"This isn't Hollywood," said the Shan lieutenant. "When people get blown up here, they die for real."
Getting blown up was a definite possibility. The Burmese Federal Army (SPDC), the Wa State tribal Army, and God knew how many other hostile armed factions were encamped on the hilltops surrounding the Shan State Army headquarters of Doi Tailang, where I had come to teach unarmed combat techniques to the Shan soldiers.
Examining the thousand men clad in their green uniforms and holding their AK-47 rifles, I questioned what I was doing there, and what, in the face of so many weapons, I could bring to the table in my role as a martial arts instructor.
The Shan State Army (SSA) is one of the rebel groups fighting the Burmese junta. For nearly fifty years, the Shan people have been fighting for independence, which was promised them by the British government. The Shan only took up arms after Burmese forces began raiding villages, raping women, and murdering farmers who they buried in mass graves. As a result of the conflict, more than one million Shan fled to neighboring Thailand. Others joined the army. Currently an SSA force of only about 10,000 soldiers is battling against the SPDC, which commands nearly half a million men.
On my first visit to Doi Tailang, a goat was slaughtered and we were invited to dinner with Colonel Yawd Serk, the Commander-in-Chief of the SSA. I was asked to sit next to the colonel, who kept grabbing my biceps and saying, "You are so strong. You are so strong." It made me feel more than a little ooky, but I knew it was a compliment.
Radio, the internet, and satellite phones kept the rebels surprisingly up-to-date on events in the outside world. They knew, for example, that Sylvester Stallone had just finished filming RAMBO IV, which dealt with the crisis in Burma.
"Can you get Rambo to come here?" the colonel asked me. "If my men could see him for just one day, it would encourage them, and they would fight like lions."
I promised to do what I could about contacting Sly. In the meantime, the soldiers were calling me Rambo II.
"Rambo pretended to come to Burma, but you came for real," said the lieutenant.
Col. Yawd Serk told me he had been in over 200 battles.
"Have you been in combat?" he asked me.
I felt very inadequate when I had to admit that I hadn't.
"How many fights have you had?"
"Counting professional fights, challenge matches, and fights in rice fields and gyms all over Asia, probably more than 150."
He smiled approvingly and asked me to teach combat techniques to his men.
The next morning, I held my first class on the parade grounds. The sergeants got the men to clear a place for me to train and then sit at attention.
While growing up as a young martial arts student and military enthusiast, two of my early heroes were William Ewart Fairbairn and Eric Anthony Sykes, British SAS men who wrote the standard for hand-to-hand combat during the World War II era. Working in the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) between the two world wars, they developed a style of unarmed combat later adopted by the British military and law enforcement, and taught Special Forces units around the world. Their system was a hybrid art, drawing on many existing traditions such as Jiu Jitsu, Chinese Martial arts, and probably western boxing and wrestling. Arguably, this was the first modern military art—possibly even the first organized system of unarmed combat developed for soldiers on a battlefield.
After World War Two, most armies moved away from training in hand-to-hand combat. Only elite personnel were given any training at all. Recently, however, due to the changing nature of modern warfare, the US military realized the importance of hand-to-hand and sought to revise the old system. In 2001, Sergeant First Class Matt Larsen started the US Army Combatives School, located at Fort Benning, Georgia. Sgt. Larsen also authored the army hand-to-hand handbook, Field Manual 3-25.150. The system, known as Combatives, is a hybrid that draws on wrestling, Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, boxing, and Muay Thai. Advanced courses include weapons lessons taken from the Filipino martial arts of Escrima and Kali.
The mix chosen for modern Combatives training is similar to techniques used in MMA or modern sport fighting. The difference, of course, is that combat fighting is lethal. Sport fighting has rules.
Unfortunately, I was in the military during the period when hand-to-hand was a joke. We were given eight hours of instruction in techniques similar to what John Wayne taught his men in THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA. In fact, I think part of our eight of hours of training included watching that film.
In training soldiers, I had to keep in mind that first of all, they weren't athletes with years to prepare. The techniques had to be simple to learn and to apply. Second, the techniques had to be effective. And third, they had to deal with situations which might actually arise in the context of a military scenario.
Although some question if hand-to-hand fighting ever actually comes up on a modern battlefield where people are shooting at each other, there are some very practical reasons to teach unarmed combat. One obvious practical application is in the case of capture. A prisoner or hostage may be able to use the training to overcome his guards and free himself. In a commando raid scenario, soldiers can use these techniques to silently subdue the sentries on watch before infiltrating an enemy position. Finally, there is a huge psychological component to barehanded fighting. In training, soldiers can't shoot or kill other soldiers; therefore, how they will perform under fire remains a mystery. By having them spar and kick and beat each other, we can release that killer instinct, the side of the human psyche which is capable of doing violence.
In the modern world of self-defense, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and ground fighting techniques, which are perfect for the ring, have come under criticism in the street fighting context. Opponents feel that "going to the ground" is not a good idea on the street or in combat because you can only fight one person at a time, and you expose you back. In other words, while you are wrestling with one opponent, his friends could come up behind you and kill you.
