In a world away and a lifetime apart from most of us, there lies a small and delicate valley tucked away into the steep and gorgeous hill country between Thailand and Burma (Myanmar). There above the jungle-clad slopes, punctuated with picturesque rice paddies filtering down to quaint tribal villages below, stand two young men of Asia who have never spoken to one another. In fact, they have never met. They merely know one another from afar.
This is their story. This is the story of so many young men who have put on the uniforms of their respective countries. And, it touches a truth in our lives.
Recently, my wife and I traveled to Thailand to take part in a Christian leadership training program for local leaders who serve tribal groups and refugee camps in northern Thailand and Burma. After the seminar was completed, we went about three hours north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, towards our intended destination, the Royal Agricultural Project, which hovers in the shadows of the Burmese border.
Here, nearly 30 years ago, the current monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, invested his royal prestige and influence in developing a project that would teach the highland people how to turn from the cash crop of opium to farming profitable long-term crops. This was quite an undertaking and transformation of an entire mind-set. These local residents had to overcome the very real pulls of "cashing" in on the profitable drug trade of exporting opium.
A cloud over Shangri-la
As we came over the horizon and looked down on the royal project, thoughts of "Shangri-la" flooded my mind. The luscious green slopes eased down to neatly tended farmland of orchards, meticulously planted rows of vegetables and greenhouses full of produce. The locals seemed happy and content. It was a joy just meandering through such a renaissance atmosphere of transformation and renewal. I saw a small type of the biblical prophet Micah's millennial vision: "But everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4).
My mind snapped back to the present as our hosts then mentioned to us, "Burma is right there!" My eyes slowly traveled away from the valley floor up the slopes opposite where we had come. Suddenly a feeling of foreboding clambered through me. The Thai and Burmese people have been at loggerheads for centuries. Oftentimes, the border area is shut down due to political rivalries, ethnic tensions or military operations. Suddenly, Shangri-la had a cloud over it.
An hour later, we were in a quaint village of tribal hill people whose lifestyle remains the same as it has been for many centuries. Their village rests on a thin rim of mountain strand looking down on curving slopes streaming down to the flatlands below. Chickens strutted across the road and piglets scampered across the gravelly stretch in front of us in search of their next whimsical adventure. Smiling and curious children were seemingly everywhere, and we walked up and down the streets with them. Immediately, we were "buddies," even though we couldn't speak a word of their tongue.
We are here; come no further
The placidity melted, as we moved up the road a short distance to a small army post. It struck me that the presence of this small fort says, "We are here; come no further." On this small ragged bluff, 15 young men stand ready to thwart any incursion from neighboring Burma.
A young officer came out to see what the commotion was all about. Our Thai-speaking host asked the officer if we might walk up to the outskirts of the border outpost, which is lined with sand-bagged trenches and bunkers, and have a look. Before and below the one lone soldier on duty was a deep mountain ravine, and a couple of hundred yards across the ravine was another fort with an identically situated young sentry. Two nations, two forts, two men, one valley—all come together in tropical paradise.
Something is terribly wrong here.
As we look through a pair of military binoculars, we see a Burmese soldier staring at us through his binoculars. As close as we are, we remain worlds apart and unable to meet each other.
I began to think how often in a day, every day, every month, every year and every decade do the two solitary sentries of Burma and Thailand stand alone, occasionally observing one another through their binoculars.
They simply wait and stare
Do you suppose they ever consider what the other is thinking? Where he is from? Is he married? Does he have a family?
They arise to the same sun, breathe the same mountain air, feel the chill of the morning and the same noontime warmth of tropical sun. They hear the same birds as they soar and dive into the valley before them. They get wet from the same thundercloud and see the same rainbows. But they only know one another by fixed stares through binoculars. Two men of Asia, alone, in a valley. They do not speak. They do not move forward. They simply wait and stare.
There are so many other valleys where other men face each other, standing guard. Valleys in Pakistan, India, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, as well as the urban canyons of Belfast, Medellin and Hebron.
In the aftermath of World War I, Erich Maria Remarque wrote an epic antiwar novel titled All Quiet on the Western Front. It is the story of young German lads who gladly go off to serve the Fatherland thinking that they will shortly return to finish school and life will go on just like it was before. But they soon come to understand the ever-so-true maxim of "war never leaves a nation where it found it." They are about to meet the enemy in the close quarters of battle, and they find the enemy is the same as they are.
A man just like me
The pivotal point of the book is when the main character, young Paul Baumer, meets the other side. Pinned down in a foxhole with machine-gun bullets whizzing overhead, he sits and waits, hoping against hope that the enemy will pass by. In a brief but brutal hand-to-hand combat with an enemy soldier, Baumer mortally wounds him. His victim dies slowly, and the victor reflects on how much like himself the dying man is.
"If only he had run two yards farther to the left, he might now be sitting in the trench over there and writing a fresh letter to his wife... The silence spreads. I talk and must talk. So I speak to him and say to him: 'Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship.
"'Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are just poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade and stand up—take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now'" (1929, p. 227).
Remarque wrote this over 70 years ago, but it might as well be today.
The Sun of Righteousness shall arise
As we walk away from the bunkers and trenches, 15 of Thailand's native sons slowly lower the Thai colors to the singing of the national anthem. It is getting darker by the second as I look over the forest to the sun going down over the hills of Burma just yards away. I think to myself that the exact same ceremony is playing out just across the valley with another group of young men, another flag and another song. There is a greater shadow lurking here than that cast by the men guarding the sovereignty of two nations. It is the darkness of human nature left to its own devices.
Nearly 50 years ago, the Cold War statesman John Foster Dulles put it so well when he stated, "The world will never have lasting peace so long as men reserve for war the finest human qualities." We often equate peace as being "the absence of conflict," rather than the true peace that comes by the presence of workable solutions. As the Thai flag went down with the sun, I could not but sense the need for another light to arise and shine on these two men of Asia, and the humble village and the beautiful farming valley below.
Malachi's words came to mind: "But to you who fear my name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings" (Malachi 4:2). The healing that Jesus Christ, the ultimate Light of this world, is going to bring is more than a temporary cessation of hostilities between age-old enemies. It is the way to permanent peace through God's Spirit. Only Christ's way will reverse mankind's shameless record of but 300 years of recorded peace in over 6,000 years of recorded history.
What enables the vision of Micah, cited in the beginning? In his words: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not raise sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Micah 4:3). A change of heart makes it possible for this marvelous image to become reality.
Put down those binoculars
Sitting in the dark with my wife, as our host drove down the long and winding roads to the flatland below, I turned over again and again in my head how often I've been in the dark when it comes to what I can control. I'm not responsible for the Thai and Burmese people at this time. God will have to deal with them and the rest of the world.
But I, too, have so often maintained a "binocular mentality" of simply standing and staring at another person from a distance. There I stand as I wonder and ponder his every movement over the same valley of bloodline, beliefs or shared experience. There I stand simply holding my ground, rather than putting down the binoculars to gain a wider perspective of what needs to happen. And what is needed is to "wage peace" with real answers, rather than war with all my good excuses.
Do you have binoculars like mine? Maybe it's time to put them down, and start walking down into the valley never walked before, towards that person who is really a lot like you. It is then we demonstrate the encouraging refrain found in Isaiah 30:21, "This is the way, walk in it."