Thomas James Bleming
The Karen National Union and especially the actions of the Karen National Liberation Army have spawned a number of books detailing a fascination for the Karen cause. While a number of these tomes, most impressively Jonathan Falla’s ‘True Love and Bartholomew’ (Cambridge 1991), have been well researched and accurately portray the author’s understanding, sympathy, and compassion for the Karen revolution and the people’s plight. A number, usually written by ex-soldiers who have ‘spent time on the frontline’ with the KNLA, are often best characterized as fantasies constructed mostly for the authors own egos and self-promotion (see Mike Tucker’s The Long Patrol for example). Rather than attempting to convey the struggle of a people enduring a sixty year war of subjugation such books primarily skim over any true analysis of the situation and instead offer the reader the briefest glimpse of the conflict – dwelling more on the writers own exploits than those of the people he seeks to shine a light on.
Sadly, Thomas Bleming, a U.S. based, self-described, ‘Soldier of Fortune and Revolutionary’ turned photo-Journalist, fits into, if not redefines, the latter. Bleming’s three weeks spent with the KNLA has created an alternate reality within the author’s mind that bares little resemblance to the actual problems facing not only the people but the Karen revolution as a whole. The book’s travelogue style (replete with times of having breakfast, where and what was eaten, where he stayed etc.) could easily have been dismissed as adventure reading if it wasn’t for the author’s belief that he himself holds the key to ending a sixty year conflict – as in – send more white men with bigger guns, or to quote Mr Bleming himself in an interview he gave to the Casper Star Tribune shortly after his visit: “The reason why I don’t think this battle is going to continue is because they’ve found Thomas Bleming…It’s my duty to stop it.”(1)
Initially armed with a Lonely Planet guide to South-east Asia and the telephone number of Derek Melton ( A US based pastor who would later align himself with a KNU splinter group), Bleming had decided to offer his services to the Karen after seeing a documentary on the struggle on TV in his hometown of Lusk, Wyoming (or after reading an article in the Caspar Star Tribune according to one article in that publication). He made his way to Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border and it was here that he attempted to contact the KNLA through Melton who had arranged for someone to meet him. After waiting several days after the initial contact he was finally met by a KNLA officer and was taken to the camp of Colonel Nerdah Mya the son of the late General and KNU President Bo Mya.
It was here that Bleming suffered an epiphany and came to the realization that after his first real conversation with Nerdah (two weeks after his arrival) that he had found his true calling and that both he and Nerdah were, because of their involvement in armed struggle, similar:
‘…he [Nerdah] fighting for his nation and a people and I in search of a fight worth my own involvement, as I had for years, sought a fight worthy of my getting into it [sic].’
Such tenuous similarities aside, Bleming continues to explain his reasons for wanting to join the Karen conflict by lamenting the sad state of the U.S. and the materialistic nature that that country has adopted ‘…materialism…was a big issue in my search for somewhere, where a less crazy, rat race culture could be found.’
It would appear the main problem for Bleming seems to manifest itself in the belief that the small battalion of men he has met is the be all and end all of the Karen cause. For him Nerdah Mya, 201 Battalion (2), their headquarters at Waley Kee and the small village of Kaw Lah Gaw is Kawthoolei – and that is the largest problem with the book.
It is his brief relationship with Nerdah that seems to have caused the most confusion for Bleming. He states that Nerdah Mya, whom he incorrectly claims to be provisional head of state, made him Consul-General of the ‘Republic of Kawthoolei’ – an independent Karen State currently being fought for by the KNU – a claim that must have astounded the Karen leadership who since the nineties have consistently sought a Federal Union of Ethnic States (see The Manerplaw Agreement in July 1992 which was further supported by the Mae Tha Raw Hta agreement in 1997 – the signing of the latter was to become a major obstacle to negotiations and finally lead to a renewed SPDC offensive). This honored position bestowed on him by Nerdah, he claims, makes him the sole U.S. representative and responsible for diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Republic of Kawthoolei (once diplomatic ties are formed).