While I am inclined to agree with this estimation, I also agree with grappling proponents who say that nearly all street fights go to the ground. A typical street fight, or probably a fight for life and death, will start with one or two swings being taken, followed by two men rolling around on the ground trying to kill each other. Therefore, I support learning grappling as a means of self-defense or as a combat technique. But I think the emphasis should be put on stand-up grappling, throwing your opponent, but not going to the ground with him.
The first technique I taught was a simple throw—a heel grab I had picked up in the Philippines. You fake a punch or shoot at the face, and when the opponent's hands come up, and you simply duck down and grab his heel. At the same time, you hit his knee with all of your bodyweight, either with your shoulder or forearm. The man falls over backwards. If he isn't expecting it, hopefully he cracks his skull on something. In the ring, this technique would be followed up with a knee bar or ankle lock, since you already of control of him. But for the street, and for people with little or no training, it makes sense just to remain standing, maintain control of his leg, and stomp on his face with your army boots. A slightly more advanced follow-up could include breaking his leg, by bringing your knee down on the side of his knee joint. Either way, the point here is to take him down, and possibly out, quickly, so you can grab his weapon and shoot him.
In combat fighting, you don't want to get too wrapped up in the grappling. Remember, you can't win on points. It has to be a knock out or a kill.
The most common defense to the heel grab is a reverse guillotine choke. Remember, these soldiers are not trained fighters or grapplers, so they aren't doing a real shoot. They are just ducking and grabbing the heel. This leaves their neck completely exposed to being grabbed and a choke hold applied.
Next I taught the standing choke. The important points to a standing choke are to wedge the hard bones at the side of the wrist into the opponent's throat, and to cut off the flow of blood to the brain. In the movies, characters always try to choke each other with their hands, but in real life, the hands are not hard enough. You need to wedge some bone into the throat if you want to effectively cut off the air or blood flow. Blood flow is better—without blood, an opponent loses consciousness in seconds. But if you only constrict the air intake, it will take several minutes for him to pass out.
Step one: wedge your wrist bone into his throat. Step two: grab that wrist with your other hand and pull. A technique is always strongest when it employs two limbs working together. Third and final step: lift your hips. A good grappler uses the strength of his legs, hips, and back, all of which are stronger than his arms. Using your hips, you can actually lift your opponent off the ground, hanging him. Now, his entire bodyweight is resting on his throat, and he'll pass out pretty quickly.
Once we'd practiced grabbing someone by the neck, it was time to learn the counter, what to do if you are grabbed by the neck. First, wrap your arm around the underside of your opponent's thigh. That way, he can't lift you off the ground. Next, step through, and sweep his other leg. You could also step through and knee him in the groin. If you chose the sweep option, you will probably both go to the ground, but you will be on top.
From a mounted position, the simplest way to take an opponent out is to strike him. Submissions and chokes take specialized training, but anyone can learn to strike. This being southeast Asia, where Muay Thai was invented, all men know about elbow strikes. From the mount, I taught the men to rain elbows down on an opponent's exposed throat and chin. This way, they would either get a knock out or a kill.
In Southeast Asia, kickboxing is the predominant sport, so teaching men to kick and punch and use knees and elbows is fairly easy. On the other hand, wrestling is pretty much non-existent. In Theravada Buddhism, the predominant religion, the head is sacred, so you are never supposed to touch someone on the head. Also, the feet are considered filthy. So, the most insulting thing you could ever do is touch someone's head with your feet. In wrestling, you wind up in all kinds of crazy positions, which the Buddhists would find offensive. And lastly, the floor is considered absolutely untouchable, because feet are walking all over it.
Even among tough rebel soldiers living in the jungle, it is a stretch to get them to overcome their cultural taboos and wrestle on the ground.
Stick and knife fighting always seem to go hand in hand with unarmed combat. So we practiced what the US Army calls rifle bayonet techniques, which means basically using an unloaded rifle as a weapon. These techniques were extremely easy for Asian soldiers to pick up, because nearly every culture in this part of the world has a form of stick fighting. We just replaced the stick with an AK-47, and the soldiers ate it up.
We practiced striking with the butt of the rifle, smashing the face or head, upward smash to the groin, and downward strikes to the thighs. In the local kickboxing art, the thighs are seen as good targets because a sharp, painful blow to the thigh causes the muscle to spasm and the opponent drops like a bag of rice. The soldiers were familiar with knee, shin, and elbow strikes to the thigh. Striking with the butt of the rifle was a natural progression for them.
Blocking an attack with a rifle was also easy for them. We practiced block and counter techniques. Next, we integrated knee strikes, resulting in sequences such as: block a rifle smash to the face, hit the opponent in the solar plexus with the knee. Or: block overhead with the rifle, stomp on the side of your opponent's knee.
The next day, we practiced knife fighting.
