Today I went and spent my ┬г3.80 for the latest issue of Arena. It is, as I have discovered, an “upscale” British “men’s magazine” filled with advertisements for fragrances, watches and cars, and articles about actors, technology and “lifestyle”. I think you get the picture.
There is also, just to mix it up, an article on “urban warfare” about the police who make a living shutting down crack houses in tough London neighbourhoods. That particular article is actually not that bad.
And then there is an eight-page feature on Thomas Bleming. New Mandala readers who have yet to hear of his escapades along the Thailand-Burma border will, to get up to speed, find these previous posts helpful (30 January 2007, 5 February 2008, 2 March 2008, 6 April 2008).
I understand that there are lots of people out there who will, for geographic reasons, never see a copy of British Arena. I have, however, just learned that there is apparently a Thailand edition of Arena. Can anyone tell us if it has a translation of this Bleming article?
But given the involvement of New Mandala in this continuing story of war and the media it seems appropriate that I provide a flavour of the article. Regular readers will probably not be surprised by much of what follows.
The author of this piece, titled “Tom Bleming’s War”, is photojournalist Jason P. Howe (http://www.conflictpics.com/Biography/index.htm). He seems to specialise in these kinds of stories. Based on what appears to be a few days spent with Bleming earlier in 2008, his article includes pictures of a Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) base, and an image of Bleming posing with an assault rifle. And lots of quotes from Bleming himself. In this (sympathetic) account one does still get an interesting sense of his life with respect to the KNLA, and the Karen National Union, Mae Sot, the US government, post-traumatic stress disorder, gun-running, Che Guevara, and all the rest.
For the benefit of those who may never see the full version in Arena, here are some of the choicest lines from Howe’s article:
- “For a US citizen who is discussing a secret and questionably legal plan, Bleming is far from discreet. The lunchtime beers have loosened his tongue. His talk of sourcing ‘Stinger’ missiles so that the rebels can take down Burmese aircraft and the arrival of his ‘team’ of foreign volunteers is conducted at a volume a little too loud for comfort.” – p.139
- Back in the 1960s, “Ironically, he [Bleming] had great difficulty getting into the [US] military to begin with because of his involvement in extreme right-wing politics.” – p.140
- “When Saigon fell on 30 April 1975, Bleming vowed to get even by beginning a personal crusade against communism.” – p.140
- “In an attempt to assassinate [Manuel] Noriega, Bleming set a bomb under a 5,000-gallon fuel tank, but it was discovered before Noriega’s entourage arrived. Bleming was captured and thrown into jail. For 22 months, he was tortured, starved, beaten up and threatened with being thrown out of a plane. On 21 July 1981 he was finally released and put on a plane to Miami.” – p.142
- Almost twenty years later, a documentary about Ho Chi Minh convinced him that his previous war in Southeast Asia had been wrong. He decided “His global fight against communism was over. He made a pledge then that he would never fight for another lie. Bleming is now “deeply disturbed” by the US government and its foreign and domestic policy. He is against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and finds it hard to relate to the returning troops, despite the similarity to his own situation.” – p.142
- “On the eve of his departure for Karen country, his excitement is uncontrollable. However, he has just received a dressing down from the leaders of the KNU (Karen National Union), possibly for his rather indiscreet manner. For the briefest period, he is shocked almost to the point of speechlessness.” – p.144
- “As a morale boost, his visit is a genuine contribution to the war effort for these men [the KNLA troops they met], much like those movie or sports stars who travel to Iraq to rally the troops there. And Bleming is tough. He quickly adapts to camp life at a small outpost on a hilltop overlooking jungle in every direction. He eats the same food as the rebels, sleeps on the hard wooden flor of their hut and squats over a hole in the ground to take a shit just like them. Although many of his claims may appear to be exaggerated, he is a likeable, well-meaning and even humble character at times” – p. 145
- “Is Bleming a hero or a lunatic? The answer remains elusive. I am left with the feeling that there are healthy portions of both heroism and delusion in this man” – p.145
I hope these details have provided some extra insights about the role of Bleming in the ongoing war in eastern Burma. It is unclear if the “International Brigade of Volunteers” that he is reportedly organising is coming together. Apparently he was to meet his first batch in Bangkok earlier in the year, just after the research for this article was completed. Did this ever happen?
Whatever happened, or is happening, it is only fair that Bleming should get the final word. In one of his characteristically forceful statements he makes it plain that:
I am the only Vietnam veteran still fighting in south-east Asia, out of 3.5 million men…I am here to help these poor people and I am going to achieve two things. I am working on securing some serious firepower for these guys and also in setting up an International Brigade of Volunteers to help in the fight. In a few months’ time the Burmese will be begging for peace.