May 19th, 2010
03:17 PM ET
They had illegally sneaked into Myanmar knowing full well the danger, but it wasn't completely apparent to the members of the Irish Christian band Bluetree that the screaming general down below the balcony wanted them dead.
They could tell it was a very tense situation. High-ranking members of two different military units were pointing at them and yelling in a language they didn't understand, according to lead singer Aaron Boyd. Their interpreter clammed up and the president of the NGO that had brought the band into the country said, "This is bad. This is really, really bad."
It was only when they left the country and returned to Thailand that the band members were told it was their fates being debated by those troops down below.
"We were told later their general said we're not even going to waste our bullets with them, we're just going to slice their throats," Boyd said Tuesday by telephone from his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland. "Bottom line was our guy, whatever he did, whatever he said, managed to calm the whole thing down."
Bluetree's popularity soared in the United States last year when Chris Tomlin covered its praise song "God of This City" and videos of American Idol winner Kris Allen singing the tune were posted on YouTube.
Bluetree penned the song after the band went to Thailand and played in a bar that was the gateway to a brothel, with women making deals with customers in plain view. The night also inspired the band to start a charity that tries to save workers from the sex trade. But they can't be philanthropists from afar, Boyd said.
"You need to smell abuse, you need to smell injustice firsthand," he said. "You need to smell the smell of the villages and get it into your body."
So when Christian Freedom International offered the band a chance to minister to Karen Christians in Myanmar, they said yes even though they would be going to an area where Christians are targeted and killed, Boyd said. The conflict between the Myanmar government and the Karen and other ethnic groups such as the Karenni, Mon and Shan is considered by many analysts to be the longest-running civil war in the world.
Many Karen have fled to neighboring Thailand, Boyd said.
Bluetree and the president of Christian Freedom International, Jim Jacobson, whom Boyd said is a wanted man in Myanmar, chose a time when the riverbeds dry up to sneak into the country. They brought food, clothing, Bibles and whiskey–to bribe the militia that, according to Boyd, threaten to burn down Christian villages and kill the men.
They feted the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army with the booze and food to let them access a refugee camp where Blue Tree sang and listened to the children sing some songs, Boyd said.
They could only stay a few hours. Had they been detected by the Myanmar army, they likely would be labeled as spies and executed, according to Boyd.
When the band was on its way back to Thailand, the DKBA general who had allowed their safe passage asked them to come up to his office, Boyd said. While they were there, someone brought a guitar.
"It was definitely surreal, one by one these guys in army combat uniforms start showing up with rocket launchers and grenade launchers, they are totally tooled up to the max ... and they hand me a guitar," Boyd said. "It was like 'Now you sing.' They didn't ask politely, it was just 'Now you sing.'"
He wasn't able to get one word of "God of This City" out when, he said, members of the Myanmar army came by and saw five white men on the balcony.
Boyd believes the DKBA general offered the army troops part of the bribe to dissuade the military regime's general. The general wanted Jacobson alive, Boyd said. The general later showed the CFI president the school where his troops' children were being educated. And he asked the Christian missionary for a favor.
"He asked Jim for his help in bringing up his kids," Boyd said. "This from a guy whose mission in life is to kill Christians."
Jacobson and the band members left as quickly as possible, driving the five hours back to Thailand in silence, trying to process what had just happened.
While in Thailand, in a refugee camp in Mae La, the band played a concert for an estimated 20,000 Karen, many of who had heard the tale of the band's incursion into Myanmar.
Boyd said he was moved by a visit with the children, and by one small girl in particular. The 8-year-old pleaded with him, "Please don't ever forget about me. Don't forget me."
The trip was recorded and will be released in July as a DVD documentary, Boyd said. An audio recording of the Karen children is also an added track to a live album the band recorded in Belfast in March.
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