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

He is visibly distressed about two men who were lost on the mission. "Good men," he says, "with families and their whole lives ahead of them." He shows me a picture of a young Shan soldier with wild eyes sitting on a bed. "He just got his leg blown off by a land mine. Kao was assigned to protect me." The Shan are the largest ethnic-minority group in Myanmar and are essentially at war with the SPDC. Kao was part of a Shan Army unit clearing a path for Cohen's motorcycle caravan when he stepped on the mine. In the photo, Kao's eyes are, impossibly, looking in different directions. "He's going crazy from despair and the drugs," Cohen says soberly. "I could smell the gangrene."

There are more images of flourishing poppy fields in Shan State, a part of northeast Myanmar where the SPDC claims to be eradicating opium poppy as part of its "war on drugs." Although the poppy fields have historically been tended by Shans, Cohen says the SPDC controls the drug trade there from start to finish—providing the seeds, collecting the harvest, and overseeing drug production and distribution. Civilians are allowed to earn just enough to survive, as long as they keep producing opium, which is synthesized (along with methamphetamine) in nearby labs also run by the Burmese army. In the days he spent there, Cohen says, he saw virtually no people, besides soldiers. "All the fields are land-mined to instill the people with fear and keep them in their homes when they're not working."

According to a Human Rights Watch report, in 2006, the SPDC was the only government in the world to use antipersonnel mines on a regular basis: "In order to separate ethnic armed groups from their civilian population, the Burmese army lays land mines and other explosive devices in order to maim and kill civilians." The army's other objective is to prevent ethnic-minority people from harvesting their crops—effectively starving them.

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

Except for one bed, a table and two guitars, Cohen's house has no furniture. Bob Marley is playing on a box radio in the steamy bathroom. And the back garden, although neglected, is in bloom. I spot a few familiar varieties of bamboo, a banana tree and other tropical plants. "This," he says, smiling to reveal a silver tooth, "is where I spend most of my time—when I'm here." Last year, that was a sum total of about 10 weeks.

Cohen strokes the side of his stubbly face, which is red with what I first take to be a rash. "Sulfur burns," he says, showing me a swollen thumb and raised marks on the back of his hand. "That's from holding a gun while being caught in the crossfire of the Burmese and Shan State armies," he says, still offering no further explanation.

We wander through to the front of the house and stand in the driveway. I contemplate the contrast between this tranquil suburban scene and the places Cohen has just been. His neighbors are rinsing down their RVs, watering lawns, maybe gossiping. Kids are kicking a rubber ball back and forth in the street. An older guy waves and comes over to chat with Cohen, and from their conversation, I realize he's known the man for years. Does he have any idea what Cohen does for a living?

Yeah, Cohen says once we've gone back inside, to some degree. But he doesn't usually bother his neighbors with the messy details. They also call him by a different name, one he'd prefer you didn't know. Though the family name was once a Spanish derivative of Cohen, his father—a former World War II fighter pilot—Anglicized it before flying missions from North Africa to Europe (where a Jewish surname on a list could cause problems). Shortly before giving birth, his mother dreamed the boy should be called "Aaron Cohen," after the first high priest of Israel, Moses' older brother, the consummate peacemaker. "With Moses, he retrieved an entire nation of people—the Israelites—from slavery in Egypt," this Cohen explains.

Which is why he believes his antislavery activism was predestined. "From the very beginning of my life, my mother was trying to impose the identity of my ancestor upon me. . . . I was Aaron Cohen. I had to act accordingly." Because of his severe asthma, he was virtually homeschooled by his mother, who credited an evangelical faith healer with restoring her will to live after losing both breasts to cancer. So while other kids his age were playing outside, Cohen was "unlocking the secrets of the Book of Revelation" with his mom.

He grew up torn between her religious expectations and his father's military ones. At the U.S. Air Force Academy, Cohen excelled in water polo and got ready to follow in his father's footsteps. But when he grew to 6 feet 4 inches by age 20, he was advised to switch to military intelligence—no fighter pilot that tall could eject from a plane. Cohen took the news as a sign his military career was over. Despite his father's vow to disown him, he says, he transferred to Pepperdine to play water polo. It was 1985. On the weekends, he'd drive downtown to an underground club called Scream, where bands such as Cathouse and the Cult played.

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