A Soldier's Duty
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Magazine

COVER STORY

A Soldier's Duty


By Shah Paung/7th Brigade, Karen State, Burma NOVEMBER, 2005 - VOLUME 13 NO.11


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The troops of KNLA Battalion 101 stick to their guns

 

When Saya Lay was a student, he knew the soldiers of the Karen National Union simply as “rebels,” or thu boun. “I didn’t think of them as human beings, and I believed they had horns.” At 24, Saya Lay now sees the rebels in a different light. He is chief medic for the Karen National Liberation Army’s Battalion 101.

 

Sporting a Karen-patterned black vest and short-cropped hair, Saya Lay begins his day at the small clinic in Karen State’s 7th Brigade by tidying up the rooms and preparing breakfast for a group of friends. The clinic is a small wooden structure with a leafed roof. The medic’s meager supplies are stored in a cabinet in one corner of the office and include equipment for testing blood samples for the presence of malaria. He picks up a handmade wooden pillow. “The man who made this for me finished his duty [with the KNLA], but we are not yet finished with ours.”

 

Saya Lay’s duty began more than five years ago, when he decided to join the ranks of Karen State’s armed ethnic opposition. Hatred of the Burma Army, who had killed his uncle for suspected collaboration with the region’s opposition forces, drove him from his home in Kyauk Kyi Township in Pegu Division. Other family members as well suffered oppression by government troops and their proxies.

 

The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a splinter group of the KNLA which reached a ceasefire agreement with Burma’s State Peace and Development Council in 1995, has for nearly a decade exploited local villagers for its own gain and under the protection of Rangoon. Saya Lay’s father was severely beaten by a group of soldiers when he and other relatives arrived late at a location where villagers were being forced to work. He remains in fragile health and has undergone two operations on his back as a result of the beating.

 

Motivated by the pain inflicted on his family and the broader struggles of Burma’s Karen ethnic minority, Saya Lay chose to fight for his people. His ambition of becoming a doctor took an unconventional turn. Rather than the laboratories and classrooms of a traditional medical school, he learned his trade on the front lines of Burma’s longest-running civil war.

 

The KNU is one of Burma’s oldest and strongest armed ethnic opposition groups, and it has waged war with successive administrations of the Burmese government since 1949.



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