“Burmese Crossfire” Chapter 1

Roi Tri Somboon Sirpreecha was nervous.

It had been a whole fifteen days since he had reported to his post as the youngest, least-experienced platoon commander in the Thanan Phran, the Thai Rangers.  It hadn’t been an easy fifteen days, either.  While the Royal Thai Army provided the Thanan Phran with its officer and NCO corps, many of the men had their own ideas about discipline and responsibility.  He’d long heard that many of the Rangers had been criminals, pardoned of their crimes for joining up, but he hadn’t realized just how shadowy the interior workings of the Thanan Phran could be until he’d caught one of his more experienced and respected Rangers brazenly stealing from one of the villagers when they’d passed through Ban Pha Hi on patrol.

When he’d confronted the man, he’d found himself half-surrounded by suddenly surly Rangers, all with weapons close at hand.  He’d held his ground, backed up by Sip Ek Klahan Phonarthit, and the Rangers had slowly backed down.  The culprit, Kamun Amsir, had finally handed the stolen food back to the bent old woman, giving the Roi Tri a smile that promised that he would learn how the Thanan Phran worked, or he wouldn’t be around for long.

Now he was chivvying his platoon into trucks to head for the same village, based on reports from the Border Patrol Police that the sensors they had emplaced along the border, with the Americans’ help, had picked up a sizeable group moving toward the border, through the jungle.  They weren’t going to the border crossing in Wiang Phang Kham, either.  Which meant they were probably drug smugglers.

The United Wa State Army had been running ya ba, methamphetamine pills, into Thailand for years, along with the heroin that the Golden Triangle was world-renowned for.  A good part of why the Thanan Phran was on the border was to intercept the UWSA drug shipments.

Of course, Somboon was increasingly aware that some of his Thanan Phran were probably complicit in the same trade.  It had been a problem for some time, and had led to some tensions between the Rangers and the BPP.  He had his eyes on Kamun.  The man seemed like the type.

With the last of the Rangers in the trucks, Somboon climbed into the passenger’s seat of the lead five-ton and waved down the road.  The driver, a dwarfish little man with more lines on his face than should have been possible for a twenty-eight-year-old, put the truck in gear with a loud grinding noise, then started it lurching down the road.  They had at least one mountain to get over before they got close to Ban Pha Hi, where they could dismount and continue on foot.

It was a misty morning, and the road leading up the ridge was damp.  Moisture dripped from the trees, and the driver soon had the windshield wipers going almost constantly.  It wasn’t raining, not quite, but the constant mist was soaking into Somboon’s camouflage uniform through the open window.

“We have ISR overhead,” the BPP outpost informed him over the radio strapped into a pouch on his vest.  Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance was an American term that had become synonymous with drone coverage.  The BPP had a whole bevy of new toys they’d gotten from the Americans, and they were all eager to play with them, the drones not least of all.  Somboon craned his neck to look out the window, but couldn’t see anything through the mist or the trees.  The buzz of the drone’s motors, if they were even close enough to hear, were also drowned out by the coughing rumble of the truck’s diesel.

He momentarily wondered just what the drone operators thought they were going to see.  If he couldn’t see the sky through the fog, how were they supposed to see the ground?

He didn’t waste much mental energy on the question.  Maybe they had some kind of science-fictional thermal sights on the drone that could see through the mist.  He had more pressing worries, like the thugs mixed into his unit in the backs of the trucks.

The terrain on the Thai-Myanmar border was rough, to say the least.  Thick jungle covered every inch of ground in dense vegetation; even the grass was chest-high and hard to wade through where there weren’t trees.  As if that wasn’t enough, the highlands were characterized by lots of nearly-sheer slopes, making movement even more difficult.

That should have made it easier to interdict the UWSA drug traffickers trying to come across the border.  But the terrain was just as hard on the Thais as it was on the Wa, and the ever-present temptation to just take the bribe and let this shipment through was hard to resist.

Somboon mused on this as the trucks trundled up to the 1149, the road that paralleled the border for miles.  It was, simply, the easiest route to any of the border posts, and had the added advantage of having a good view over the border into Myanmar along several stretches.  If worst came to worst, they would be able to intercept the traffickers as they crossed the road.  It would certainly be easier than thrashing through the dripping jungle after them.

They reached the highway, which was barely wide enough for one vehicle in places, and began the long, winding route toward Ban Pha Hi.  The movement and the vibration of the truck was starting to lull Somboon, and he was glad of the slight chill of the mist coming through the window.  It helped keep him awake.

