From Hunter to Hunted

In his quest to free slaves around the world, Aaron Cohen thought hed seen it all. Then he went to Myanmar

*  *   *

A few days after our meeting, I'm expecting Cohen for lunch on the Hollywood hilltop I've been calling home for a couple of weeks, but as the appointed hour approaches, he calls, sounding agitated. "There's a lot of pressure on me today," he says cryptically. Almost as an afterthought, he adds, "I have Prince Surkhanpha here with me, and he's willing to give you a phone interview. This is your five-minute warning." Then Cohen hangs up.

Sao Surkhanpha is the son of Myanmar's first president, whose family was exiled in the early '60s after the violent military coup. He's also the royal heir to the throne of Shan State. After being sheltered by the Thai royal family, to whom the Shans are ethnically and linguistically related, Surkhanpha graduated from a U.K. university and has since made his living in Alberta, Canada, as a geological consultant for oil companies. Frustrated by the international community's failure to act against the SPDC and motivated by what he calls the desire to rescue Shan State's 8 million people from "death and destruction" at the hands of the Burmese army, the prince and other exiled Shans formed an interim government just more than two years ago. In declaring Shan State's independence, they cited the 1947 Constitution of Burma, which granted the ethnic-minority states the right to secede.

Click photo to go to slideshow.
Click photo to go to slideshow.

The politics at work here are more worthy of a book than a paragraph. But Surkhanpha claims to have a mandate, a war cabinet and an army of 20,000 to 30,000 men loyal to him. Just before he is scheduled to call, I reach for the Shan State Gazette, the interim government's official publication (funded by George Soros' Open Society Institute), which informs me that the prince "enjoys the outdoors, painting, photography, classical music and the occasional game of chess." I know all this about the elder statesman. What I don't understand is what he is suddenly doing in Los Angeles with Aaron Cohen.

When the phone rings, the wind is blowing so hard it's actually shaking the windows, and I struggle to hear His 69-year-old Royal Highness. Three decades in Canada haven't rounded the vowels of his flawless Queen's English. Cohen tells me the prince is touring Commonwealth countries to drum up support for the interim Shan government. Royals stick together, I think, and Cohen says that Surkhanpha will soon hold a private audience with Prince Charles. I ask the Shan prince why he's come here.

"Well, you know about the opium that flourishes in the Shan State to the benefit and patronage of the Burmese generals," he says eloquently. I can almost hear his handlers breathing down his neck. "And we are pledged to eradicate it, not only for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of people here in Los Angeles, people in New York, London, Paris and wherever these drugs go. And so, yes, we are looking for help from the outside world, but we are not only asking for help. We are also giving something which is very much worthwhile."

I ask if he is seeking international assistance in stopping the drug flow from the Golden Triangle. "More than that," he responds, "we don'tlike our Shan uranium being used for purposes of war." The prince goes on to back up what Cohen has seen: "Yes, it's being done by the Burmese regime to curry favor with the Iranians and the Pakistanis and the North Koreans," he says. "Of course, unfortunately these powers are also being egged on, dare I say, by the People's Republic of China."

He's not the first to accuse China of power politics, but now there's a commotion on the other end. The prince is getting advice from his consultant, an ex-military man from the West who asks to remain anonymous. Surkhanpha changes the subject to human-rights violations, indisputable territory when it comes to the SPDC.

"We have evidence of mass graves," he says sadly. "We have had farmers whose bodies were floating down the Salween with their hands tied behind their back, shot in the back of the head. And then there's the link between the opium trade, international terrorism and the slave trade."

If and when Shan State achieves independence from Myanmar, the prince tells me before hanging up, he doesn't intend to retain the title "His Royal Highness" or reclaim any throne. Regardless, he and his followers appear to have a long slog ahead. Other Shan political parties, such as the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy—which won the most Shan seats in the country's most recent elections (1990) and whose leaders are now in jail—have yet to grant Surkhanpha their support. But under the SPDC's atmosphere of fear and repression, this could be just their way of staying alive. What the prince seems to have recognized is that human-rights abuses alone are not enough to nail the SPDC in the eyes of the international community. But cry "terror," and you may have an audience.

Tommy Calvert, who helped write Congress' Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which further sanctioned the SPDC for human-rights and other abuses more than four years ago, sees the logic in cash-poor Burmese dictators befriending cash-rich terror networks: "They have a mutual enemy in the U.S.," he says. And after witnessing the SPDC's atrocities firsthand, he has no doubt they are capable of more far-reaching violence. "The [Burmese] military would go into villages and raid for what I termed at the time 'human minesweeper slaves' to lead them through the minefields. These slaves would be mounted with equipment so heavy they could hardly stand—many were beaten and told to continue moving. If they were maimed and could not continue, the military would leave them to die. I don't know how to remind people of how dangerous it is to leave people like that in power other than to remind them of history. We used to not think Hitler or the Taliban would become anything powerful or dangerous. But when the alliances of those who seek to oppress and suppress freedom are made against those who seek to preserve and promote it, we often find a problem that seemed harmless erupting into a global war."

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