This is a five part New Mandala series. Readers are warned that some of the content in this series is graphic.
April 1972 and it was the last Sunday before the Thin-Gyan water festivals when I found the dead boy.
He was slumping lifeless in the dark staircase to the upper floors of the apartment building next door to our shop house. He was a bad boy from our neighbourhood and I was the first one to notice the body.
The blood-filled plastic syringe he used to inject heroin was still horribly stuck in his left forearm. Bubbly foam was slowly dripping from the corner of his gaping mouth but the twisted face still bore the last agonizing minutes just before his death. Heroin overdoses were common in our neighbourhood but I had never seen one before. It was ugly.
Downtown Rangoon then was just a combined Chinatown and Indian Town and we were in the centre of the latter. Burmese then lived in poor townships without centralized sewage system and water supply on the outskirts of Rangoon. Our neighbourhood used to be a large Indian enclave and the thriving commercial centre before the 1962 coup.
After the coup, as a part of large-scale nationalisation, the army took over all the business properties owned by the Indians and distributed the loot free among the officers and some soldiers. That’s how a large number of Burmese families like ours came to own the prime real estate in the Rangoon CBD. Courtesy of General Ne Win and his nationalist army.
Burmanization had only just started from the very middle of Rangoon. It still had a very long way to go yet.
My father and the boy’s father were former army officers and we all ended up in the same neighbourhood by the intersection of Dalhousie Road and Mogul Street, the gold and gem trading area in Rangoon. They had a large family and his father sort of abandoned them after taking a much younger woman as second wife. The boy dropped out of high school, became an addict and a small time dealer, and now he was dead at 15.
Everybody called it No.4: the Bein-Phyu (white opium) or pure heroin was cheaply available on the streets of Rangoon. That dead boy even told me how easy it was to get hold of a kilo-brick of Double UOGlobe Brand 100% pure heroin from the Chinese dealers and make money reselling it in small bags to the addicts coming from the townships.
As an obvious result so many boys my age quickly became addicts. The damage to their families was alarmingly visible so the socialist government started jailing the dealers, hanging the traffickers, and sending the young addicts to hard labour camps in rural areas.
I have a built-in aversion to drugs and I haven’t even inhale a single cigarette smoke in my life. But one of my younger brothers became addicted to heroin and my parents had to send him back to our delta town and kept him there for years away from the drugs till he was weaned.
I passed Matriculation that year and got into the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT). But I grew up in an army boarding school and the Defence Services Academy (DSA) was my dream like most of my classmates. But my father was against me joining the army. Too many army officers were killed on the front and he didn’t want to lose his eldest boy. But I was mad and I was so unhappy at the RIT, I finally ran away and tried to join the army in Mandalay as a private.
The Burmese army always has specialized Recruitment Battalions (Su-Zaung-Yays) stationed in the cities and major towns in Burma proper. From there the recruits are sent to the specialized Training Battalions (Lay-Kyint-Yays). But they are very strict against under-aged boys like me. Eighteen was their minimum age requirement and I was only 16 on my identity card.
But at the height of civil war the same army also needed soldiers so bad that they had devised a legal way of getting child soldiers into the army. Especially where the army needed them most: on the faraway borderlands where the deadly civil war was raging for years like wild fire.
The fighting battalions stationed in the ethnic lands like Kachin State were allowed to recruit and train anyone, and conveniently many people living in these highlands do not have proper identity cards. So any under-aged boy can show up at one of these battalions and the recruitment sergeant will take him to the nearest immigration office and get him a new identity card with a valid date of birth.
That was how I ended up with a group of boys and young men in a battalion stationed in Myitkyina as recruits. Our battalion was fighting the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) on Ledo Road and later the Communists on the border with China. After the three-month boot camp in Myitkyina I was armed with a German G3 rifle and assigned to one of the field companies as a brand new boy soldier.
The commander of our 90-strong company was an almost 60-year-old Kachin captain, who was illiterate and a British army relic from the Second World War, and my platoon commander was a 20 years young Burmese lieutenant just out of DSA.
Within 6 months the lieutenant and a section of ten men were killed by the KIA in a single ambush. Our section leader, a Burmese corporal, stepped on a Chinese-made, all-plastic, anti-personnel mine and lost most of his right foot. Later he died of excessive bleeding in the hammock as we carried him back to the base, and then I became the section leader.