“ISR has no visibility,” the radio squawked.  “The ground sensors are still showing movement, now only about four hundred meters from the border.  They have slowed.  Estimate they will reach the border in another hour.”

Of course the drone cannot see through this.  Why did you even bother to launch it?  Somboon stifled a yawn and checked his HK33.  He had to be alert, and not only for the Wa.

The road rose and fell with the ridgeline, overshadowed by towering trees on the left and a tall, red-dirt embankment on the right, the Myanmar side.  The embankment was heavily overgrown, and wet leaves and fronds brushed the roof of the truck and the canvas canopy over the troop compartment in the back.  The embankment formed a wall that made Somboon feel like there was a barrier between him and the Wa, keeping the enemy farther away, the threat less immediate.  He leaned back from a branch that tried to whip through the open window, momentarily letting his worries be limited to not getting slapped in the face by a soaked tree branch.  The border crossers were far ahead, anyway.

The embankment fell away to the right, and Somboon could see down the mist-shrouded slopes into Myanmar.  Many of the men still referred to the neighboring country as Burma, but Somboon took the dignity of his position as an officer seriously.  The official name of the violence-wracked nation to the northwest was Myanmar, so he would call it Myanmar.

He checked the map.  They were still over a kilometer from Ban Pha Hi, but he suddenly realized that it made no sense to drive all the way to the village, dismount, and then climb back up to where they were.  This was the spot that had the best view of the projected crossing point, so they would probably end up here, anyway.

“Stop the trucks,” he ordered.  “We will dismount here and deploy along the road to be ready for the drug traffickers when they come up that slope.”  It would be easy.  While there was a lot of grass and brush in front of them, they had the high ground, and the forest had cleared away for several hundred meters down the slope.  There was no way the Wa were going to be able to get past them.

***

Chungwi Park Byeong-Ho squatted on the edge of the rice paddy, bracing his elbows on his knees, and peered through the binoculars.  “They are stopping,” he announced in Mandarin, which had become their lingua franca for this operation.  Park’s Mandarin was not great, but he could make himself understood, and he could understand what had been said.  Many of his men were not so fluent, which was why he and Jeon Gyeong, his second in command, did most of the talking, either with the Wa or the Kokangs.

“The lead scouts are already well within small arms range of the road.”  Gao Bo was a dumpy-looking man, though he still stood somewhat taller than Park.  He grinned a gap-toothed, stained grin.  “We can attack them now.”

“Wait,” Park said emotionlessly.  “Remember the lessons we have taught you.  There is a reason you have the mortars up here.”

If anything, Gao’s grin widened.  “Yes,” he agreed.  “But at the same time, it seems like a waste.  We could simply buy the Rangers off, just like last time.”

“Why let them in for a cut that some ‘principled’ officer might decide not to take, when you can simply kill them and get through?” Park countered.  “Let this serve as an object lesson.  If the Thai Rangers want to live, they look the other way.  You are now in charge of the traffic across the border.  Not them.”

“And if the Royal Thai Army decides to retaliate?” Gao was momentarily pensive.  Park knew he had reason to be.  The Thais got a lot of support from the Americans, and had a good claim to being one of the best-equipped, best-trained militaries in Southeast Asia.  They were a threat not to be taken lightly.

“The Thai Army has other concerns than one platoon of dead Rangers,” Park said smoothly.  It irritated him to be acting as a diplomat as well as a soldier.  He knew it was a vital part of his mission, and he was as devoted as any other soldier would be in his position.  Decades of training and indoctrination had ensured that.  Sometimes duty to the Supreme Leader and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea demanded difficult things of a man.  “And the truce with the Rangers has never been all that solid, has it?  I recall that it was the Rangers who forced Khun Sa back into the hills, were they not?”  Khun Sa had been a Shan warlord, not Wa, but the message was clear enough.

“That is true,” Gao agreed.  “So, when do we strike?”

Park peered through the binoculars again.  The Ranger trucks had stopped, and the camouflage-clad riflemen were piling out of the canvas-shrouded beds.  “Now,” he said, “while they are still bunched up.”

Gao barked a command in Mandarin, and over the crest of the hill behind them, under Kim Ha-Jun’s watchful eye, the mixed mortar crews of Wa and Kokang hastily snatched up 60mm mortar rounds and held them over the mouths of the Type 93 mortars.  For reasons of stealth, they had not been able to register the mortars, but Park was confident in Kim’s calculations.  The man had been a mortarman for years, and knew the 60mm weapons inside and out.

