Sai Leng’s timidity belies his reputation as a feared sharp shooter in the mountains of southern Shan state. Perched on a hill overlooking Loi Taileng, a sprawling hamlet straddling the Thai-Burma border and home to the insurgent Shan State Army (SSA), he describes his daily tasks with unsettling nonchalance. “I’m happy when I meet with Burmese troops and can shoot them. I just have to take a deep breath, breathe out and pull the trigger, and I enjoy this.”
The 29-year-old is a veteran of more than a decade of combat in the rugged border terrain surrounding Loi Taileng, to which he fled as a teenager. His work, he explains, produces a sense of catharsis – a sentiment that is echoed among the young troops that populate the SSA’s majestic mountaintop headquarters, many of whom travelled as children from deep inside Shan state to seek shelter away from the reach of the Burmese regime.
Growing up in a village close to Mong Nai, a small town some 100 miles north of here, Sai Leng saw first-hand the tactics of the regime that have prompted international experts to call for an investigation into war crimes in Burma. “I spent a few years studying at high school in Mong Nai. The education system is controlled by the Burmese government, and I realised they weren’t telling us anything about what was going on in the country. Then when I returned home, I saw a village near to mine had been burned down.” Like thousands of others in Shan state, residents there had fallen victim to the junta’s ‘Four Cuts’ strategy that looks to break perceived civilian support for the insurgency.
Thousands, possibly millions, have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the campaign – the majority of these end up in overcrowded refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border, while others are forced into hiding in the Shan jungle. Some, like Sai Leng, however, find sanctuary and solace with armed groups, where rather than waiting in limbo behind a perimeter fence, they feel they are lending one more pair of hands to the perennial tug of war between Shan people and the Burmese army. In conversation he is warm and courteous, albeit bashful – an unassuming sniper, whom a friend hails as one of Loi Taileng’s finest. Is the image of the smouldering village that forced him to the SSA powerful enough then to prompt a dehumanisation of those in his crosshairs? “If I see the Burmese solider as just a local person and I see him in normal clothes, then he is a human being. But when I see him oppressing local people with a gun, he is my enemy.”
Of the nearly 10,000 people living in Loi Taileng, only half are native to the area; hundreds arrive each year to escape the dragnet of Burmese army patrols who comb the countryside looking to rout armed opposition groups. Historical documentation of state-sanctioned military tactics in Burma suggests a reluctance by troops and top-level commanders to distinguish between civilian and soldier. While sympathy for groups like the SSA, which provides small-scale education and healthcare systems in the handful of remote enclaves it now controls, is indeed widespread among Shan state’s six million-strong population, in the halls of Naypyidaw ideological support becomes tantamount to collaboration. Some observers claim the relentless encroachment of Burmese troops into the lives of Shan people is an attempt to dilute the ethnic group, a fear that the SSA has used to galvanise support among the state’s population.
Thus the population of Loi Taileng swells year-on-year as refugees become de facto aides to the resistance: along one narrow mountain ridge branching off from the town’s dusty main road is a rudimentary refugee camp, whose size fluctuates according to the ripple-effect of events hundreds of miles away. Although now distinguishable by the flimsy infrastructure, the camp and its inhabitants will soon seamlessly blend with the pseudo-military population of the rest of the hamlet. As time passes, so too will hundreds of children don a uniform and head out into the mountains on patrols that can last up to two years. Sai Leng has a one-year-old son and a wife who runs a store in Loi Taileng, selling everything from army boots to tins of beef curry. He says he will let his son decide for himself whether to become a soldier, a medic or a teacher in the local school, or to lend another hand to the overall sustenance of the community and its wider fraternity.
That sentiment is in keeping with the self-deterministic rhetoric of the SSA, which last week marked its 53rd year in existence – a celebration that called for extra pomp, given the public cementing of an alliance with its onetime foe, the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North). Although the joining of the two will unnerve the regime, an uneasy sub-text lurks beneath the celebrations: the recent breaking of a 15-year ceasefire between the Burmese government and SSA-North has triggered heavy fighting deep inside Shan state, with the result likely to be yet another flow of men, women and children south to Loi Taileng.
Yet work appears constantly underway to accommodate these new arrivals: the Loi Taileng National School, gradually pieced together over two years on a reclaimed patch of mountainside, now houses a well-equipped clinic and music room. A senior teacher says there is no pressure for students to join the army after graduating, and many instead opt to work in the school or train at the clinic. While the curriculum ensures children are educated and imbued with a respect for Shan culture, he asserts that the material steers clear of revolutionary propaganda; children are instead “encouraged to learn. If you know a lot then you can face everything – you can stand and face every problem, and you do not need to be afraid”.
The smiling, adolescent Sarm Luin also teaches there. Any assumption that the painful scars of childhood must inevitably give rise to the need for bloody revenge is corrected by the 24-year-old, who at the age of six saw the bullet wound that killed his brother, before being forced by the same gun from his home in Kunhing. The two incidents prompted his seven-month journey through jungle and mountain to the Thai border, evading countless Burmese troop brigades, before eventually arriving at Loi Taileng. Ingraining in these children an understanding of why they are here is key to their understanding of the wider socio-political landscape of Burma; likewise, he says, the importance of maintaining a grip on their collective histories, lest they be swallowed up by the growing might of the Burmese army, has become a daily mission in the school. This is his version of an eye-for-an-eye, a more lasting show of resistance from the mountain peaks of Shan state. “I will help them as much as I can, because when I see them, I think about my past,” he says.
The SSA’s headquarters has also become a rebuttal to cinematic portrayals of guerrilla movements as jungle rabbles: were it not for the swarms of uniformed troops, Loi Taileng could be any Southeast Asian hilltop community replete with a functioning micro-economy and terraced farming. It is the domesticity and security on show, tacitly aided by the nearby Thai army which relies on the SSA to stem the flow of drugs south across the border, that acts as a beacon for ethnic Shan as they flee the sweep of the Burmese army. A strange paradox also exists here, where the civilian becomes the occupier, the military the host. But the sartorially polarised groups appear to work together harmoniously, the plain clothes sustaining the uniforms.
Before he returns home to tend to his son, Sai Leng acknowledges the placid air of the hamlet in comparison to the work that he and hundreds of others in Loi Taileng do. But on both subjects his tone remains relaxed and steady, a reflection of how inhabitants here have learnt to normalise the coexistence of two disparate worlds on one mountaintop. “Life is good in Loi Taileng,” he says, a coy smile returning to his face. “I’ve never considered living any differently.”