I was the youngest of the nine men section but because I was a former uni student, I could read the maps and use a compass and find my way around in a thick jungle, and most important I could kill a man.
Our old captain once said there were only two types of man, one who could kill and one who could not. He put me in the first but himself in the second. He added that shooting a man in the heat of a battle is not killing. He was right; I had never seen him kill even a chicken during my nearly two years in his company. But he once saw me shooting a wounded prisoner after a successful ambush, and I had to cut the throats of so many chickens for our meals as other Buddhist soldiers had refused to do that horrible job. I was not religious at all and I didn’t care about heaven or hell.
Most Kachin farmers on the remote hills grew opium and the KIA collected a good part of their crop as taxes. Most poppy fields were in the region called The Triangle between the May-Kha and May-Li-Kha rivers. Two small rivers converge near Myitkyina forming the Irrawaddy. Our territory east of the May-Kha was too mountainous and cold for the poppy growing. But we could still find many a hidden poppy fields if we ventured far enough from our fortified bases on the Htaw Gaw hills.
And one day I found myself and my section in the middle of a beautifully flowering poppy-field during a long-range patrol over the range.
In a poppy field
The well-hidden field was in a narrow valley between a hilly ridge and a high cliff. A shallow stream was flowing slowly at the base of the cliff. Poppy plants nearly filled the whole valley. Mostly single upright-stem plants with a single flower right on the top end of the greenish tubular stems. The red flowers with dark purple bases still had the papery petals and the small pods were not really visible. The only Kachin soldier of our section told me the plants were just over a couple of months old as it takes about 3 months for the fruits or pods to be ready for milking.
We also found a cluster of ramshackle lean-tos by the stream. The opium farmers were nowhere to be seen. They might have seen us approaching and fled into the jungle. Hungry and searching for food we ransacked the huts. The farmers there grew black sticky rice, steamed it and made thick round cakes, dried them under the sun, and stored for later use. With a sweet flavour and nice aroma when steamed, these rice cakes were our favourite staple. We found plenty of them and also many strips of boar-jerky but took only half of the stores as we didn’t want the subsistence farmers to starve.
We steamed the rice cakes in our hangaws over the hastily-made fire and ate them with the strips of boar-jerky. Only after the meal we lined up a few feet apart at the edge of the field and walked abreast slowly and thoroughly struck the plants down with bamboo sticks. We did that for a couple of hours managing to destroy about a quarter of the large field. We were exhausted and so we gave up and decided to start the long journey back to the base.
Then the hell broke loose as we were walking back to the stream near the huts to drink and re-fill our canteens. A bullet whizzed past my head and abruptly dropped the guy walking behind me just seconds after I heard the first gunshot. I hit the wet ground and sunk my face into the watery mud on the stream shore. Soon bullets were flying all over my head and when I looked up I could see the enemy on the top of the cliff.
The only way out of the valley was the narrow track on that side of the stream and we were now trapped. When I looked behind two were lying dead on the ground and others were all disappearing behind the nearby huts. I managed to crawl back under the cover of their fire and joined them.
The poppy farmers did run from us but they knew where the KIA regulars were and came back with them to slaughter us for destroying their livelihood. We had a long fire-fight there but eventually they withdrew by the nightfall and let us flee as they were also just a few. Two of ours were dead and we couldn’t even get their bodies back for a proper burial.
After nearly a year on the front our company was pulled back to Myitkyina for a two month break. Part of that R&R was we had to do the week-on and week-off escort of the daily Mandalay-Myitkyina train. The train was the only connection between Myitkyina and the rest of Burma. Plane trips were too expensive and the Irrawaddy there was too shallow to navigate and there were no roads then.
The daily diesel train left Myitkyina early in the morning and the sister train left Mandalay in the evening. They met somewhere in between and swapped the escorting army units and continued the journeys. If nothing went wrong both would reach their destinations roughly 24 hours later. The KIA was frequently attacking the trains, and so the long rail line and the train itself had to be heavily guarded.
I reckoned that blue train might be the longest passenger train in the whole wide world. It needed two diesel locomotives at the front and another two at the rear end to pull and push all 60 or 70 odd carriages over the mountainous terrain. A flatbed-car loaded with tons of heavy steel I-beams was attached to the first locomotive as a heavy pilot car to detonate the possible KIA mines on the tracks and also to withstand the explosion and prevent the derailment. The train moved so slow, at some difficult uphill bends one could walk faster.
