Bridget Burnquist was backpacking around Southeast Asia. After weeks of drinking cheap liquor on beautiful beaches, she was beginning to feel as though her experiences were merely superficial. She heard rumors that the nearby country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) was home to beautiful mountain villages that have hardly changed for centuries, accessible only by hiking for days in the Burmese jungles. So she headed west into Myanmar, despite (or perhaps, because of) warnings from the U.S. State Department that essentially said, “If you get into trouble, you're on your own. Travel at your own risk.”
It was spring of 2014, just a few short years after Myanmar had emerged from decades of isolation imposed by its shuttered military rulers. Hundreds of unique ethnic groups within the borders of Myanmar have since been fighting for political representation. Unbeknownst to Bridget, a civil war still waged within its borders.
Bridget soon arrived in the Shan State. This region of Myanmar is home to mountainous terrain and diverse ethnic communities, accessible only by foot. She joined up with a local guide and a fellow Western traveler. The three decide to backpack through the Palaung tea country and up into the higher, wilder areas of Myanmar. One night in the mountains, Bridget and her travel companions had an unexpected encounter with Palaung rebel soldiers that left her questioning her perception of violence and proximity.
WARNING: The videos below contain images of warfare that may be disturbing to some viewers. These videos were uploaded a group claiming to be the TNLA, a Palaung rebel army. We sampled sounds from these videos for the episode. Jeff examined the first video, and believes that the sounds of gunshots were added in post-production.
Since Myanmar gained independence in 1948, an estimated 130,000 civilians and soldiers have been killed in civil conflict; over 700 people have been killed this year. Recent peace talks between the Burmese government and rebel groups ended in a stalemate in August 2015. An election is slated for November 2015.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese advocate for democracy, is attempting to run for president against militant incumbent Thein Sein. Her candidacy has recently been disqualified by lawmakers, but Aung San Suu Kyi continues to advocate for constitutional change to allow her presidential campaign.