Why Burma’s Ethnic Minorities Become Refugees to Thailand

Karen Mae Sot(Pictured: Karen refugee camp in Mae Sot, Thailand.)

Recently Foreign Policy in Focus excerpted a new book titled Nowhere to be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime (McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series), edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West. Meanwhile, Michael Busch interviewed Mac McClelland, author of another new book on Burma, For Us Sur­ren­der is Out of the Ques­tion (Soft Skull Press) for an article that originally appeared in the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate.

Nearly fifty years after Burma’s last democratically-elected gov­ern­ment was over­thrown by a military-led coup, the South­east Asian coun­try has suf­fered some of the world’s most egre­gious human rights abuses. For activists, Burma has become syn­ony­mous with insti­tu­tion­al­ized rape, tor­ture, forced labor, and eth­nic cleans­ing. In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, how­ever, the enor­mity of Burma’s cri­sis remains obscured by indif­fer­ence and the over­shad­ow­ing pres­ence of dis­as­ters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur.

In 2006, Mother Jones edi­tor and human rights reporter Mac McClel­land vol­un­teered as an Eng­lish lan­guage teacher with a Burmese refugee orga­ni­za­tion in Mae Sot, Thai­land, a small fron­tier town hug­ging the bor­der with Burma. There, she lived, worked, and par­tied with a small band of hard-drinking refugees who risk their lives to doc­u­ment the slowly grind­ing geno­cide con­sum­ing eth­nic minori­ties in Burma. McClel­land col­lects their sto­ries of strug­gle and sur­vival under a mur­der­ous regime in a wide-ranging, metic­u­lously reported, and vividly recounted new mem­oir, For Us Sur­ren­der is Out of the Ques­tion.

McClel­land sat down recently with the CUNY Advo­cate to dis­cuss her new book, the rea­son the world con­tin­ues to ignore the geno­cide in Burma, and why there still may be hope for vic­tims of the world’s longest-running war.

I hoped we could begin by set­ting the stage a bit. Can you dis­cuss how it is that you came to work with Burmese refugees in Thailand?

It really was as lame as I describe it in the book. I was dick­ing around on the inter­net, saw some­thing about these Burmese refugee camps near the bor­der in Thai­land, but I couldn’t find any infor­ma­tion about why they were there. I saw that there were 100,000 Burmese refugees in Thai­land, and I was like, “Huh? Really?” I had never heard that before. Of course, you know some­where in the back of your mind that Burma sucks, that it’s not exactly a place you would want to live, not exactly a bas­tion of democ­racy, but I hadn’t heard that there was a refugee cri­sis, that there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees leav­ing the coun­try. I couldn’t find any eas­ily acces­si­ble infor­ma­tion about what the hell the story was, so when I fin­ished grad­u­ate school I was like, “I’m just gonna go and check it out.”

Did you travel there with the inten­tion of writ­ing a book?

No. I really just wanted to go and see what was going on.

What was the most sur­pris­ing thing that you expe­ri­enced while you were there?

Well, the geno­cide. The geno­cide that I had never heard of, that most peo­ple have never heard of because peo­ple are afraid to label it a geno­cide. It’s too com­pli­cated, too polit­i­cally charged. To real­ize that some­thing of that scope, at that level of hor­ror, was hap­pen­ing and that it’s not widely reported — despite the fact that it has been doc­u­mented to death — was stun­ning to me. I mean, to every sin­gle thing that came out of the mouths of these guys that I was work­ing with my response would be, “Really?!?” They would show me videos, and pic­tures, and I would get inter­views, just end­less stacks of shit, and with all of it, in every case, my response was, “No, that’s news to me. No, that story doesn’t exist in my media. No, I don’t know what you are talk­ing about.” In ret­ro­spect, I guess it was stu­pid to have had faith in think­ing that I would have known about this. But it is so big! You would think that some­body would have been doing some­thing about it.

So, why haven’t they? Is it sim­ply that Burma is home to the world’s longest run­ning war, and so doesn’t con­sti­tute news? Is news fatigue a fac­tor? Or is there some­thing else going on that we should consider?