Except for the upper-class sleeper cars, reserved strictly for the army officers and the party and government officials, every single car was jam-packed with hundreds and hundreds of passengers and their luggage. All doors were shut tight from inside and the people had to get in and out through the windows when the train stopped at the stations.
Many passengers were also paid-carriers for rich smugglers as they carried prohibited goods such as heroin and jade stones to Mandalay and brought consumer goods like LUX soap-bars and COLGATE toothpaste-tubes and expensive gold or silver jewellery back to Myitkyina. Black markets were thriving in the totally-broke economy of socialist Burma. Almost everything had to come across the border from Thailand back then and our enemy, the Karen National Union, was thriving on the taxes collected from the smugglers.
And to our surprise the biggest smuggler in Myitkyina had his carrier girls and their illegal goods in our armoured escort car well secured all the way to Mandalay and then back to Myitkyina. The obvious reason was that no police or customs officers dares to search a car occupied by a battle-hardened army unit.
The escort car was shielded both sides and bottom with thick steel plates. The side plates had gun-slits for our MG3 medium machine guns and inside were two long benches by the walls for the gunners and the open middle was a space for the rest of us. But a good part of that space was always occupied by at least four or five young Kachin girls and their tons of goods. Our Company Sergeant Major didn’t say much to us except that we were paid 5,000 kyats for every trip and the cargo probably was only raw jade stones and some gold bars.
Many of us, especially the Kachin soldiers, knew the heroin bricks were there but didn’t dare to say anything as the NCOs in our army have life or death authority over their charges. And also the money when divided was very good as my monthly salary as a Lance Corporal was only a little over 200 kyats. Sometimes during the long trips I idly sat beside their goods and wondered what a kilo-brick of that famous Double UOGlobe Brand heroin looks like. But I never dared to ask our feared Company Sergeant Major or even the girls.
So, one week we were riding the trains and next week we were drinking expensive Johnny Walker whiskey at Chinese restaurants in the town while hungrily watching the girls walking past and some days having many wild brawls with the local mob. We used to drink extremely bitter army-rum, heavily laced with quinine to prevent malaria, issued weekly to us as part of our ration. We were now awash with cash and spending like hell before going back to the hellish jungles. We thought we were having an easy time till the day the KIA took pot shots at our slow-moving train.
It was our last day on the train and most were not really looking forward to going back into the jungles as we hadn’t had any casualty over the last two months. We used to have at least one death almost every fortnight. The worst was a Shan corporal from our platoon. He had fallen for the prettiest one of the heroin carrier-girls. She also fell for him and the romance blossomed and for the last few trips the two lovebirds always sat together by the door away from us.
That day was a very wet day as heavy rain was pouring down non-stop since the night before. We didn’t even hear the gunshots as the loud rain had suppressed them. Only when the bullets started hammering the steel plates of our car we realised we were being attacked. A KIA unit had slipped through the tight cordon of army patrols and now they were taking positions at the jungle edge and shooting at our car first and then the cars behind us. Our MG3 gunners returned fire and within a few minutes we were out of their gun sights as the train had kept on going.
None got hurt in our car but I immediately knew that the insides of the cars behind ours would be like a slaughterhouse as these timber carriages have no protection against the high velocity bullets. As a usual procedure the train didn’t stop till it reached a large station where an army unit and a civilian medical team from the local hospital were waiting.
They evacuated the wounded first and later the dead and then placed the bodies onto the concrete platform. There were more than 100 mutilated bodies. I don’t even know why I counted. Mostly Kachins, Burmese, Shans, many Chinese, and some Indians, all races and colours and creeds. Their lives snuffed out on their merry way to Mandalay.
Then I heard the loud screams of one girl from the other end of our car. The two lovers were now lying dead on the floor. The doors of our guard car had no plate covers and a couple of bullets had pierced through the timber door and terminated their young lives. I almost wept as the girls started screaming and crying. We had no other choices but to leave their lifeless bodies among the others on the platform as the train had to resume the journey after the soldiers hosed down the blood and guts off the shot-out carriages.
Two days later we were back on the tragically scenic Htaw Gaw Hills between the May-Kha and the Chinese border. Soon the monsoon ended and the enemy was active again as the dry season approached.
And my section had a scary encounter with a very large mule train carrying tons of KIA opium from The Triangle to their heroin labs by the Chinese border.