On a sticky 90-degree day last November, the sun blazed high over a village in northern Karen, a province of 7.5 million people in southeastern Myanmar. At the edge of a riverside clearing, farmers dressed in rags, sweaty and soiled, trickled home from the fields to their thatched-bamboo huts for lunch. They chatted and laughed freely—until a mortar exploded 50 feet away.
Within seconds men in Myanmar Army uniforms strafed the village with semi-automatic gunfire. Shouting soldiers dragged women to the ground and held pistols to the men’s heads. The platoon leader wandered from hut to hut, using a torch to ignite grass roofs.
Then something strange happened. A young blond girl—dressed in black and wearing flip-flops, her face streaked with grease—suddenly leaped to the top of a boulder, holding a bow and arrow. Narrowing her eyes, she pulled back and fired.
“Way to go!” A lean, fit American guy, dressed in running shorts and an Army green T-shirt, emerged from the sidelines, clapping and cheering like a proud parent at a soccer game. “Did you see that? She jumped up like Robin Hood and just nailed the guy!”
This was the 52-year-old founder of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a humanitarian relief outfit operating in Karen and other Myanmar states. I’ll call him Scott, which is not his real name. (Because the FBR’s work involves crossing into Myanmar illegally and could be shut down at any time—and because of the security risks I observed FBR teams take behind enemy lines—I agreed not to reveal the identity of the group’s founder or members of his family.) The blond girl is Scott’s 12-year-old daughter, and what I’d been witnessing was the kind of attack that has occurred many hundreds of times in the country’s ethnic regions—in the border states of Karen, Kayah, and Shan, among others, whose rebel militias have resisted Myanmar’s military since the country gained independence in 1948. Even as Myanmar’s government has made headlines for its recent reforms, the fighting has continued in some areas, and a full-fledged war has erupted in Kachin, where 90,000 people have been displaced since June 2011.
This time, however, the arrows were blunted and the bullets blanks. The mock village burning was the elaborate launch of the final two-day exercise at FBR’s six-week training session, at a place called White Monkey Camp. A former U.S Army Ranger and ordained minister, Scott founded the Free Burma Rangers in 1997. Run by a staff of Western evangelical volunteers and funded mainly by Christian churches, FBR trains teams of ethnic rebels to go toward the front lines, help evacuate internally displaced people (IDPs), treat the sick and wounded, perform reconnaissance of enemy troops, inform villagers and allies of their whereabouts, and document the Myanmar Army’s carnage with video, photography, and written reports, which they transmit to news organizations, NGOs, local governments, and church groups around the world.
The FBR’s work is dangerous. Rangers are often armed with whatever weapons they can find—shotguns, 22s, AK-47s—and have been the target of enemy fire on a number of occasions. Since 1997, 13 Rangers have died in the field—one caught and tortured to death by the Myanmar Army, others killed by land mines, malaria, and a lightning strike.
Scott runs five training camps each year, with the largest, held each November, at White Monkey Camp. This time there were 76 trainees in attendance, ranging in age from 18 to 36, representing seven of the country’s 135 ethnic groups. Most of them were rebels sent by the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the largest movements fighting for autonomy from the Myanmar government. Over the previous few weeks, the trainees had attended seminars in strategic reconnaissance and wilderness rescue and received specialized instruction from volunteer medics, engineers, photographers, and videographers. Beginning at 4:30 a.m. each day, they’d also undergone grueling physical conditioning, including climbing canyon walls and hours of sit-ups, push-ups, and trail runs. During the final mock-fighting exercise, they wouldn’t sleep or eat much.