Burma: Guns, Beer, and Democracy

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In the late '90s, God's Army, a Burmese anti-government guerrilla group, was headline news. The front-page draw wasn't that they were violent revolutionaries but that they were a group of child soldiers. After reading Mac McClelland's For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question, it's understandable how such a group would form, after years of persecution of Burma's ethnic Karen minority by the military government.

McClelland traveled to Thailand to stay with Karen refugees running a political organization that documents violence against the Karen and promotes democracy through community organizing. She arrived to a foreign frat house full of dudes who didn't seem all too welcoming at first. But once she got over the initial culture shock, she got fired up about doing her part–teaching English and learning about the Karen.

Some serious bonding happened in the six weeks McClelland lived at the BA house. Outside caught up with the young writer, now the human rights reporter for Mother Jones, to talk about the experience.  

For the record: Is it Burma or Myanmar. Why?
It's Burma. The junta changed the name to Myanmar in 1989, and refusing torecognize the non-elected leaders' right to do so can be an act of dissidencein itself. Democracy activists from Burma call it Burma, and I'm certainly notgoing to argue with them.

You don't speak Burmese. What made you decide to live in the BA House?
Some of my housemates didn't speak Burmese so well either. Since they're ethnic Karen, Karen is their first language. But I had no idea what language they were going to speak. For security reasons, BA didn't tell me anything about the people I'd be living with. I wanted to live with them, whoever they were, because I wanted to know what the hell was going on with this massive refugee crisis on the Thai-Burma border, and I assumed they must speak some English if they agreed to my moving in. Which turned out to be the case. And before I left, I did learn to say a couple really important things in Karen, like “white people” and “eat something.”

The dialogue flows smoothly in the book. How were you able to communicate so many thoughts and feelings with such a big language barrier?
We definitely had our misunderstandings, which come up in the book. But a lot of the guys did have pretty significant English skills, which they learned from Western teachers in their refugee camps. When all else failed, we drew pictures or gesticulatedwildly.

You were living in a house that was pretty much a commune with a bunch of dudes, except for a few females. How'd you adjust?
Beer, mostly. As drinking buddies, we became pretty fast friends. Also, you have to lose any self-pity for your mild discomfort or disorientation pretty quick when you’re hanging around with a bunch of genocide survivors.

Did you know who the Karen were before living at the BA House? Was it emotionally difficult to live among refugees who've been through horrific experiences? Did you ever feel overwhelmed with hearing such dark, bloody stories?
I actually spent some time in a Thai Karen village once some years before, and of course I’d heard of the Long-Neck Karen, you know, with gold rings stacked around their necks, and those are both relatives of these Karen. But I'd certainly never heard that there was a giant population of the minority targeted for ethnic extermination in eastern Burma. Somehow, no one has. So everything they told me about their horrifying personal histories was shocking. What?! Government soldierscame to your village and killed your father and uncle?! Hmm? Your refugee campwas burned down?! Twice?!

But what I found most overwhelming was their future–or lack thereof. These refugees have almost no options, in any country. They are unbelievably f*cked.

What exactly does BA do?
Generally, they “promote democracy” inside Burma. Specifically, they send refugees in Thailand who've run away from camps back over the border into Burma for months at a time to document human rights atrocities and to train villagers how to empowerthemselves. As for the former mission, they come back with piles of photos andvideotapes of stuff you wouldn’t believe.

Have you returned to Thailand to visit some of the BA folks? What's happening now with the ones you were closest to?
I went back for a month in 2008, but now everyone’s mostly scattered around the planet. Some are here in the States, some in Australia, the UK, Sweden–most of my housemates were part of the UN’s largest resettlement program in the world and were flown out of Thailand with more than 50,000 other Burmese refugees.

The Burmese government recently said there would be civilian elections. Do you buy this? What do you think is going on? How do you think it will affect the Karen?
Yeah, they announced those elections in 2008, and they haven’t announced the exact month yet, but it looks like it’s gonna be October. Theoretically, this is a step in the regime’s “Road Map to Democracy.” Of course, they're already totally rigged. The military is guaranteed a quarter of the seats in parliament, the generals are retiring so they can run as politicians, the government is privatizing businesses and selling them off to themselves and their friends so they can retain control of all the key industries no matter what the outcome of the election. This is such a farce that the main opposition party, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won’t even participate. So I think the election will affect the Karen in the same way that it’ll affect everyone else in Burma, in that everyone’s going to continue to get screwed.

What do you think would improve the Karen situation in Burma, from governmental, civilian, and foreign standpoints?
More aid would help. Burma gets less than a tenth of the aid that Cambodia does. And right now, as I profile in the book, one of the only groups delivering aid to more than half a million innocent civilians internally displaced in Burma is a band of roving medic-refugees organized by an American ex-Special Forces soldier.

A commission of inquiry would help, too. The Obama Administration has been carrying on the same old ineffective Burma strategy, which is sanctions, which just further impoverish an already devastatingly impoverished population. What he needs to do is push the United Nations to establish a commission of inquiry into crimes against humanity in Burma. The UK has endorsed doing so, Australia has, the Czech Republic has, and a panel of jurists writing for Harvard Law School, and several Nobel laureates. There’s an international legal obligation, and a moral obligation. Not tomention how it’s going to make UN member nations look when this story finally breaks and they’ve all just been standing around with their d*cks in their hands. Again.

What have you been up to since leaving Thailand?
Just after I finished the book, I became the human rights reporter for Mother Jones. So I have a blog at, and we’re always figuring out where I’m going to go next. For example, right now, I’m reporting from New Orleans on post-Katrina education and justice issues that I swear are way, way more fascinating than you would think. Plus, I’m always still blathering about the great hidden genocide of Burma to anyone who will listen to me.

–Aileen Torres

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