Yeah, well, it seems to me that the fact that it is so old could pos­si­bly have some­thing to do with it, but at the same time the story is so juicy, it is so shock­ing, that it seems to me like some­thing that could totally move papers. But it’s also that peo­ple in this coun­try — this is not as true in the UK — don’t really know what Burma is, where Burma is, don’t nec­es­sar­ily know what con­ti­nent Burma is on, so I think that news orga­ni­za­tions assume that the story will be a hard sell, and they’re prob­a­bly right. If I were more of a con­spir­acy the­o­rist I would say that the geno­cide in Burma is being under­re­ported because our gov­ern­ment doesn’t want the peo­ple to know about it because then they would have to do some­thing about it. And they don’t want to do some­thing about it because then China would get mad. But really, I think it’s just a hard-to-sell story. Of course, it could also be fatigue: peo­ple def­i­nitely had Haiti fatigue, just as they had New Orleans fatigue before that. The thing with Burma, though, is it seems like it hasn’t reached that point. I just think we don’t know what to do with it. Instead, we talk about the same thing over and over again, which is that there’s a polit­i­cal pris­oner [Aung San Suu Kyi] there. Couldn’t we use that as a news peg to say “Oh, and by the way, there’s also a geno­cide going on”?

Let’s talk about your approach to report­ing on the cri­sis in Burma. There’s a won­der­ful ten­sion in the book between the rig­or­ous his­tor­i­cal research that con­tex­tu­al­izes the story — which feels almost aca­d­e­mic in nature — and the vig­or­ously infor­mal tone you adopt that frames the nar­ra­tive. First, did this mix­ture result from hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar audi­ence in mind while writ­ing? And sec­ond, can you dis­cuss the chal­lenges of nego­ti­at­ing the slip­pery slope between these two ele­ments of your style?

I def­i­nitely did not have a par­tic­u­lar audi­ence in mind. To me, the num­ber one thing was that I had the sto­ries of these refugees which were fuck­ing crazy. I really wanted to tell them. Period. As for the way the nar­ra­tive came about, that was more the result of per­son­al­ity than any­thing else. First of all, I am a huge nerd: I love research and fact-checking and col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion. At the same time, I write the way that I speak. When we were shop­ping the book pro­posal, a lot of peo­ple were not huge fans of that. They would be like, “Yes, this is an impor­tant sub­ject and peo­ple should write more books about Burma. But we can never abide by the scathing, the obnox­ious tone of this narrator!”

Since the excerpt from the book came out in the new Mother Jones, some pretty impor­tant orga­ni­za­tions — I won’t name any names — have writ­ten let­ters to the edi­tor say­ing “What the fuck were you think­ing, fram­ing this in this way. It’s totally inap­pro­pri­ate for a human rights story.” So I guess I know, now, who is not my audi­ence! They thought that I was under­min­ing the impor­tance of the sit­u­a­tion by not being dryer in talk­ing about it. But for me, that’s exactly the prob­lem with all this infor­ma­tion! It’s pre­sented in a way that no one would ever want to look at it. Even the videos you see have these dire voiceovers — almost always done by British peo­ple — and there’s always this slow and sad piano music in the back­ground. The moment you cue it up you say to your­self “I’m not going to watch this. It’s going to be bor­ing and/or sad.”

I’ve read a thou­sand books about Burma and even the mod­ern ones, they still read like reports, like aca­d­e­mic tracts. They’re long, there’s no nar­ra­tive, and there are no char­ac­ters. Because there are no char­ac­ters, I think that makes it hard for peo­ple to read, to engage with this con­flict. So, I was basi­cally writ­ing the book I needed when I was try­ing to find out what was going on. This was the book I was look­ing for, and couldn’t find.

Given the jaw-dropping vio­lence and atroc­i­ties being per­pe­trated in Burma and the world’s seem­ingly indif­fer­ent response thus far, do you still hold any faith that the United Nations or other mem­bers of the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity will inter­vene on behalf of vic­tims there at any point in the fore­see­able future?

