BANGKOK – It’s an honor to be part of a group that includes the spectacular Michelle Yeoh.
Malaysian-born film superstar Yeoh – of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame, among countless others – confirmed this week she was deported on arrival from Burma/Myanmar on June 22, “for no reason and without providing any justification”.
Well, the unstated reason is that for the military junta in Rangoon/Yangon/Naypyidaw, Yeoh is more lethal than the kung-fu chicks she played early in her Hong Kong film career.
Yeoh stars as Aung Saan Suu Kyi in the upcoming biopic The Lady, directed by Luc Besson, about the relationship between the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and her late husband, British academic Michael Aris. And on top of it, Yeoh met The Lady last year in her house by the lake in Yangon/Rangoon.
Call me old school, but for me and countless others who have fallen in love with the land, the people and the culture, it’s Burma – not Myanmar. And it’s Rangoon, not Yangon. Unlike the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the junta’s Year Zero has been slightly more sophisticated, manipulating language to erase history. But make no mistake; Burma is a Southeast Asia gulag. With no North Atlantic Treaty Organization “humanitarian” intervention on the horizon – because major ally China would never allow it.
Just like Yeoh and many other journalists who have covered Southeast Asia, I’m blacklisted in Burma since the late 1990s. Many of us share the frustration of being in Bangkok and not being able to cross the border; the best we can do is to read books like Emma Larkin’s poignant Finding George Orwell in Burma, recently republished in paperback by Penguin – while staring at our Burmese lacquer relics.
Larkin’s (a pseudonym for an Asian-American journalist) thesis is absolutely on the mark; Orwell’s trilogy of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four does explain in minute detail, decades before the fact, the tragedy of modern Burma/Myanmar.
Recently my close friend, photojournalist Jason Florio did cross the border to Burma. Since the late 1990s, I had the pleasure of working with Florio in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Thailand and – of course – Burma, before the junta found out I was a “subversive” element.
As Florio tells it, “I was smuggled into Karen state in the cover of darkness and then I made a 10-day hike into Karen state – about 120 km of extreme hiking, crawling up steep hillside and along thick jungle paths to remote villages, reaching KNLA – Karen National Liberation Army – outposts. All the KNLA that helped me are non-paid volunteers.”
This is a side of Burma the junta does not want the world to see – the underbelly of the sparkling new capital Naypyidaw or the marvels of relentless, massive Chinese investment. The KNLA is the military wing of the Karen National Union – which since 1949 has been fighting the central government in Rangoon/Yangon for the self-determination of the Karen people, via an independent state called Kawthoolei.
So meet some of these warriors who are carrying out the Karen rebel yell. For security purposes, Florio cannot disclose their real names. They are commonly referred as “thra” – which means “big uncle”, but is commonly used in Karen lands as the American “buddy”.
The portraits were made at three KNLA bases – whose location, for obvious reasons, cannot be disclosed. After all, just like Michelle Yeoh, in the unlikely event these warriors would board a plane to Yangon/Rangoon, they would also be deported on arrival – if not shot on sight.