This post is a six part New Mandala series. Readers are warned that some of the content in this series is graphic. Part 1 is available here.
We were on a long range patrol down south following the tracks of a Communist Lisu unit that had just shelled our hill with a 75mm recoilless-gun killing our brand new Second Lieutenant and his young batman. And finally we lost track of them after two days on the range, so we decided to camp on a low hill for the night and turn back the next day.
As we were preparing a fire to cook a hot meal our Kachin scout who had just gone down into the valley below to hunt came back up and told us that he had just seen the trampled tracks of at least a hundred loaded-mules on the valley floor. A hundred packed-mules guaranteed that over two hundred armed guards and handlers were there too. We immediately killed the fire and just chewed the strips of boar jerky as our dinner that night. By nightfall we could see the flickering lights of their many firefly-like fires on the jungle-clad valley floor.
The mule train was one of the regular KIA opium caravans heading towards their labs by the border where the raw opium would be processed with lime in boiling water to get the white morphine base. Smokable in a pipe but not yet injectable, the base is then ready for further processing into fluffy-white heroin No. 4.
But the process requires a lot of chemicals like chloroform and acetic reagents smuggled across the border from Thailand, and also a number of expert chemists. So the KIA had to mule it farther down south to the more-advanced labs run by the BCP (Burmese Communist Party)-controlled Wa rebels.
That night was freezing cold and windy but fortunately there was no rain, so we could at least sleep in the open. Early the next morning we cut through the jungle, overtook the long mule caravan, and took a well-hidden position on a low ridge overlooking the well-used jungle trail the caravan was taking behind us.
Within an hour the first mule of the train reached directly below our position and I started counting in silence the packed mules loaded each with at least 200 pounds of smelly, bundled, raw opium. Their grass fed mules were smaller than our lentil fed army mules. In addition to the handler each mule had two armed guards, one at the front and one at the rear. It took more than three hours for the impressive mule train to pass us gradually and by then I had counted 120 mules.
According to the intelligence reports from our battalion the insurgent groups could process one ton of heroin from every ten tons of raw opium. So the ten tons load of raw opium we just witnessed would become about 1 ton or 1,000 bricks of heroin No. 4 in no more than a month or two. I couldn’t imagine the enormous amount of money it would fetch on the streets of America or Australia, and the devastating effects it would bring forth on so many lives of young boys and their families there.
But what could we do? We had — everyone seemed to it know but no one ever seen the order in writing — basically a standing order from the battalion not to disturb, let alone attack, a mule caravan unless specifically ordered by the battalion commander. Anyway, with more than 200 guns potentially facing us we could do nothing but sneak away from them.
Last mule of the opium caravan
That was what we did exactly that day, after the caravan had gone well out of our sight. We came down onto the track and walked back away from them thinking the last of the caravan was gone. We were wrong and I knew that the very instant I walked right onto the small group of stragglers coming up on the steep jungle path round a sharp bend. A mule doesn’t make much noise on rain-drenched, moist ground.
When I saw them I was almost on top of the front guard. Two armed guards and the old handler leading the lone mule were startled to see me on the track too. My section was well behind me and I was alone facing the enemy soldier in a pair of rubber flip-flops with his trousers’ legs rolled-up almost to his kneels only a few yards away on the track.
I lifted the .30 American carbine in my hands and shot him in the face. As he fell the rear guard turned and ran back down and vanished into the surrounding jungle while the old handler stood still frozen with the mule’s leather rein in one hand. When I approached him the fear stricken handler dropped onto his kneels and started sobbing and begging me to have mercy on him.
Then was the very first time I met a Wa. Bald-headed and bare foot with only a pair of torn khaki trousers held loosely around his waist with a nylon rope he was half-naked and un-armed. The way he was kowtowing on his knees on the ground softened my killer attitude and even made me feel sorry for the old man with a weathered face and seriously dark skin.
My section caught up with me and the heated debate about what to do with our surprise catch was immediately started. The consensus was that we should shoot the old Wa and take the mule loaded with opium back to the base. And they all agreed that I should be the shooter. Like with the chickens and pigs I was always the designated killer and I began to hate having that reputation.
Killing didn’t come easily at first. In my case our CSM (Company Sergeant Major) was the one forcing me to do my first cold-blooded murder. He wouldn’t even let me use the gun. I had to bayonet my first victim: a seriously-wounded prisoner. After the first kill the next ones became gradually easier.
I was even amazed by the calmness of the victims just before their untimely death. Our battle-hardened CSM, a veteran killer, had a philosophical theory for that. We humans are the only animal who knows that the dying is the eventuality and the death is our destiny. Once he knows he is going to be killed and there is no way out of it he will just calmly accept his fate. Unless one has a very attractive reason to live one does not even mind ending one’s own life.
That is the sole reason — unlike other animals who will violently struggle to avoid getting killed — we humans even do stupid things risking our lives, like fighting in a war. Don’t feel sorry for the victims too as we were just sending them to their destiny, a little bit quicker and earlier, he even added jokingly.