My heroes, Fairbairn and Sykes, were the inventors of the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife, which Americans also refer to as a British Commando knife. This offensive weapon is a double-edged stiletto, with a blade about eight inches long, which tapers to a sharp point. The standard combat knife issued in the US military was the Marine Ka-Bar, a heavy weapon, similar to a Bowie knife. Where the Ka-Bar was seen as an all purpose utility tool, the Fairbairn-Sykes had no purpose other than killing.
GET TOUGH!, the book written by Fairbairn in 1942, was seen as the definitive work on knife fighting at that time. He explained how his slim, delicate knife could be used to deliver precise strikes, slipping between ribs or piercing major organs and blood vessels.
Unfortunately, my Shan soldiers were armed with huge bolo knives, similar to machetes, which are generally worn by hill men in this part of the world. Precision stabbing was out. Hacking and slashing was in.
Once again drawing from my training experience in the Philippines, I taught the men the five basic strikes. A down ward slash to the left shoulder, downward slash to right shoulder, upward slash through the groin, thrust to the abdomen, and finally, a downward slash to the skull. Each strike is down from fighting position, with the heavy blade held in the rear hand, point up. When slashing, it is important to imagine cutting all the way through the opponent. The lead foot must be lifted off the ground, and the entire bodyweight comes down with the slash. If done correctly, any of these slashes will cut an opponent nearly in half.
Next, we practiced knife defense. When the downward strike comes, block with your opponent hand against the opponent's wrist. Don't block blade to blade, and don't grab his wrist. Simply stop his wrist from moving forward, and you will avoid getting cut. His wrist is bigger and less tricky than his blade. If you try to block his blade, you will probably miss. The reason you don't grab his wrist is because your opponent will instinctively jerk back when you grab his wrist. If he does this, you won't have time to counter. He will attack again, and you will be in exactly the same position. If you block without grabbing the wrist, you have a split second where he is not moving, and you can counter.
My teachers in the Philippines told me to always attack the weapon hand. You have the best chance of hitting it because if you attack the man's body, he will see it coming and will block and counter. Quickly, as you block, slice his weapon arm with your blade. This may render the limb useless. It may stop the fight. If not, it will set the man up to start bleeding, weakening him, and eventually ending the fight.
The next, more advanced technique is to block, slash the weapon hand, and then slash the body. The final step is block, slash the weapon hand, slash the body, grab the wrist, pull the man toward you and at the same time, thrust into his solar plexus.
We practiced a few more advanced techniques, where the butt of the knife is used. First, block the wrist. Next, your knife hand travels up the arm, and you strike your opponent's temple, chin, or throat with the butt of your knife. Next, use the butt as a hook, and grab the back of the man's head. Pull him down, into a knee strike to the face.
I like teaching these types of techniques because they could be used as non-lethal means of subduing an armed attacker. The same techniques could be done with a club, a stick, or bare hands.
The Shan people originated in Sipsong Panna, China. For years, I had heard rumors that one of the cultural elements they brought with them was their own brand of Shan Kung Fu, called Lai Tai. Lai is the Shan word for fighting. And Tai (not Thai) is the name for the Shan ethnic group. So, Lai Tai means Shan fighting.
We asked the assembled soldiers if any of them had studied Lai Tai in their villages. Several stood up and performed for us. Lai Tai looked very mush like Chinese Kung Fu. They used a pigeon-toed stance, similar to those used in southern China and in Vietnamese Thieu Lam Kung Fu. The movements, however, were more like Wu Su. In fact, I think I recognized one of the forms as being something I learned when I studied in the Shaolin Temple. The forms moved in circles, which again is probably more similar to Southern styles than to Northern styles of Kung Fu.
After several men demonstrated the unarmed forms, the same men stood up and performed with the long stick. I had seen Southeast Asian stick fighting in Thailand, and assumed Burmese stick fighting was similar. They used heavy staffs, as opposed to the thin, light, flexible staffs used at the Shaolin Temple. Although the Shan weapon was probably a more practical, more durable weapon, designed to be used on the battle field and for defending against heavy metal swords, once again, the movements looked like Shaolin stick fighting.
In spending time with these soldiers, there was no doubt in my mind that they went into battle prepared to kill or be killed. They were an army prepared to fight to the last man, in order to gain independence for their people. But, in teaching them martial arts, I found that they were a gentle people. They weren't as predisposed to being warriors as they were to being farmers and the fathers of families. Where the Burmese, the Khmer and the Thai practice kickboxing, the Shan practiced Lai Tai. This beautiful art was clearly designed for demonstrations and not for combat.
The difference in the two styles of martial arts demonstrated that the Shan were not war like by nature. Instead, they were a peace-loving people, pushed by a repressive government to a point that violence seemed the only way out.
Even the worm will turn.
If you have never seen Lai Tai it is because the Burmese junta keeps the country locked up tight. I hope some day we can spread this Shan treasure around the world.
If Sylvester Stallone reads this, I hope he will contact me. Any word of encouragement from him would help these men continue their fight against the overwhelming power of the Burmese junta.