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Guest Post: Rambo 4 and the Karen

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

Rambo (2008) wasn’t terrible. Obviously the action was over the top. His machete maiming and decapitating returns with gusto as does the belt fed machine gunning. It is a Rambo film after all. Despite the over the top action and the limited dialogue, there is a real display of genocide and human rights violations. The situation and locale are real. And the acts of violence against a people called the Karen while dramatized and Hollywoodized, they are based on actual accounts are barbarism committed in Myanmar (what was once Burma).

John Rambo finds himself in Mae Sot, Thailand. As I watched the opening sequences of Rambo (2008) I was excited. I was there. While the locations didn't look familiar, the text that introduced the location struck a chord. Mae Sot, along with a number of other cities along the Myanmar border, is home to a Karen refugee camp. One that I was fortunate enough to see and assist in providing medical aide at while I was in Thailand. 

Karen are likely the decedents of Mongolian nomads that found their home in the mountain jungles of Burma. I met several of them, not in Myanmar, the country in which their home lies, but in the refugee camp in Mae Sot. It is one of many camps that exist in the surrounding countries that they have been displaced. For the most part, Karen are Southern Baptist by religion due to western missionaries. This fact, combined with their desire to live independent of the Myanmar government that makes the vast majority of its capitol on the illegal narcotics trade, have made them subjects of genocide. 

Mae Sot is the staging point, the place where we join an aged John Rambo hiding away from his past when his is interrupted by a Christian group seeking to cross into Burma. A dangerous endeavor considering travel into the country is restricted and those caught within are summarily executed. This is not exaggeration, I have met with a few medical professional, ex-military sympathizers, and Christian evangelicals who have been beyond the border and who take their lives into their hands each time they do. While I thought their act of throwing caution to the wind an act of heroism, they reminded me, the Karen risk their lives every day to simply remain in their homes.

I was able to talk with some of the Karen with the help of our interpreter. We heard stories. Nothing as blatant as the killing in the movie, but more sinister. Rambo portrays the Myanmar military forcing Karen prisoners to run through a field full of land mines and mortar fire reeking havoc on a Karen settlement. The reality is that Karen have become adept at patrolling their homes and leave their settlements upon sighting Burmese military patrols. The military will pass and the Karen return. As the Karen return they must walk upon solid stone because the paths are lined with landmines. Our interpreter noted that Karen children are taught to play only upon the stone. 

Soldiers as young as twelve showed me scars from bullets or shrapnel. Young women told of being beaten. They tell that they are thankful for the growing Burmese sentiment toward Karen women. Where once they may have been raped, now they are seen as less than human by soldiers and disgusting. One woman said it is better to be beaten than beaten and raped only to be left with child. 

Ours was a medical mission. In truth, my primary responsibility was simple to observe and carry equipment. Assist in dental procedures and practical demonstrations. Our response to the hidden war differed greatly from the protagonists of the movie. Rather than taking life, we were attempting teach the Karen how to prolong it through education about sanitary living and basic medical practices. 
I watched this movie Rambo with its over the top action and egocentric focus on White missionaries and mercenaries and grew sad. Partly because the cinematic display is likely based on stories from Karen survivors. More so because the situation is truer than fiction. It hit home for me after meeting the afflicted. But mostly I was saddened because, as ridiculous and this Rambo movie was and as much as it focused on these white characters and whether they lived or died, this uber-macho film has arguably done more to bring actual human rights violations to the attention of a apathetic public than any other attempts at information sharing.

If you would like to read more on that Karen, or find out how you can help, please check out the following links.
- This is a story on the specific plight of the Karens.

two comments

To go political, I see the plight of the Karen as putting a lie to any notion that America’s foreign policy is based around shutting down violent dictators and stopping evil. It isn’t. If it were, we’d have stepped in here and other places.

Ditto with Eric’s comment, and I think this echoes my thoughts on failed states. Not that the US intervening is the answer, but we need to have an answer.