Commentary

FBR’s ‘Help, Hope and Love’ Not Wanted in Rakhine, Military Says

By Aung Zaw 13 June 2019

David Eubank is no stranger to Myanmar or its ethnic conflicts. The leader of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR) now says the group’s relief mission is up and running in troubled Rakhine State, but the generals in Naypyitaw have told him to stay away

The Myanmar Army will not allow the FBR to enter the country, military spokesperson Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun said. His comments came in response to the group’s announcement that it was implementing plans to help displaced persons in Rakhine State, where the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army (AA) are fighting.

The FBR “was formed by Vietnam War veterans. They are in fact militants. They provide military training to the KNU [Karen National Union]. According to information we have received, they ask [trainees] to attack [military] outposts as a way of testing their training. They provide funds and training. As they do so, the conflicts escalate,” Brig-Gen. Zaw Min Tun charged.

The plain fact, however, is that Eubank will not ask for permission to deliver relief and to work in Rakhine, or anywhere else.

Eubank told The Irrawaddy by email, “The Free Burma Rangers is a humanitarian organization and our mission is to help people and get the news out. We give humanitarian help, hope and love to people under attack.”

He denied that the FBR had ever trained rebels to attack Tatmadaw outposts.

“We do not encourage anyone to attack the Burma army, nor have we given military training or support to the ethnic armed groups. We are not against the Burma government and have offered to train [FBR teams for the Burma Army]. But if the Burma army attacks people, we do stand with people when they are attacked. We are a humanitarian organization and not a militia,” he said.

Asked for his reply to spokesman Brig-Gen. Zaw Min Tun, he said, “My response to the general is that we will continue to give help, hope and love to people under attack and to get the news out. We also pray for him and the Burma Army to act in love and truth and to find a better way to resolve disputes. The role of the Burma (Myanmar) army is to protect the people of Burma and this is [an] honorable role. We don’t want to be their enemy, and pray for them. We are very small but we will keep helping people in need as much as we can until the attacks stop.”

Mission in Karen State

Eubank, now in his late 50s, is a veteran relief worker and has been involved in Myanmar for decades. He and the FBR began their Myanmar mission in 1997. A former U.S. Marine Corps officer, he served in the U.S. special forces for nine years. Eubank is a devout Christian and has described his mission as being to help oppressed people in the name of Jesus.

He founded FBR as a humanitarian mission to help internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kayin State and ultimately to assist oppressed ethnic minorities of all races and religions in Myanmar.

A Free Burma Rangers team in Karen State in 2017 / Free Burma Rangers

The family spent almost 20 years living in the Myanmar jungle near the Thai border, where he and his team provided emergency medical care, shelter and food supplies in the country’s long-running civil war. Eubank has befriended several ethnic leaders and met current State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, then the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement, in 1996. He recruited former U.S. soldiers as well as Karen and other ethnic people to provide medical and of course military training to help people survive in the jungle. Eubank and his team learned to survive in zones where the armed conflicts between the Tatmadaw and rebels take place.

When Eubank goes to the frontline he takes his children and his wife, Karen. He speaks several languages including Karen and Thai, and has friends in the Thai military.

Brig-Gen. Zaw Min Tun said the FBR cannot be trusted, despite having fought against ISIS in the Middle East. He said the FBR previously entered Karen State on the pretext of providing assistance to refugees, but in reality provided military training to the KNU.

During his missions near the Thai border, Eubank and his team of medics would move around in the jungle; the appearance of ex-U.S. marines working with Karen rebels mistakenly led some villagers and others to believe that Americans were involved in the ethnic armed movement, no doubt creating false hope among some ethnic villagers. On some occasions U.S. soldiers joined the team, some of them traveling immediately to the Karen State jungles after ending their deployments in Afghanistan, via Thailand. This kind of action no doubt invited lingering suspicion.

The Myanmar regime was aware of his activities on the border and inside Karen, Shan and Kayah States.

But when Myanmar’s then Prime Minister Thein Sein visited Thailand in 2008, Eubank and his family were detained and interrogated for a couple of days by the Thai Third Army in Tak province bordering Myanmar. The order to detain him and his family came from Thai authorities in Bangkok, according to a U.S. Embassy report published in WikiLeaks.

Eubank has consistently stated that his group is not backed by the U.S. government, insisting that the FBR is funded by church groups around the world. But he definitely maintains ties to his former colleagues in the U.S. Army, and has admirers within it.

Eubank is obsessed with Myanmar and its ethnic people; he has made many friends along the border among ethnic groups and soldiers.

He also loves going to the frontline and conflict zones. In the jungle he carries guns while delivering aid to IDPs, and one could say he has a somewhat Rambo-like love of action and that he even seems to enjoy working in the line of fire. Indeed, his FBR team assisted in the making of the 2008 film “Rambo 4”, in which the Tatmadaw was depicted as “evil oppressors”.

