Fighting Myanmar's regime with compassion and military skills
Free Burma Rangers Help Thousands Fleeing Brutal Attacks By Security Forces
David Eubank, a former U.S. Special Forces officer, believes that some causes are worth dying for. His Free Burma Rangers aid organization, founded to help victims of an earlier Myanmar crisis, has since brought frontline help to many thousands in war-scarred Syria, Iraq and Sudan. Now, it is back in Myanmar helping ethnic minorities to flee escalating attacks by the regime's security forces.
It was a Myanmar military offensive in 1997 that gave birth to the rangers, who rushed in from neighboring Thailand to help some of the 500,000-plus refugees fleeing as Burmese troops shelled their villages, torched their homes and executed entire families.
"Who will go with me?'' Eubank asked a motley crew from the Karen ethnic minority gathered near the Thai-Myanmar border. "I had no plan," he recalled. "I just thought, 'I'll help one person and then they'll help the next.' Everyone counts." His first ranger team included a heavy-drinking boxer, an animist, an atheist and "a weapons trafficker with a murder charge hanging over his head.'' All were volunteers.
Since that day, more than 5,000 men and women have been trained as rangers and have conducted more than 1,000 missions in Myanmar, the Middle East and Africa. Operating like a military unit, Eubank and his rangers carried weapons in Iraq, but in Myanmar are mostly unarmed and protected by Karen guerrillas.
The rangers' latest mission was sparked by the Feb. 1 military overthrow of Myanmar's democratically elected government. Along with the killing of more than 900 civilians by mid-July, according to local monitoring groups, the coup also reignited armed conflict between the central government and ethnic minority groups that constitute more than a third of the population.
In Kayin, Kayah, Chin and Kachin states, Eubank and the rangers are caring for some of the 170,000-plus people driven from their homes by ground attacks and a devastating new tactic -- aerial bombing of villages -- by the military regime's forces. A ranger, 24-year-old All Lo Sein, was killed in the area in May while rescuing civilians under fire -- one of more than 30 to die serving in FBR ranks. Eubank himself was wounded in Iraq.
Together with ethnic organizations and opposition groups from the majority Burman population the rangers are also operating an "underground railway," conducting anti-regime activists fleeing the cities to safe havens in ethnic controlled areas.
As on most missions, the lean and fit 60-year-old Eubank is accompanied by his remarkable family. His wife Karen, who is active in FBR's programs for the young, has home-schooled their own three children, and their two daughters are taking a "summer break" in Kayin State from their university studies in the U.S. All are jungle-savvy and fearless.
Some criticize Eubank for putting his family in harm's way, but he counters: "We want to show people that they matter, that they are not forgotten, and they respond: 'You came with your kids so we count.'"
Modeled in some respects after the U.S. Special Forces, although their mission is nonlethal, the rangers operate in small teams, with members specializing in medical treatment, security, counseling and recording human rights violations. Before being sent into the field, usually in teams of five or so men and women, they undergo intensive training, ranging from crossing raging rivers to leadership under fire.
Supported largely by U.S.-based church groups, the teams distribute medicine, clothing, cash, toys and school supplies to victims. They treat the sick and wounded, sometimes under gunfire, enliven deprived children with games and schooling and document lives of tragedy and resilience.
Violence committed by Myanmar's military forces is documented with military precision, with all reports posted on the Internet. An example: "On May 16 at 1530hrs, the Burma army shelled from their base camp near Taw Mu Pler Mae into the Saw Mu Plaw area. The Burma Army Light Infantry Battalion 20 shot 15 rounds of mortars into the village fields, wounding Ki Mae and forcing the villagers to flee."
The rangers, who draw no salaries, come from the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Kachin and other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, many of which have been demanding greater autonomy from the Burman-dominated central government for decades. They are often joined by retired buddies from Eubank's U.S. army days. One, American dentist Shannon Allison, has joined Eubank on 23 missions over the past 25 years.
Although he is a committed Christian and a missionary -- and the son of missionary parents who have worked in Thailand since the 1960s -- Eubank stresses that the rangers and those they help can be of any religion, or no religion at all.
The Free Burma Rangers motto -- "Love one another. Never surrender" -- reflects a merger of military esprit de corps and operational methods with a spiritual ethos. Eubank has distributed bibles in Myanmar and killed several Islamic fundamentalist soldiers in 2017 while protecting civilians during the Iraqi government's battle to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group, also known as IS.
Eubank says he also tried to save the life of a wounded IS fighter, adding that he harbors no hatred toward Myanmar soldiers despite the atrocities they commit. "You can and you might have to stop a human heart with a bullet," he says. "But you can only change a human heart with love."
The Mosul mission in 2016 and 2017, undertaken with Eubank's wife and children, as well as rangers from Myanmar, proved the most dangerous. Working alongside the Iraqi army, the rangers treated the wounded and helped civilians flee the embattled city. Some larger aid groups gave the FBR food and medical supplies to distribute on the front lines while they worked in the refugee camps.
Eubank recounts coming on a horrifying IS massacre of civilians, where he spotted a little girl peeking from under the burqa of a motionless woman. While an Iraqi tank and smoke screen by U.S. forces provided some cover, Eubank dashed through gunfire, wrenching 5-year-old Demoa from her dead mother's arms and carrying her to safety. Eubank and Demoa are still in touch.
"He is not a thrill-seeker who hunts for the next adrenaline fix," says Allison. "He is looking for places that no others will go to help people without a voice or choice, no matter where they are in the world." The dentist says his times with Eubank have involved treating up to 500 wounded patients, training rangers, and providing essential supplies.
Over the past 25 years Eubank has spent most of his time with the Karen, among whom he has attained an almost legendary status. Informally they call him Tha U Wa A Pa ("Father of the White Monkey"), a term of endearment.
David Tharckabaw, a former vice president of the Karen National Union, an armed separatist force, says Eubank is also known as Thra Doh ("Great Teacher"). "By his relentless effort and determination, the ranks of the FBR swell as many youths from ethnic communities come to join him," says this veteran of the Karen's armed struggle. At times, the KNU's troops provide security for ranger teams.
Eubank says the situation in Myanmar is far worse than it has been in a long time, but he discerns glimmers of hope. "I see a new unity, a feeling between the Burmans and the ethnics,'' he said in an interview from inside Kayin (also known as Karen) State. "Many Burmans who have fled tell us, 'We feel ashamed as we never helped the ethnic people and now they're saving our lives.'"
Many such people are now apologizing for their past behavior, notes Eubank, telling him they now realize what it was like to live under a system that brutalized ethnic minorities for generations. Many vow to fight together for a democracy that would uphold ethnic rights.
Eubank describes a moment on a hilltop some years ago when he sought to comfort an 11-year-old Karen boy as his village, raided by the military, burned below. The boy's eyes had been blown out by a landmine and he was rigid with fear. David says he got him to stand up and then move rapidly down an escape route to a refugee camp in Thailand. He now plays a violin there.
After years in the front line, Eubank is rarely prone to tears, but they trickled down his cheeks as he spoke. "I don't want to be a martyr," he insisted. "But I said to myself: 'This child, these people, are worth dying for.'"