Kim barked an order, and the mortarmen dropped the rounds, ducking their heads below the tops of the mortar tubes, just as they had trained to do.

The mortars fired with a rapid series of coughing bangs, the shells hurtling skyward over the ridge and the valley beyond.  Even from a distance, as he got back behind the binoculars, Park could hear the faint whistle of their passage through the air.

***

Somboon had never heard that sound, even in training.  He’d been around mortar fire, on ranges, but he had never heard the quavering whisper of the shells hissing through the air above him, dropping toward his head.  He looked up as he swung down to the ground, momentarily confused.  He’d heard the distant pops of the mortars, but the significance of the sound hadn’t quite registered.

It never would.  Even as some of the more experienced Rangers dove for cover, the first rounds impacted in thunderous gouts of smoke, mud, shredded vegetation, and splintered tree branches.  The mortars were off, just slightly; they impacted in a roughly slanted pattern across the road, only two of them landing on target.  The rest spent their fury in the grass and bushes of the open meadow on the Myanmar side of the border, or in the trees on the forested Thai side.

Of the two that hit the road, one struck barely half a meter in front of the front fender of Somboon’s truck.  He had just shut the cab’s door behind him.  There was nothing but air between him and the mortar’s detonation.  The concussion pulped his internal organs, at the same time that the fragments flayed the flesh off his shattered bones.  There was very little left of Roi Tri Somboon Sirpreecha to hit the roadway, even as the truck’s engine compartment was smashed to wreckage by the blast, the windshield shattering under overpressure and flying shrapnel.  The damaged engine seized, and the truck started to burn.

***

Park called out adjustments to Kim, who passed them along to the mortarmen.  It took a few moments to dial the mortars, then the next volley was soaring skyward with another hoarse chorus of bangs.

The rounds impacted in a ragged pattern along the road, which was already somewhat obscured by smoke from the burning truck.  Black smoke, red mud, and other debris fountained skyward as the mortar rounds struck and detonated, cratering the road and setting at least one more truck on fire.  Then Gao was on his radio, ordering the “scouts” forward.  They had planned on only using the two barrages of mortar fire, then sending the foot soldiers in.

The UWSA soldiers had been creeping up the slope for over an hour, moving slowly and carefully, dressed in green fatigues and skillfully camouflaged.  The UWSA didn’t know precisely what the sensors the Thais had placed along the border were capable of, but they had relied on the drug mules in the rear to occupy most of the BPP’s and Rangers’ attention.  So far, it appeared to have worked.

Even as the debris from the mortar barrage pattered down to the ground, the fighters were getting to their feet and rushing up the slope toward the road, firing their Type 56s and Type 81s from the hip.  A pair of RPKs opened up from the flanks, raking the edge of the road to cover the attack.  From below the crest of the ridge, they did not have the fields of fire they might have, but they were hammering at what they could see, and the already shell-shocked and demoralized Rangers weren’t returning fire.

The leftmost RPK fell silent first.  The assault force moved up onto the slightly higher ground, up on top of the same embankment that had felt like an impenetrable wall to Somboon not long before.  Thrashing through the thick vegetation, they fired down on the road from the high ground, raking the surviving Rangers with full-auto fire.  The right flank of the assaulters moved a little more cautiously as they neared the road, no longer rushing but advancing carefully, firing long bursts at anything that moved.

Park watched the massacre through the binoculars, his face impassive.  He was trying to think of pointers he could give the UWSA soldiers afterward.  That was why he was there, after all.

The roar and crackle of small arms fire up on the ridge continued for several minutes before dying away to the odd single shot, as the UWSA soldiers finished off the last few wounded Rangers.  Park stood up and stretched.

Gao joined him.  The taller man looked grim, and Park did not think that the expression had much to do with pity for the Thais who had been slaughtered up on the opposite ridge.  Gao was a soldier, even though he was often also a gangster.  In fact, he was directly going against the decrees of the United Wa State Party by even being involved in the drug trade at all, though there was a great deal of “condemn in public, profit in private” hypocrisy going on there.  The dynamics of the Golden Triangle were murky and fluid, at best; a tangle of drug money, ethnic conflict, Communism, anti-Communism, and the machinations of multiple factions ranging from the People’s Republic of China, to the Myanmar government, to the Thais themselves.

