Shellfire and bare boards – Burma’s perfect guest house

By Elizabeth Pisani

744 words
9 April 1993
Reuters News
(c) 1993 Reuters Limited

MANERPLAW, Burma, April 9, Reuter – It’s illegal to get there and you’re as likely to be woken in the night by the crash of shellfire as by the croaking of lizards. But as guest houses go the one at Manerplaw has its charms.

In another situation it would bill itself a jungle lodge and charge a fortune to the well-heeled in search of adventure. As it is, it caters to journalists and human rights worthies visiting the headquarters of the Karen rebels in their 43-year fight against the Burmese government.

Just now there is something of a standoff between the two sides and teenagers wander aimlessly, their semi-automatic rifles swinging unguarded at their hips.

"But when the fighting gets bad, that’s when I am really busy. Then all the correspondents come," says Sawhtoo, who runs the hostel. Journalists, it seems, are suckers for punishment.

He shudders at the memory of a rocket that hit the broadacasting station in the next house over but says the guest house has been unscathed in the 10 years he has run it.

Sawhtoo’s workload has increased since Burma’s ruling military junta chose to ignore the outcome of democratic elections in 1990, prompting the winning opposition parties to set up a government-in-internal-exile at Manerplaw.

Where earlier his guests tended to be interested in building latrines for Karen refugees, they now come also to discuss building a democratic state.

On the veranda, Karen National Union Prime Minister U Ba Thien holds court to a group of Europeans in sandals who want variously to support health and education projects and to get the United Nations Security Council to do something about the worst excesses of Burma’s strong-arm government.

He answers earnest questions from a lady representing a human rights group run by Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the French president, with the cool aplomb that comes from long years of practice.

In the background, Sawhtoo hovers inconspicuous between posters of clenched fists deploring human-rights abuses in Burma, Thailand and Indonesia, magically producing cups of coffee for everyone.

The work day starts early for this father of eight. By six guests are pulled from their bare-board beds by the smell of breakfast, which insinuates itself under the mosquito nets.

By the time they have tramped around the back of the house and doused themselves with cold water drawn from a well by boys who in more active times double as soldiers, the table groans with boiled eggs and chick-pea filled omelettes.

Other meals tend to be heavy on potato dishes — sometimes fried, boiled and stewed with chicken all in one sitting. "Very simple," Sawhtoo gestures modestly. A former security guard at a U.N. office in Rangoon, he is the perfect host.

Most of his food supplies are grown locally but some make the torturous four-hour truck journey from the nearest ford across the River Moei.

More sensitive supplies, like guests, come by river. Getting to Manerplaw is a good slab of the fun.

Turn right at the Thai border town of Mae Sot and drive three hours through Karen villages and refugee camps. Then turn left and bump and splash your way along a construction road until you hit the river.

Now, persuade someone to leap in their long-tailed boat and run you up to Manerplaw, past fishermen perched on bamboo poles and an elephant plodding home from work, prodded behind the ears by its diminutive mahout.

There is a ready supply of young men looking for all the world like, well, like young rebels who will come in the boat to help get you through the checkpoints.

This is especially important after dark. The silhouette of a semi-automatic against a rising moon is somehow more disconcerting than the sight of the same gun in daylight.

Arrived, sign your name on a piece of paper waved officiously by a tough-looking twelve-year-old and scramble up the hill to the welcoming smile of Sawhtoo.

The sheer volume of night-time jungle noises will make you glad your journey was tiring. Bare boards, lizards and shelling notwithstanding, you’ll be exhausted into sleep.

Worries about the bill needn’t disrupt your rest. Sawhtoo charges $4 a night for room and board, but only if you can afford it.

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