I’ve dislocated both shoulders on several occasions – although fortunately, not at the same time. With the corpse-like limb dangling from its socket, any movement is acutely painful. Nevertheless, I find the best solution is to grasp the limp wrist with my remaining good hand, and slowly but firmly twist outward and downwards in a clock-wise spiral. This results in the shoulder popping back into its socket – rather painfully, but accompanied by great relief.
The first time my shoulder dislocated I was travelling on the Ye River, with Mon relief workers, and a small detachment of Mon National Liberation Army (MNLA) soldiers. This was a couple of months before the June 1995 ceasefire between the Burmese military government and the New Mon State Party (NMSP – the MNLA’s political leadership). Negotiations to end the fighting were already underway, and both sides were on high military alert. The Tatmadaw (Burma Army) was attempting to push the MNLA back from its forward positions, in order to increase pressure on the Mon insurgents to agree a ceasefire, and also to limit the amount of territory ceded to the NMSP under the ceasefire agreement.
Two days earlier, we had left Sangkhlaburi (in Thailand) at dawn, and taken a chilly boat ride across the misty lake, and then upstream to a Mon refugee camp. From there, we had walked for about eight hours, up one side of a heavily forested mountain – the top ridge of which constituted the Thailand-Burma border – and then steeply down the other, before arriving in the NMSP’s jungle headquarters, on a tributary of the Ye River. Along the way we had seen and heard hornbills – their giant wings booming as they flew between the treetops overhead – and wild boar rustling and snorting in the undergrowth. As usual in the rainy season, we had to continuously pick leeches off our ankles, before they inched up under our longyis.
The next day we met with the NMSP leadership – or at least, those who were not at the ‘front line’, or meeting with the Burma Army in Moulmein. Then we set off up-river, to visit civilians displaced by the recent fighting. We travelled part of the way by boat, before stopping for lunch by the riverside, and then continuing on foot.
A word about that lunch. I had been happily half-snoozing in the back of the boat, when the loudest and most alarming noise I’ve ever heard erupted seemingly inches (but actually several feet) from my left ear. One of the soldiers in our party had spotted a four-foot monitor lizard basking on a branch, overhanging the river. He had let off a round with his M16 rifle, and killed the creature with great skill. Incidentally, he also terrified me.
We pulled into the riverside, hauled the poor, dead lizard into the boat, and proceeded to butcher it there and then, and prepare a curry while we continued upstream. When we ate this for lunch one hour later, it was pretty tough and tasteless. However, when we eventually had the rest of the lizard in a similar curry that evening, it tasted superb. In part of course, we were just plain hungry; also though, I think that enzymes had broken down the lizard’s flesh during the long hot afternoon it had spent in the bottom of the boat. This is why ‘game’ meet needs to be hung for a while before eating.
With lunch over, and following a twenty minute rest in the shade, we continued on our way, walking single-file along the narrow path which ran parallel to the river. To begin with, the journey continued in a relaxed and enjoyable manner, as we exchanged stories of favourite jungle lunches from times gone by. (I offered tales of monkey-shit curries provided by generous Karen hosts – a delicacy unknown to the Mon.) However, the tone of our little expedition soon became much more serious.
The signals Sergeant attached to our accompanying party of a dozen soldiers had received some alarming news. The day before, a Tatmadaw column had set out from Kanni (a few miles up-river from Ye town, and a dozen miles west of our current position), but MNLA intelligence had lost track of the enemy troops in the jungle. There was a suspicion that the Burma Army unit might be heading east, in order to launch a surprise attack on the NMSP headquarters area. If so, they might be heading our way, with aggressive intent.
This information was revealed to me in dribs and drabs over the next few hours, as we moved forward as quietly as possible (but for crackling twigs underfoot, and occasional bouts of radio communication). The procedure was as follows: half-a-dozen MNLA men would go ahead a few hundred yards, check out the path in front, then send a signal back down the way to my three Mon civilian friends, the other soldiers from our bodyguard and I; we would then scamper as quickly and quietly as possible up the path to the forward group, at which point we began again. Our slow progress continued thus for three or four exhausting hours.
By this time, we were proceeding along a very narrow path, the edge of which dropped in a steep ravine down to the tumbling and bolder-strewn river, perhaps fifty feet below. Although I was still a little scared, one couldn’t help but admire the stunning range of glorious green vegetation in the semi-jungle all around. I was quite tired by now, and the novelty of our situation having worn off a little, was not concentrating fully on the task at hand.
I slipped – and my flip-flop clad right foot skidded off the path, and over the edge. Fortunately, as my body lurched downwards, I shot out my left arm and grabbed some vine-like stuff, which was loosely cladding a (in retrospect, jolly convenient) nearby tree. With an instinctive jerk, I pulled myself back onto the path, and rolled over in shock – and pain. Although I had saved myself from a very dangerous tumble down a jagged, rocky riverbank, I had in the process yanked my left shoulder out of its socket.
No one knew quite what to do. After a bout of trial, and very painful error, I worked out how to re-locate my shoulder – and we continued on our way.
This little episode prepared me well for the next time my arm popped out. This was about a year later, while ice-skating with friends in Portsmouth (on the south coast, in the UK).
We were happily careering round the edge of the rink, when I fell (not for the first time) – and reached out to save myself, by grabbing the perimeter railing. In a similar manner to that described above, my shoulder popped out with a searing jolt of pain, and I skidded across the ice. I crawled on my knees to the side of the rink, and hauled myself upright with my good right arm. I was a little dazed, and unsure what to do next, as the dodgy limb dangled uselessly by my side, my left hand a good six inches lower than the right.
I realised after a few moments that several of our fellow skaters had stopped to stare, and this attracted the attention of the ice rink staff. However, none of them (including the twit-ish ‘First Aid Officer’) would help at all, beyond muttering about ambulances and hospitals. Therefore, I composed myself, gritted my teeth, and twisted my shoulder back into place. Rather heroically I thought (or foolishly, according to my friends), I carried on skating for another half-hour – although at reduced speed.
The next time I dislocated my shoulder, there was a slight twist (excuse the pun) involved. I was in Brussels for a Burma conference, and had recently awakened, shaved and dressed, and was preparing to head downstairs to breakfast. Putting on my suit jacket, I flung back my right arm – and out popped my previously sound shoulder.
Having stumbled painfully around my hotel room for a few minutes, pathetically trying to tie my tie, I took the lift down to the breakfast room. I made something of a spectacle of myself, as I traipsed through the diners, with my arm dangling. As has become usual in such situations, I could find no one able to offer assistance. I therefore had to right myself under the gaze of assembled Burma-scholars and policy wonks. At least my peers and betters cut me some slack, when I addressed them later that morning on the subject of humanitarian vulnerability in Burma.
The next time it happened was in our apartment in downtown Bangkok, smoothing down a bedsheet. These days, I’m a lot more careful with my movements. However, it’s only a matter of time before I dislocate my shoulder while picking my nose!