Gao was worried about the backlash from this incident.  Park knew it from talking to the man; though he had been careful to avoid too much personal rapport with a group and a militia that had been explicitly anti-Communist in the past, his mission required him to form some sort of bond with the Wa as well as the Kokang.  The primary mission might be with the Communist, ethnic-Chinese Kokang in the north, but to use the pipelines into Thailand had required making liaison with the Wa narcotics traffickers.

“Come,” Park said.  “I want to get a better look at the kill zone.  I might have advice for the next time.”

Gao said nothing, but followed Park as the Chungwi started down the hill.

***

The road was a bloody mess of bodies and burning vehicles.

None of the Thai Rangers had been left alive.  The UWSA soldiers had been thorough, though there was still the distant possibility that some of the Thais had escaped into the jungle to the southeast.  Park was relatively unconcerned.  By the time any possible survivors got word of the massacre back to their headquarters, the Wa and Kokang drug traffickers would be well on their way, and none of the Thais had seen him or his men.

The road was heavily cratered by the mortar strikes, and two of the three five-ton trucks were burning.  The third was sitting on its rims, its tires shredded, its windows shattered, steam billowing from its ruptured radiator.  The windows of the cab were spattered with blood; the driver had been shot dead while he sat behind the wheel.

“You see?” Park said to Gao.  “You no longer have to give up any of the people’s resources to the Thai parasites.  More of the money from the drugs can be put toward defending the United Wa State against the paramilitaries and the government troops.”

Gao looked at him, then nodded.  While the Communist propaganda was likely falling on deaf ears, the money would be enough of an incentive for him to agree.

Looking down the slope, he could see the actual traffickers, the “mules” with their backpacks full of heroin and ya ba, trudging up the slope.  The vegetation and the steepness of the ridge made it rough going, but they were mountain people, and they pushed on.

“Once they are across,” Park said as he turned to Gao.  “We should disperse.  There will be a response to this attack, and my men and I especially should not be in the vicinity when it gets here.  Our continued support in the people’s struggle is greatly dependent on secrecy.”

“You will go back to Kokang?” Gao asked.  There was a note of dissatisfaction in his voice, and well there might be.  Park and the Kokang Army commander, Cao, had talked him into lending his support for the attack, making the case that it would both allow him to pocket the bribes that would otherwise have been meant for the Thai border guards, terrorize them into leaving the drug corridors alone for a while, and would get his men valuable combat experience with little risk.  But now that the attack had gone off without a hitch, he was fully aware that his “allies” were going to disappear into the northern hills, near the Chinese border, leaving him and his United Wa State Army troops to face any retaliation from the Royal Thai Army alone.

“Yes,” Park replied.  “It is safer that way.  You have nothing to fear, commander,” he continued, trying to sound reassuring.  “The Thais will be reticent to cross the border.  They are even now trying to build better relations with the Burmese.  They will try to coordinate the response with the Burmese government, which will gain you time to disperse your men.  After all, do your own superiors in the UWSP know about this operation?”

Gao shook his head.  The drug operation was entirely on the side, officially unknown by the United Wa State Party, which had come out to condemn the drug trade in the United Wa State.  Of course, there were a few in the Party who knew; Gao knew that they did, since he paid them.

“Then, as long as your men are disciplined enough, or isolated enough, there will be no targets for the imperialists and their puppets to pursue,” Park said.  “This is only the beginning, commander.  In time, you will be able to make the United Wa State truly secure, despite the short-sighted panderers in the Party who would compromise with the Burmese who oppressed you for so long.”

Park didn’t think about the words.  He’d learned many years ago not to.  They were the Party Line, and the Party was always right.

Finally, Gao nodded, his gaze far away.  After a moment, he nodded again, more surely this time.  He was probably imagining what he could do with the money he hadn’t had to pay the Thais with.

Park stifled his disgust.  Gao was a thug, despite his patriotic words about fighting for the Wa and the other ethnic Chinese in northern Burma.  The UWSA got plenty of support from the Chinese, under the table.  Gao was in the narcotics trade simply because he wanted more.

But that was often the price of doing the people’s work, Park mused.  A true member of the Party couldn’t let outdated things like scruples interfere.

Turning his back on the devastation along the road, Park started back down the slope, to join up with Kim and the rest of the small contingent he’d brought south.  It was time to get back to their base of operations.

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