gone. There were very few foreigners in here after that. Lots of fighting, travel was dangerous, nobody knew who to talk to. Before July of 2003 they were just across the river at Mai Salit under the cliffs, but the Thais told them to move or they would have to arrest them. You could come in a wheelchair. Wouldn’t even get your feet wet.” He points to the sheer green walls around us. “Now you have to walk.”
After a couple of weeks come and go, the pain from the walk has vanished. I am losing weight, eager to run up hills. I bathe every day in a jungle stream, eat rice and deer meat, go to bed at 8 p.m. and get into the rhythms of the jungle. The young men and women of the FBR have become friends and invite me to take part in their activities. It is clear that for someone looking for a cause, this place is like Mecca.
Before we leave the students surprise Rob and I. They hoist us above their heads, cover us in ash and dirt and then throw us in the river. Then they carefully wash us off, smiling and laughing at this simple ritual of acceptance. I suppose it’s a baptism of sorts. There are long speeches from both sides, crudely printed diplomas and earnest thank-yous, and then it is off to the green vertical hell for two days of walking back to civilization. But this time, it’s enjoyable and I’m a little wistful.