published in The Irrawaddy November 2001 issue
“CHA!” shouted the class of soldier recruits on our front lawn, lunging forward with their bayonets. Our two girls, Susan and Patsy, ages four and two, watched from our small porch as the master sergeant rapped one recruit on the head who had done it wrong. “CHA!” again; this time everyone apparently got it right. In the hot sunshine farther off, a half dozen soldiers gathered around a dis-assembled Bren gun, preparing to put it back together. Over by the well, four student buglers practiced assembly call in dismal cacophony. Business as usual for the Fourth Burma Regiment.
Kengtung was base of operations for a division of troops that guarded eastern Burma from the incursions of the Chinese KMT troops and assorted rebel armies and bandits. The Fourth Burregt and their families were quartered in a large grove just beyond the hospital, and more or less assumed, without asking, that they could use the grassy mission compound as a drill field. The Fifth Kachin Rifles and Division Headquarters were on a hill a half mile away. Several fighter planes nested in revetments along the town’s airstrip, guarded by sentries.
Although my wife and I didn’t really care to have our daughters watch this daily show, and although we ground our teeth and held our ears as we tried to shut out the bugle beginners, the soldiers really were good neighbors. Their mobile crane was invaluable in setting our hospital’s four-ton generator on its base one day, and a non-com and his squad hurried to the aid of four hospital workers who couldn’t manage on their own when installing a vertical forty-foot section of iron pipe in the new well. And another day, when a civilian patient needed an uncommon blood type for transfusion, we were inundated with volunteers from the army camp.
We, in turn, took care of their women and children. There was a military clinic across town, which took care of the battle casualties, with the help of the government civil surgeon. When a convoy was ambushed and Major Periera attracted enemy bullets by diving for cover and returning fire, or when the someone tossed a grenade into a truckload of army families, the victims went to the government facilities. What we got, at first, were soldiers’ wives bringing their children. “Nah nahdeh, Bogyi, [His ear hurts, Captain]” a mother would explain, assuming I rated at least top company-grade rank. Or maybe it would be a kid with swollen glands, or a wife with a miscarriage.
The turning point came when a sergeant came in carrying an underweight four-year-old in his arms. His son had not been doing well ever since he had a fever some weeks ago. I looked him over, thumped his chest, listened with my stethoscope. Dull sound to percussion, and absent breath sounds on the left. Low grade fever. The kid didn’t look well. The father looked gratified when I ordered a chest X-ray. I held up the film, pointing out to him the whited-out left chest, where air-filled lung should have been.
“I think he has an empyema – pus in his chest,” I told the sergeant. If we can draw the pus out, and give him medicine, I think he’ll get well.
This was worse than the sergeant had feared, but he reluctantly gave permission. We did not yet have surgery or anesthesia, so I had the father hold the boy in his arms, painted his back with antiseptic, and inserted a large needle into the left chest cavity. As I drew back on the plunger of the fifty cc syringe, I was rewarded by a flow of greenish-white pus. His chest yielded several hundred cc of pus, which a gram-stain in the lab showed to be probably staphylococcus. This was before the in-patient hospital opened, and we didn’t have much that was suitable for injecting into the chest cavity. We did have some samples of an obscure antibiotic called oleandomycin, and I used all our ampules on him over the next week The father was impressed.
Every two days he would bring his boy, and because soldiers at that time were never far from their weapons, he would lay his Thompson submachine gun on the table so he could hold the child with both arms. Each time, pus was withdrawn. The child was too weak to put up much of a fight, but he gradually improved, starting to walk and gain weight again. The infection left a thick scar surrounding the lung, but he survived. The mission hospital was fully accepted by our soldier neighbors after that.
As neutral medical workers, trying to maintain credibility with both the Shan villagers and the townspeople and government, we sometimes had to walk a fine line. I never went out on house calls to treat sick or injured rebels, but I let it be known that anyone who came to the hospital would be treated impartially, without unnecessary questions asked. On the other hand, I could not object to army personnel entering and inspecting the hospital. When an officer told me I must report all suspicious people who came for treatment, I had to tell him I couldn’t do that; if he wanted such reports he would have to send soldiers to do it. And one day when the new division commander, Col. Tun Sein, visited us and I tactlessly referred to “our” [i.e. the mission’s] leprosy villages, he testily told me that he understood what I meant, but I had better never forget that they were not our villages, they were Burma’s. He was right, of course, and I watched my conversation more carefully thereafter.
The Army did indeed have some battles to fight, and sometimes sustained serious casualties. When the Chinese Kuomintang teamed up with Shan rebels, the Burmese regiment known as the Kachin Rifles moved up near the Chinese border, returning from battle just in time for Christmas Eve services (The Kachin ethnic group is largely Christian.) And the Shan rebels shot up our compound one night to draw the army away from the government hospital on the other side of town, while the rebels killed an informer who was a patient over there. Our area, Nawng Hpa Quarter, was featured in the nation’s newspapers next day as “the center of fighting”. Sounded like it, too, at the time.
One day, I had to go to Division Headquarters to fill out some papers. As my jeep entered the gate I heard someone roar out the Burmese equivalent of “Ten-HUT!” and a row of soldiers sprang to present arms. The colonel and his staff immediately appeared, expecting to find at least a general arriving. “Why, it’s only the mission doctor,” I heard one say, and they went back to their conference. But at the head of the line of soldiers standing rigidly at attention, the sergeant-father of my little empyema patient, grinned and threw me a salute.
“And what did you think of the Myanmar people, Doctor? Are they as you remember them from former days?” asked the General.
“I found them struggling, financially. But they are still the thoughtful, generous people they used to be, even in hardship. I have not had much contact with enlisted soldiers this time. The army used to be quite friendly with the hospital people back in the old days. But I am told the situation has changed now, that an encounter with soldiers is something to be feared.”
“The duty of a soldier is to defend his country.”
“Yes, that’s the way I see it, too. That was what they did, back in those days.”
Excerpt from Flame Tree © Keith Dahlberg