I have some. We have peace­keep­ers on the ground in Dar­fur, after all, so we know we can do it. It’s not like the mech­a­nisms aren’t there, that money isn’t there. They are. It’s just that peo­ple aren’t employ­ing them. Thank God I can point to Sudan, though, because oth­er­wise I would prob­a­bly answer no, I don’t have much faith. In Burma, those vil­lagers would be so happy to see some­thing like that. Even just the atten­tion would be impor­tant. They would be so happy that peo­ple knew what was hap­pen­ing. It would make a huge dif­fer­ence in their lives. So yes, I do have some faith. I rec­og­nize that it might be stu­pid, but if more peo­ple were talk­ing about Burma, then the United Nations would be forced to address it.

Let’s talk about United States for­eign pol­icy for a moment. Given the nec­es­sary polit­i­cal will to act on the sit­u­a­tion in Burma, what options, if any, could the Barack Obama admin­is­tra­tion rea­son­ably pur­sue to have a pos­i­tive impact there?

First of all, our gov­ern­ment could lead the charge for a com­mis­sion of inquiry into crimes against human­ity in Burma. Every­one knows that the United States is in charge, in many ways, of the United Nations, and cer­tainly of the Secu­rity Coun­cil. So, if we made a big deal of Burma, showed that this is a cause that we are behind and are will­ing to fight for, that would make a huge dif­fer­ence in com­par­i­son to what we are doing now, which is noth­ing. If a com­mis­sion of inquiry were to be put into place then all this doc­u­men­ta­tion sit­ting around would have to be looked at. I can’t imag­ine that peo­ple would see all that and then decide that this is not a prob­lem. The Obama admin­is­tra­tion actu­ally wouldn’t even have to do all that much work: it wouldn’t cost any­thing; peo­ple wouldn’t have to be moved around. The pres­i­dent would sim­ply just have to say, “We need to do this thing, right now.”

You make the point in the book’s clos­ing chap­ter that when it comes to US-China rela­tions, eco­nomic con­cerns trump human rights com­plaints that Wash­ing­ton might oth­er­wise press with respect to Burma. Yet in the case of Dar­fur, we saw some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent play out. Why? What are the key deter­mi­nants that dis­tin­guish these two sit­u­a­tions from one another?

I think civil soci­ety plays a huge part. First of all, it’s about aware­ness: the pub­lic doesn’t know about Burma, and if the pub­lic doesn’t know about Burma then they aren’t putting pres­sure on politi­cians to talk about it. And so they won’t, because it’s eas­ier to ignore it. The “g” word also plays a big part in this. Right now, we just have this vague idea about Burma — that there’s a dic­ta­tor­ship or some­thing there, that they sound really mean, and that there’s a lot of cen­sor­ship. This is not enough for peo­ple to get behind, to pres­sure the United States to stand up to China and fight them on the issue. But imag­ine if some­one threw it out there, called it what it was, and said, “This is a geno­cide! These are the pic­tures. Here is the evi­dence.” This is what hap­pened in the case of Dar­fur. The exact same thing could hap­pen in South­east Asia. There’s no rea­son why it couldn’t.

A host of pos­si­ble actions, peace­ful and coer­cive, have been artic­u­lated to pres­sure the Burmese junta to respect basic human rights and pre­pare the way for civil­ian rule. At the end of the day, other options hav­ing been con­sid­ered, what do you think about pos­si­bil­i­ties for mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Burma? Is this going too far?

I don’t think it’s going too far. In my opin­ion, peace­keep­ers are the answer. At least, they’re as close to the answer as we’re likely to get. The ideal solu­tion, of course, would be that the coun­try even­tu­ally evolves away from dic­ta­tor­ship and builds the nec­es­sary insti­tu­tions for a demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety and blah blah blah. In the mean­time, some­one needs to pro­tect these fuck­ing vil­lagers in the east of Burma. It’s absurd what’s hap­pen­ing. I read exile news­pa­pers. Every sin­gle day, there are reports of five-year-old girls being gang-raped, four thou­sand new refugees pour­ing over the bor­der into south­ern China, this sort of thing. It is so urgent. Per­haps not to you, per­haps not to me, but it is for the peo­ple who have to deal with it. The fact that this has been going on for so long, and that so few peo­ple know about it, is ridiculous.