December 14, 2022
Dawn slips over the river, sending silver light over the glassy surface of the River Salawin*. We walk down to the shore in the half-light, while another row of unrecognizable shapes moves down the bank a few hundred meters ahead. The boats are waiting. A few people wave their hands in a good morning, but for the most part we move silently. We climb carefully onto the boats. The three of us with long noses and white skin and lighter hair deck ourselves with long sleeves and hats and facial coverings.
The gray silence is broken by the roar of a boat starting. A man nimbly climbs from the front of the boat to the back, walking alongside the edge of the boat. The prow of the boat cuts through the water to middle of the river, going against the current of the water that used to be a frozen glacier in Tibet.
A ten-minute ride and we are there on the other side, the side that I have heard so much about, but never visited. Kawthoolei**, which in Karen means “the land without darkness.” The place where villages are looted and plundered day after day even now after decades of fighting and unrest.
There, on the other side, we are told to not take any pictures of immediate checkpoint. We climb the steep bluff. A Karen soldier is sweeping the ground around the checkpoint. He nods to us.
“Ghaw luh a ghay,” he greets us with the traditional Karen greeting.
We walk on, past a small hospital which currently has no patients. The patients are in a house closer to caves for when evacuations are needed when the Burma army flies overhead with planes, bombing the area. Recently, we are told, there were drones scouting in the area, which means that the residents of the area need to be extra careful.
The area is a medical training center where trainees come for 6 months and then leave. It is small, carved from the growth of the jungle, with a few spaces wide enough for a game of Takraw (a game similar to volleyball, using only feet and heads, and a smaller ball). Passersby on the river would scarcely know that it exists. Surrounded by mountains on either side, we walk down to the makeshift church for the Christmas service.
The simplicity, not of the service or the church or even the hospital area, stuns me. What stuns me is how simple the line is that the River Salawin draws between two countries. Karen people inhabit both sides of the river. On the one side, they live in constant tension, not knowing when the airplanes might choose to sweep overhead, dropping their lethal cargo, or when a troupe of Burmese soldiers might come looting and raping and burning. Perhaps the worst of it is the not knowing. On the other side of the river, in the village Thatafang, they live in peace, under the protection of the Thai government. They travel freely without travel passes. When planes pass overhead, they may watch, but they do not run. They have identification and citizenship and rights.
None of the people on either side chose what side they wanted to be born on. None of them even chose to be born.
The River Salawin flows on serenely through the middle, unchanging in the conflict over the past seventy-three years, ten months and three days.***
Then in that slice of clearing, shaped uncannily like a slice of pie, we celebrate the coming of a Savior who left his life in heaven to be born in a stable, to become flesh among a tribe of people who were caught under the tyranny of foreign rule. Our worship rises in the early morning air, up from the campfires and forests of the Burmese jungle, calling out to the God who became man and lived among us. The God who was light who came to give light to us who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.
The God who is Immanuel. The God who is with us.
*There are two common spellings for the Salawin River, Salawin and Salween. I prefer Salawin, to match with the Thai pronunciation.
**Kawthoolei is the name that Karen people call their own country, hopefully named “land without darkness.” However, it is more commonly known as Karen State, Myanmar.
***According to Wikipedia (take it with a grain of salt) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_conflict