WITNESS - Why you shouldn't swim to Myanmar


  • World
  • Friday, 09 Jun 2006

By Ed Cropley

THE SALWEEN RIVER, Myanmar (Reuters) - Driven by a boyish urge to swim across an international border, I left my clothes on a rock in Thailand before plunging into the murky waters of the Salween River and striking out for Myanmar. 

There can be few places in the world where such a prank is possible, but I was convinced this secluded stretch of tropical river -- invitingly warm, only 60 metres across and devoid of annoyances like border guards or crocodiles -- was one of them. 

Reuters correspondent Ed Cropley uses a long-tail boat to travel on the Salween River while on assignment at the Thai-Myanmar border in this May 14, 2006 file photo. (REUTERS/Adrees Latif/Files)

After a day interviewing locals about Myanmar and Thai plans to dam the Salween, a majestic river snaking 1,350 miles from the Himalayas to the Andaman Sea, the reporter inside was saying at least I would be able to describe it as "swimmable". 

It didn't take many strokes of flailing crawl to realise it probably wasn't. 

As the current wrapped itself around my legs, I had visions of being fished out deep inside the former Burma by soldiers of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the ruling military junta calls itself. 

But what really made me turn back was the potential embarrassment of having to be rescued while attempting, on a whim, a crossing that countless others have made in the opposite direction out of desperation and fear. 

TOURISTS IN TRAGEDY 

The feeling of being a tourist in the tragedies of others, a common-enough emotion among foreign correspondents, hit home the next day when we crossed to the Myanmar side in a long-tail boat. 

Passports and visas are irrelevant as the area is controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), a rag-tag ethnic militia with the dubious honour of involvement in possibly the world's longest-running conflict. 

After 58 years of guerrilla war, the Karen dream of an independent homeland in eastern Myanmar appears as remote as ever. Evidence of their suffering is not. 

Sheltering from the midday sun in the shade of a large rock sat a 43-year-old man in a Newcastle United soccer team shirt. But Saw Da Pulo will never be able to enjoy kicking a football. 

Protruding from his shorts where his right leg should have been was a heavily scarred stump, the result of a landmine blast four years ago. 

For 10 days he had scrambled on a pair of heavy wooden crutches through malaria-infested jungle to escape SPDC troops who raided his village. Fearful he would be a burden to his parents and four children, he had decided to flee alone. 

Now, he could only sit and wait in the hope his family would make it one day to the safety of the Salween and the rebel-controlled areas along the Thai border. 

FORGOTTEN FATE 

More than 120,000 refugees, most of them minorities such as the Karen, Shan, Karenni or Mon, live in camps in northern Thailand, having crossed the Salween by any means possible. 

According to the United Nations, they are one of Asia's "major" refugee crises, but theirs is a largely forgotten fate among the immediate emergencies elsewhere in the world. 

Those who have made the crossing to Thailand, where they have limited access to aid and assistance, are the lucky ones. 

Deeper inside Myanmar, in a steep valley overlooked by bored KNLA youths with AK-47s slung over their shoulders, we came across 800 Karen men, women and children in a collection of bamboo huts that were not there six weeks earlier. 

Hungry, sick and dishevelled, the latest arrivals told of friends and neighbours murdered and villages burnt to the ground. Some of them used the word "myo dong". In Karen, it means genocide. 

One woman had given birth in the jungle before having to carry her two-week-old son across a heavily mined road. 

By contrast, the next evening, I would be back in Bangkok, creeping into my one-year-old daughter's air conditioned room to watch her asleep in the comfort and safety of her crib. 

Before leaving the camp to head back to Thailand, I emptied out my rucksack and gave what I had to the refugees. For the return trip, I would be making the crossing by boat, but my clothes I would leave in Myanmar. 

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