Mission to Iraq and Syria

The FBR’s activities in Karen State and along the eastern border with Thailand began to fade as Myanmar started to open up in 2011 and 2012, and the government began peace talks with rebels. Not surprisingly, Eubank didn’t believe his Karen colleagues should engage with the regime. On the other hand, he did meet and have a conversation with then minister U Aung Min, who was chairperson of the Myanmar Peace Center during U Thein Sein’s tenure as president.

When ethnic groups began engaging in peace talks with the Myanmar government, Eubank took his team elsewhere.

He traveled to Iraq and Syria during the height of the conflict there, a choice that is not surprising for Eubank and the FBR. When he left for the Middle East in 2014 he and his family took along some ethnic people whom he had trained in Myanmar. When they arrived there he and his team at first worked alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the war against the Islamic State (or ISIS).

FBR founder David Eubank prays for a sick woman in Mosul, Iraq in December 2016. / Free Burma Rangers

In 2017, his daring rescue of an Iraqi girl during a firefight with ISIS received media attention in the West.

In Mosul, ISIS fighters were killing civilians. The little girl’s mother and everyone around her were dead from sniper fire. When Eubank encountered the girl, he was determined to save her. He asked a U.S. Marine artillery battery to drop a smoke screen as cover as he ran from behind a tank, grabbed the girl and dragged her to safety, all in 12 seconds.

Commenting on the incident, retired U.S. Army Colonel Oliver North, president of the U.S. National Rifle Association, told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “Of course, in the aftermath of ISIS and the horrific murders that were occurring he ended up in probably more gunfights than most people in the Marine Corps or the Army special forces have been in. He’s been there to help those people fighting for the right side,” North said.

Eubank is a missionary who takes up arms, rides around in armored vehicles and relies on his highly specialized military training, but North says that’s all necessary to perform at Eubank’s level, CBN reported.

“I know what the circumstances are like. He would not survive without armored vehicles. If you look at the windshield of his vehicle it had bullet holes in it before he got into the big fight that we’ve got coverage of,” North says.

Obsessed with ethnic struggle

Obsessed as ever with Myanmar and its ethnic minorities, however, as conflict resumed in Myanmar—particularly in Rakhine State—he made preparations to return.

I met him several times in Thailand and found him to be a straight talker. At that time his attention was fixed on the Karen. Our most recent meeting was a chance encounter at a conference in Europe in 2017. Eubank was at the conference to give a speech. The address focused more on his mission in Iraq and Syria than on Myanmar, but he did make some time to speak about the Rakhine issue and the Rohingya.

As I was sitting in the audience, he mentioned my name and urged me to share my thoughts on the situation at the time. The audience turned its attention to me, and I addressed the Rakhine situation, as this was just a few months after the major conflict erupted in northern Rakhine State, where we saw killings and hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.

I specifically mentioned the vast narrative gap between Myanmar and the international community in terms of what happened there and said that they would be hard to reconcile.

During the reception, Eubank told me that he was going to get involved in the Rakhine situation and with the Rohingya. Unlike Karen State, where the FBR largely operated without serious problems on the ground, I told him that the situation would be extremely complicated and challenging in Rakhine State.

Arakan Army leader Major General Htun Myat Naing told The Irrawaddy by email this week that he had heard of the FBR mission but had not made contact with Eubank. “There has been no direct contact to inform us they are coming [to Rakhine State],” the AA leader said. He said his group had no objections to the FBR. But he also said that on past occasions when he had sent his soldiers to the FBR for 30- to 40-day training sessions “they didn’t get military training so we stopped sending our people.”

Maj-Gen. Htun Myat Naing said the FBR’s presence in Rakhine State meant that the outside world would find out more about the situation on the ground. “We have no objection.”

Eubank said his team had helped IDPs through the AA in the past, including some AA members in Kachin State, “But most of our help right now to Arakan IDPs is thru our Arakan FBR teams.” He insisted that his team was engaged in a relief mission. “We pray for the Burma government and Burma army. We have been supporting FBR humanitarian missions in Arakan [Rakhine] State for over 10 years and continue as best we can to help people who are displaced there now.”

He continued: “We have FBR teams working in Arakan [Rakhine] State. It is not easy but we have been able to deliver medical and some food support to IDPs who have been displaced by the attacking Burma (Myanmar) Army. We have also been able to help some displaced in Chin State who were also displaced due to the fighting between AA and Burma (Myanmar) Army.” Unlike in Karen State, his team now seeks to operate in different terrain where the situation is much more complex. He admitted, “The access is much harder in Arakan.”

Eubank also called on the international community to provide direct humanitarian assistance to those under attack through the relevant ethnic armed groups. This will not happen, of course.

He describes the effort he leads as a relief mission, but Eubank is political and takes sides. “The onslaught by the Burma (Myanmar) Army, killing and displacing the Arakan people is just the most recent example of the misrule and war crimes by the Burma Army. The displacement of the Rohingya in the same state, the ongoing attacks in Kachin and Shan states, the violations of ceasefire agreements and displacement of Karen in eastern Burma should be stopped,” he said in his email.

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