By AUNG NAING OO
After the 1988 uprising, around 15,000 students, farmers, workers, monks and professionals left for the jungle—to carry on the fight against the Burmese military.
Most of us were men, with just a few women in our midst. In our camp, the ratio of men to women was 97 to 3.
Given the statistics, single women naturally became the center of attention. For the majority of them, there was an oversupply of love, allowing them to pick and choose potential partners—or not. They were all very strong and dedicated women, but it was in many ways an intimidating experience for them to find themselves among hundreds of young males. Men, by contrast, vied with each other for a woman’s attention.
I still think that the women were a lucky bunch. But this isn’t to suggest that they were out of control. Despite our new-found freedom, we all came from a very conservative society and had norms and customs to adhere to.
"Living together" was a huge social no-no. The women lived in their own barracks, and we had the jungle law to protect them from any abuse. For instance, rape was punishable by death. Luckily, there only a few reports of harassment and nothing serious happened to the women.
For the men, life in the jungle was tougher. Despite our burning idealism—we all believed anything was possible—it soon dawned on us that love, or sex, would be the second sacrifice we would make for the revolution, after the first and continuous battle with malaria.
Phoo Law Khwa, the Karen officer in charge of the Thay Baw Boe area, was right when he told us—soon after we arrived in the jungle—that we would make many sacrifices, including the absence of love, and our eyes would soon see that "even a female buffalo is beautiful."
Most of the men looked with green eyes at the lucky few among us who won the heart of a woman. The lovelorn with a sweetheart left behind held on to their memories, hoping they would soon be reunited. In the meantime, we consoled ourselves by sharing tales of those we had left behind.
In Burma proper, it was nearly impossible for young unmarried couples to have sex anyway—due to social and official restrictions. It was even difficult for unmarried couples to find privacy to express their deepest feelings and desires. Young women were constantly under the watchful eyes of their family and neighbors, and couples were not allowed to stay in government hotels together unless they could show they were legally married.
In the jungle, freedom abounded. But the Camp Committee felt we could not just let young people "live together" freely, as our customs frowned on such unofficial unions.
Thus, we provided 500 baht, a rice sack and a supply of condoms to each young couple to organize a party, which was a way to acknowledge to the camp residents that they were married and living within the social norms accepted by our traditional customs. It was a common law marriage rather than a union with an official document.
It served as a convenient arrangement between the Camp Committee, which wanted to maintain traditional social cohesion in the camp, and couples who understood the social imperatives. Some of the couples we “married” are still together to this day.
Given the gender imbalance among the exiled students, some visiting foreigners asked us how we survived in the jungle without sex. They didn’t believe us when we told them that we had gone without sex for years. Indeed, most of us had decided we were married to the revolution.
In the jungle, love could even rise to the level of politics. We were a democracy and one camp leader lost an election over a woman. In one of the KNU fourth brigade area camps, a charismatic camp chairman won the heart of the belle of the camp, but his triumph cost him his leadership position because of the jealousy it generated.
Once, a Burmese professor who was living in the US and married to an American paid us a visit in the jungle with his 17-year-old daughter. With his fair-skinned daughter at his side, the professor quickly became very popular among the men, who—simply curious or unashamedly determined—followed them everywhere in the camp.
The next time the professor visited, he was alone, prompting someone to ask about his daughter.
He said, "Ah Kong in the jungle liked my daughter so much, I had to leave her in Thailand."
I had a hard time keeping a straight face, since "Ah Kong" is a general word for insects or animals, and also an impolite word for men.
During my time in the jungle, I also met two foreign men who claimed to have seen the "most beautiful woman" in the world. Once was in Mae Sot and the other—a strange phenomenon for men in the jungle—actually happened in the jungle.
The first man was an American writer. Soon after he left us, I was in Mae Sot, walking to the bus stop, and I saw him running towards me as I passed the Porn Thep Hotel.
He looked strange and shocked, as if he had just seen a ghost in broad daylight.
"Aung Naing Oo!" he said, panting. "I have seen the most beautiful woman in the world."
My jaws dropped. What! Here in Mae Sot? Where had I been all along?
"Where is she?" I asked. Still in a state of shock, he said, "She went that way," pointing towards the market.
I looked but only saw a few shoppers in the mid-day sun, not the most beautiful woman in Mae Sot, let alone in the world. The man didn’t wait for more questions, but briskly walked off in the direction the woman had taken. Shocked, I stood in the middle of the road, wondering where this beauty could have come from. I never saw the man again.
The second incident was in 1994, after I had returned from Bangkok to our jungle headquarters during the rainy season. ABSDF was still split, and the re-unification talks had not progressed. A foreign reporter from Thailand's The Nation newspaper traveled with me to the camp to write a story.
The trip from Bangkok to our headquarters by the Salween River, which separates Burma from Thailand, took us a day and night. All that time, I had to speak English and when we arrived at camp, I was relieved to see him wander off with others, giving me a rest.
But the rest didn’t last. Ten minutes later, I saw him running back to the main office, where I was talking to our faction leaders. Nay Myo, who now lives in the US, was running behind him. The foreigner's odd behavior caused a commotion, and we all poured out of the building.
Before the man could say anything, Nay Myo said in Burmese, "I don't understand what he is talking about. He is saying he has just seen the most beautiful woman in the world." We were standing outside the office and Moe Thee Zun, our group’s chairman, said, "What's up with him?" He was more concerned than curious.
I asked the journalist what was wrong. Panting, he repeated what Nay Moe had told us in Burmese.
"Not again," I said to myself, remembering the encounter with the love-struck American writer a few years earlier. Déjà vu!
"Here in the camp?" I asked him, in disbelief. He confirmed it, with the air of a man who had just discovered the world's newest wonder.
"Here in this camp!" I repeated, so as to be sure.
He was positive and offered to show me where she lived.
Now, we were even more stunned.
Before we could digest the news, Nay Myo said, "He said Htay Htay is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen."
"Htay Htay!" we all said, in amazement.
We didn’t know whether to laugh out loud or marvel at the fact that we had a great beauty in our headquarters—a population of some 50 students, including 7 or 8 women.
Htay Htay and her sister were from Mergui in southern Burma. They were twins with brown complexions and not bad looking, but they were hardly beauties.
In the end, adopting the air of a sage, I lectured my comrades about the phenomenon of opposites attracting. They all concluded that was definitely the case.
The reporter stayed with us for a few more days. Htay Htay was impressed when told that the man thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, but she showed no interest in him.
I was afraid he would refuse to leave. When his story finally appeared about our trip from Bangkok to the jungle and the lives of the student revolutionaries, he didn’t mention the most beautiful woman in the world.