But to shoot a harmless old man now was daunting. Especially he was sobbing and begging. Maybe he had a reason to live. Please don’t kill this poor old man, sons, I have a young wife and a baby girl waiting for my return, please let me go and you boys take this mule and the opium. I do not care anymore. That was what he begged and that was what I did exactly. I let him go and he stood up and ran back down the track as fast as he could and disappeared. I felt good too.
It took us more than 3 days to get back as we didn’t know much about handling a packed-mule on the difficult jungle trails. During that time KIA was on the radio calling our company to give back their valuable goods. Both the Captain and CSM were furious with anger that we attacked a mule train and brought the mule and opium back.
As soon as we got back they forced me to return the mule and opium back to the local KIA through the old Duwa (Chief) of the village in the valley down below our fortified hill. At first I was confused but later accepted that was the way the strange relationship works between the warring sides of this brutal civil war among brothers. Just a few months before we even had a short ceasefire and had a Manaw festival together to celebrate the establishment of the Kachin State.
Anyway, by then I was truly sick of killing and dying and the utter meaninglessness of this civil war. Almost two years there in the hellish jungle was enough for me and I started thinking of going home and then back to the University.
My liver has also started giving me a trouble. I was once stabbed through the liver in a hand-to-hand fight during a daring KIA raid on our hill. The short bastard stabbed me in the lower belly with the pig-sticker bayonet at the end of his Chinese-made SKS 56 rifle. It was indescribably painful, but once he pulled the long bayonet out of my belly I bashed his head into a mesh with my G3 rifle-butt and shot him thrice in the chest to make sure he was absolutely dead.
The deep wound hardly bled then and even the scar had slowly faded. But that uncomfortable pain inside from the right side of my lower belly kept coming back from time-to-time especially after a heavy bout of army rum. What I didn’t know then was the cirrhosis of my liver had started. I wasn’t even 18 yet.
And I saw in a months-old newspaper my mother’s please-come-home advertisement. It deeply disturbed me and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go home but I didn’t dare since I was scared shitless about what the army would do to me as a deserter if they caught me later. On the front line the NCOs normally shot them or beat them to death.
Confused and depressed one night I decided to kill myself. We were back in Myitkyina then and I had to take part in a security detail guarding our battalion commander playing golf with the divisional commander. I was in mufti and I was issued a 9mm browning pistol and a spare clip. Late that night after the duty I didn’t return the pistol to the battalion armoury as I was ordered.
Instead I walked out to an empty guard post on the perimeter fence and sat down on the bench and cocked the gun and put the cold barrel into my mouth. I sat there in that awkward position for a few seconds and then mindlessly pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
The gun had the safety still on. I cursed myself, pulled the gun out and thumbed the safety off. At that instant a strange thought flashed through my mind as if a higher power had planted in my head. If I could even kill myself why could not I go back home and face whatever consequences? Nothing is more terminal than death. I came back inside the barracks and early that morning I deserted the army.
I just jumped on the Mandalay train and then took an express train to Rangoon at Mandalay. I had nothing except the clothes I was wearing and the Browning 9mm. The desertion from the frontline with a weapon is a hangable offence but I was relying on my father’s connections with the army top brass to get away scotch free. Getting scared, I disassembled and threw away the pistol parts and all the bullets from the speeding train just before Rangoon’s Central Station.
My family was extremely happy to see me even though none of them recognized me at first. I was totally sun-burned and there were so many scars from the jungle scratches on my face, they later said. And the shrapnel wound on the right side of my nose too. My father immediately went to the war office after carefully listening to my story.
General Tin Oo, now the Vice-Chairman of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy but then the popular army chief, was one of my father’s cadet officers back in the Japanese Military Academy where my father was a senior instructor and a captain. He was hoping General Tin Oo would be able to help me without knowing that the general was already sidelined by General Ne Win.
General Tin Oo was later officially removed and jailed for many years after the attempted assassination of Ne Win by some young army officers. General Kyaw Htin, then the commander of Rangoon Division Military Command, was running the army and later he became the army chief and defence minister.
This unexpected twist in Burmese politics put me in a far better situation than before as General Kyaw Htin, as a very young lieutenant in the Burmese National Army during the final year of the Second World War, had served in my father’s guerrilla battalion fighting the Japanese Army, retreating in disarray from Imphal-Kohima on the Indian border.
He used to be very close to my father and I once saw him stop his motorcade and get out to salute my father and asked him how he was doing as we were coming back to our house from a daily walk around the Bandoola Park.
So, that day my father took me to his vast office in the War Office. As I the boy-soldier-turned-deserter saluted the acting army chief, the tall general laughed at me as if I was a young fool and asked me a single question before ordering me to leave the room. Do I still want to go to the Defence Services Academy or was I happier going back to the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT)? I firmly answered I wanted to go back to RIT. I had had enough of the stupid army.
I did not know how the system works and what he did next, but a couple of weeks later I received an official letter from the Registrar of RIT informing me that I would be re-enrolled as a first year engineering student for the current 1974-75 academic year. Six years later in 1980 I graduated from RIT as a mechanical engineer.
And in December 1988 I landed in Sydney Australia as a skilled immigrant. I was running away from the troubles and anarchy in Rangoon during the failed 8-8-1988 uprising like I once did from the army and the civil war in Myitkyina.