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Burmese Rebels Celebrate a Shan New Year

Lung Lawn walked for 17 nights to get here, through heavily mined forests, past Burmese military battalions and over the mountainous battlefields where rebel guerillas ambush them.

The new moon of December is approaching, and he's come to celebrate the New Year of his people; the Shan, Burma's largest ethnic minority. He's 46 years old — as old as the military government's iron-fisted rule over Burma, and as old as his people's armed resistance against it.

But as the calendar quietly turns in this forgotten corner of a forgotten country, the Shan's struggle for cultural and political freedom grows increasingly desperate. It's now 2102 for the Shan, and the coming year looks to be another test of their longevity against the violent excesses of the Burmese military regime.

This is Lung Lawn's first time seeing the headquarters of the Shan State Army, one of the last and largest rebel groups still fighting the Burmese government. The headquarters is a modest village of about 2,000 to 3,000 people, but he can't believe his eyes.

"It's so good," he says. "I see the peace of this place and I'm happy."

Where Lung Lawn lives, in the center of eastern Burma's Shan State, life is anything but peaceful. He is the vice headman of his village and says the Burmese military routinely comes to conscript men to serve as their porters. They steal, destroy and terrorize, he says, adding that three weeks ago they wantonly shot a woman walking to her fields.

"When I hear the military is coming I will hide in the jungle," Lung Lawn said.

But here in Loi Tai Leng, the headquarters of the Shan State Army perched in craggy mountains along the Thai border like a fortified 19th century hamlet, peace prevails. Granted, it's a besieged peace — hunters who wander too close to the nearby Burmese outposts are still likely to be shot or lose a limb to a land mine — but it's enough that children laugh and run freely through the streets, and nighttime romances are carried out by candlelight in noodle shops.

Preparations for the New Year's celebrations send ripples through the village weeks before the actual event. The monks in the monastery have been chanting in shifts around the clock for seven days for protection of their people and the Shan State Army. Wooden buildings are scrubbed and stained, streets swept, fences built and the Shan national flag, yellow, green and red, comes up outside houses across the village.

This year's celebrations will also coincide with the graduation of 300 recent recruits, and they have started practicing their marching ceremony weeks in advance.

Early each morning, as the mist peels off the mountaintops, they march through the village to the snap of snare drums, even-stepped, in lines of five. They are a ragtag team, young and old, farmers and monks, now enlisted to fight. Their arms, legs and torsos are a canvas of tattoos; tigers, dragons, spears and ancient Pali scriptures that they believe will deflect bullets and ward off the cold. Their uniforms are dusty and mismatched, their boots worn through. They carry grimy Vietnam-era M-16 rifles and Chinese AK-47 copies.

But there's a note of conviction in the battle songs they belt out as they walk, and their collective shouts from the parade grounds can be heard a mile away.

Their leader, Col. Yawd Serk, a quiet, bespectacled man with a banker's face, remains hopeful, despite admitting that his rebel army is massively outnumbered by the Burmese.

"It depends on your heart, not only on your gun," he said. "It depends on your morale, your spirit. Hitler had many soldiers, but he lost."

The rebel army headquarters on the Thai border is in the only scrap of liberated territory in Shan State — a handful of mountaintops and the jungle between. But the colonel says his troops have routes to move freely throughout the state and successfully ambush the Burmese soldiers when they are on patrol.

The chances of an outright military victory for the rebel army are slimmer each year. But the colonel insists there is no other option to armed resistance if his people and their culture are to survive. The Burmese government bans the teaching of the Shan language in schools. People can only practice their cultural traditions quietly, in the privacy of their own homes.

The Shan army headquarters at Loi Tai Leng is the last place in Burma where the Shan New Year can be fully and openly celebrated, with the traditional songs, dances and displays of Shan martial arts. And so it is the biggest event of the year — a two-day affair steeped in rice whiskey, loud music and defiant displays of military strength.

Soldiers — recently paid their monthly salary of 200 baht ($6) for the first time in five months — splurge on alcohol and noodles in food stalls, and the air fills with the sour smoke of their cheroots. Outside, vendors sell khao tum nga, purple sticky rice pounded in a hollowed-out tree stump with roasted sesame seeds, a Shan New Year specialty.

Before a crowd of thousands, men and women perform dances in costumes of mythical Shan animals — a giant ram, a deer and two different birds — which first danced for the newly enlightened Buddha, according to legend. Young men with long knives perform the twirling Shan martial art, called Lai Tai. Boys and girls shuffle their feet in a choreographed blossoming of a cherry tree, set to the clash of cymbals and the beat of a 7-foot-long Shan drum.

All the events are presided over by the disc jockey of the village radio station, a woman with a sultry voice for whom many a rebel soldier has openly declared his love.

The military drills and marching seem to achieve the desired effect. There are some initial snickers in the crowd of civilians at some awkward missteps by the young recruits, but no one is laughing when the colonel pulls a pistol from his belt and shoots it in the air to finish his speech. A volley of missiles and mortars follows on cue from the valley below, whizzing off in white plumes of smoke and sending booms across the mountainsides on impact.

The colonel will later reflect on this proudly at dinner around a table full of guests. After three pegs of whiskey, he is feeling plucky.

"We showed the enemy today," he says. "If they turn on their TVs, they will see the pictures. If they want to come fight, we welcome them. If this year they do not come, then next year we will go to them!"

But military bravado aside, the civilians who came to witness the strength of the rebel army that fights for their freedom still have their homes to return to, in villages terrorized by the Burmese military. For some it's a difficult reality to face.

Kaw S' La, 30, left his two young children behind when he walked under the cover of darkness for two weeks to see the festivities at Loi Tai Leng. Just a week earlier he had been captured by the Burmese military when he was walking through the jungle to a neighboring village. They beat him unconscious and left him for dead. Hours later he was able to sneak back to his village undetected.

"In our village, it is dangerous even to walk in our fields," he said. "I am afraid to go home. Here it is peaceful. In my village it's not safe."

When Kaw S' La returns, he will tell his village about the New Year's celebrations, about the strength of the Shan State Army and the safety of Loi Tai Leng. But he's mostly thinking about what he will tell his children.

"I will tell them in Loi Tai Leng it is good and peaceful," he said. "I will tell them there is no danger here."

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