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Guerilla For God

ICC Note:

Former Burmese resistance general, Archer Sukkum turned from shedding blood to saving lives. Here, he recounts his journey from the battlefield to poppy fields, before finding his calling to serve the marginalized. As a result, an entire village was transformed.

By Michelle Chan

10/27/09 BURMA (ANS) — Archer Sukkum intently inspected the neat rows of plastic bags in the compound of his two-storey wooden house. He was making sure the rice, cooking oil and canned food were neatly packed for easy pickup by the stateless refugees who would appear periodically at his village. Doing a quick mental math, he figured that each bag of 5kg rice would sustain a family for three months. His face broke into a smile. “at least they will survive,” he thought, “for now”.

Almost six feet tall and burly, Archer is an ordinary middle-aged man with a smiling face and pleasant demeanour. Known to many as kind and generous, the 49-year-old Karen Burmese looks every bit the church pastor well-respected by his community of mountain villagers.

In fact, everyone along the hillside hamlet of Om Soong, a mountainous village 155km southwest of Chiangmai, is familiar with Archer’s congeniality and good nature. Children flock to his home at the lower ridge of the mountain, and the occasional villager taken ill is guaranteed a hefty dose of sympathy and medicine from the shelves of Archer’s makeshift clinic outside his home.

So it came as a surprise when he revealed that he was a former two-star general in the Karen insurgency from 1981 to 1991. Just how on earth did the top military man in East Burma end up in an obscure Thai village tending to physical and spiritual needs of modest and simple common folks?

“I was a student with high ideals for democracy in my country,” said Archer, whose name in Karen dialect means “Sweet Love”. Born and educated in Yangon, Archer came from a long line of clergymen. His ancestors were pastors and his parents dedicated him to clergy service while he was still a boy.

However, his early adult choices veered him away from that path. Distressed by the social and political injustice around him, Archer left home at 21 to join the Karen insurgency, “fighting for democracy” against military dictatorship until 1991.

His first posting was in Kawthoolei, a state southeast of Myanmar where Karens had been fighting for autonomy since the 1940s. His duty was to engage in guerilla warfare. “We used M16s, AK47s, rocket launchers and various weapons and ammunition that were supplied from outside,” said Archer, also a medic, who within a decade rose to the top military position in the insurgency.

His parents however, were not thrilled with his career choices. “My parents naturally expected me to join the clergy and drummed that idea into me from young.” The strong family influence remained part of Archer’s life despite his illustrious career in the military.

Casualties were common occurrences in his days of jungle warfare, and Archer was not spared. In 1983, he suffered an injury in his abdomen during an accident while launching a rocket. Four years later, he suffered another injury that would mark the beginning of his demise from the army. A gunshot wound in his thigh stopped him from active service.

“Upon recovery, I taught the children of military personnel for three years.” During that time, the Karen uprising lost momentum and many were being driven out of their homes. Archer sought refuge across the Thai border and arrived at Om Soong.

Famous for its thriving poppy trade, Om Soong was part of the notorious narcotics industry of the Golden Triangle in the 1980s. The village was lined with white and red poppy blooms, and most of the villagers were drug addicts. (During Thaksin Shinawatra’s term as Thailand’s Prime Minister from 2001-2006, the clampdown on poppy industry caused many plants shut down).

In the mountains, Archer got married and now have two sons aged 16 and 11. Things seemed to have settled down for this ex-soldier who rediscovered his calling as a village pastor. But there was still one big problem. Archer did not have proper documentation, and had no legal status in Thailand. He also could not return to Myanmar.

“Being stateless was the most difficult thing for me and my family over the past 17 years,” he said. Despite being able to sneak across the border to Myanmar and back again – which many refugees do – the persona non grata status was a source of anxiety for those who escaped persecution and war in their homes, only to eke out a marginally subsistent living elsewhere.

“We lived in fear of the authorities. We were always looking back our shoulders whenever we were in town, buying necessities the fastest we could, to avoid danger,” he described. “Worse, the shopkeepers took advantage and would sell us goods at double the prices – knowing we had no other recourse.” Stateless refugees are a stigma among the Thais, who look down on them as undesirables.

However, Archer’s fortune changed.

Six years ago, his family received identification cards, 11 years after they had settled in rural Thailand. The cards were tantamount to “partial citizenship” and they enabled Archer’s sons to attend schools in town. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Om Soong gradually left the poppy trade. Some had found work in towns, while others went back to cash crop planting. Today, there is hardly a trace of the poppy industry that once dominated the mountains. In its place is a church on the mountaintop, near a school.

“God has blessed us in this village,” beamed Archer. “The church members work and support the pastor, so we lack nothing.” And Archer, like the generations before him, will carry on God’s work of transforming lives.