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Life's a Blast in the Karen Jungle

Burma | Human Rights

EASTERN BURMA—In the 2010 Hollywood movie “The Hurt Locker,” Jeremy Renner plays Staff Sergeant William James, a gritty bomb disposal expert with the US army. His traumatic experiences defusing Improvised Explosive Devices, IEDs in Baghdad propel his character from a “swaggering cowboy” to an emotional wreck, a tragic hero in a sea of despair.

In eastern Burma, far from the razzmatazz of the Hollywood red carpet and gushing Oscar-winning performance speeches, a 40-year-old Karen Buddhist named Kay Poe goes about his job of handling landmines quietly and without a fuss.

Over the past 20 years, Kay Poe has defused and planted thousands of landmines. He has no idea how many. Stockily built, he sits in shorts and a t-shirt on the balcony of a bamboo hut smoking tobacco rolled in newspaper.

His demeanor is calm and humble. He helps his wife look after their seven children. He is nervous about being interviewed and does not want his picture taken. Later, he tells me that he worked for 10 years underground in Rangoon as a spy for the Karen National Union (KNU). He said he prefers to keep a low profile.

In saying that, Kay Poe is a well-known name in Karen military circles. His knowledge of the terrain is second to none; his deftness at handling explosives is legendary. And, of course, after more than 20 years treading mine fields, he is still alive.

Before answering the obvious question about the morality of landmines, he takes a long drag on his cigarette and smiles. Then he looks at me straight in the eye.

“I know exactly what you are getting at,” he says. He leans over and picks up two defused landmines in his left hand, and gestures at them with his chin.

“These are killers. I accept that. They can kill soldiers, women, children. They may even kill me.

“However,” he says, then pauses to smoke. “If we don’t plant landmines, the Tatmadaw [Burmese government forces] will hunt us down freely. They will not fear us any more. They have far more men than us. They are ruthless, and they will defeat us.

“As long as we have the means to conduct guerrilla operations by encircling them and laying mines between our villages and their battalions, we retain an advantage. They are afraid of leaving their bases.”

Unlike the elaborate protection the bomb disposal units in Iraq wore in “The Hurt Locker,” Kay Poe goes to work without so much as a flak jacket—no mask, no gloves, no armor. He walks in flip-flops carrying a mine detector. When he comes across ordnance, he squats down and digs it up with his hands and carefully defuses it. When he roots out foreign ordnance, he takes it home to examine, to learn the tricks of the trade.

When asked about close shaves, he said, “I nearly went deaf once after a landmine accidentally went off near me. I had blood coming out of my ears, nose and mouth.”

He said he has experienced several blasts, but has been lucky. He said that many of his friends have been killed or lost limbs.

Kay Poe received training from a Western landmine expert. “We work slowly and systematically when we plant a landmine,” he said. “If we are careless, we will surely get hurt.”

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