It is this belief that continues to motivate the author throughout the remaining 30 or so pages of the book. The latter half of the story is largely taken up with ideas on how to open up Kawthoolei through the ideas of Nerdah Mya which according to Bleming would include War Bonds:
‘…who ever invested in these bonds would be getting a handsome profit …for each dollar invested the holders would receive an equal amount in return on top of what was invested.’
For his part, Bleming has offered 25% of the profits from the book because in his words-
’I was a member of the Karen National Liberation Army and that the republic of Kawthoolei was my adopted country.’
It was after this offer that Nerdah, on seeing Bleming surveying the surrounding countryside, purportedly offered him part of the land he was viewing saying that ‘Mr Bleming that is your property.’
The author’s descent (or ascent depending on your point of view) further into flights of fancy is further supported by his allusion to Fidel Castro and the Sierra Maestra. At one point the author tells Nerdah
‘I felt as if I were with Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra,’ he then comments ‘ And I am your (journalist) Herbert L Mathews…I’m going to show the world when I publish my book that you are still fighting against the Burmese military dictatorship, and that you need and deserve all the help from the free world you can get.’
I am sure that such sentiments are noble and the author clearly desires to help – however, it’s his execution of his book and the lack of accuracy it contains that undoes him. It would not have been too difficult after his return to the states for him to do some further research and familiarize himself with the true nature of the conflict. But instead he fills his book with inaccuracies and falls heavily on plugging himself, his revolutionary ideals and his previous book. In one paragraph he incorrectly states that ‘…on January 31st 1949 a former Burmese army corporal by the name of Saw Bo Mya declared Karen independence.’
The fact that Saw Ba U Gyi founded the KNU (along with Mahn Ba Zan, Saw Sankey, Saw Hunter Tha Mwe et al) is a fact that so easily could have been checked – Saw Ba U Gyi’s four principles are posted clearly in every KNLA camp including Waley Kee. A little research, including Bo Mya’s biography, would have easily discovered that Bo Mya had been a policeman in the eastern hills prior to joining Force 136 and did not become a major figure in the revolution until after 1954 a fact that could also have been confirmed by his son. Such fundamental inaccuracies clearly demonstrate the lack of knowledge on the part of the author and hardly provide much in the way of credibility for his book, or for that matter his understanding of the cause he has adopted.
There is no doubting Thomas Bleming’s military credentials. He is a Silver Star awarded ex-Viet vet who has been caught up in a number of other conflicts. Not long after the Vietnam War in 1975 (at the time he was 24) he was heavily involved in recruiting mercenaries in Rhodesia when he worked for the U.S. based Military Advice Command International.(3) In the late seventies he was involved in the Panamanian conflict and subsequently incarcerated for two years when the country was under the dictatorship of Noriega. It was due to this imprisonment and torture that the author attempted to sue Noriega for $21 Million dollars, although one article quotes Bleming as saying that he does not want the money and he “would not accept it” rather what he wants is honorary citizenship of the country.(4)
I don’t doubt that Thomas Bleming’s past experiences would make fine reading, however his brief foray with the Karen offers very little about the Karen struggle as a whole. Instead it merely serves to show more about the author and his own motivations rather than accurately portraying the Karen conflict – and, therefore, should ultimately be read as such.
1. ‘Man without a Country’ David Mirahadi http://www.trib.com/articles/2007/10/15/news/top_story/9864de23b7a96c25872573730020f658.txt
2. Bleming refers to Nerdah’s troops as 6th Brigade but 201 Battalion is actually an H.Q. Battalion and does not come under 6th Brigade command. Nerdah was attached to the General H.Q. and was not officially commanding the Battalion at the time of the author’s visit
3. ‘From the Barrel of a Gun – The United States and the War Against Zimbabwe, 1965 – 1980’ – Gerald Home, UNC press, 2001