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Joel Whitney: Mac McClelland’s Burma Refugee Diary

March 15, 2011

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By **Joel Whitney**

joel_whitney.jpgMac McClelland arrived in Thailand in July 2006 to teach English, with little knowledge of the Karen crisis that would envelop her for the next six weeks. Currently a reporter at Mother Jones, McClelland’s testament to that crisis became her riveting debut, For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War. Her account is personal. The Karen refugees and activists who drive the narrative are her English students and housemates. One refugee, Ta Mla, recounts how after he escaped his village to study, the notorious Tatmadaw, Burma’s army, came and shot his father and uncle. “He could, of course, have resigned himself to the six-foot square of hut floor area [in the camp],” McClelland writes. “Given his options, and his anger over his father’s death, well, that would be when taking up arms as an insurgent became a clear path.”

Whether civilians or former insurgents, the refugee-activists with whom McClelland works live mostly menial lives in search of publicity for their cause. They must constantly pay bribes to Thai police, since they are not allowed outside the camps. Their days consist of cooking, distributing rations that run out every month, but occasionally making deadly (unarmed) trips inside Burma to document government abuses in Karen villages: forced labor, systematic rape, routine shootings of unarmed civilians, rampant use of landmines.

The Karen have been at war with Burma’s dictatorship since just after World War II. The British exacerbated tensions, promising to reward Karen loyalty with independence. But after the war, anti-colonialists sought to hasten the transfer of power to the Burmese, essentially betraying the Karen and handing over a wrecked land. Winston Churchill warned, “the abandonment ‘should ever haunt the consciences of the principle actors in this tragedy’.” The Karen resistance was born amidst multiple insurgencies against the newly independent government—many of whom, like the Shan and the Wa, are ever on the verge of resuming hostilities with the Tatmadaw.

Amidst the post-war chaos of multiple insurgencies, the U.S. armed anti-communist Chinese KMZ forces inside Burma. Fearing for its sovereignty, Burma petitioned the U.N., only to be rebuffed. The government militarized and turned inward to ward off foreign interference. Over the decades since, government assaults intensified.

In the mid-nineties the Karen National Union lost its base at Manerplaw, and much of its territory. (For more on the history of this, read Zoya Phan’s Undaunted: My Struggle For Freedom and Survival Inside Burma.) More than 3000 Karen villages have been razed in the Tatmadaw’s brutal Four Cuts campaign, cutting off food, finance, intelligence, and recruits—which is to say, attacking civilians. Karen are routinely chased across the border into Thailand. But their troubles hardly end there.

bq. McClelland is a natural storyteller who can alternate between sarcastic humor and disarming empathy.

As McClelland documents through personal sagas of her new colleagues and through dogged, delightfully acerbic reporting, the Tatmadaw has repeatedly attacked Karen camps in cross-border incursions. (Thai security forces apparently turn a blind eye.) When her housemate Htan Dah describes fleeing two cross-border army attacks from the same camp, McClelland balks. Some of the stories sound like urban legends, she admits. But her subsequent reporting makes the claims not just plausible but infuriatingly real.

McClelland is a natural storyteller who can alternate between sarcastic humor and disarming empathy. Rather than pity, MacClelland offers her subjects camaraderie, compassion, lessons on MySpace, and the occasional earful when she senses equivocation. When she sees an abundance of Che shirts, she has a biography sent from the U.S. to show Guevara was no democrat. When the Christian Htan Dah discriminates against gays, she cries foul until he shouts in acquiescence, “It is not so easy, but I know I should stand up for [persecuted gays]…!”). An active participant in her story, she gives Htan Dah $2500 for a fake ID of sorts, so Thai police won’t harass him during his journalism fellowship. When she suggests frisbee during a spell of downtime, Htan Dah asks how he can play sports with a war going on. She repeatedly gets drunk with her Karen hosts, amazed how they resume work even with a beer buzz. Somehow this adds up to a highly readable, if frequently irreverent, recounting of war crimes.

As much fun as she has, McClelland avoids trivializing her subjects’ woes. Nor is she politically timid. She courts controversy by attacking what she sees as U.S. dithering on Burma through knee-jerk economic sanctions. Burma’s neighbors, especially China, are just too hungry for energy. And with rich nations also clamoring for oil and gas, including a sanctimonious U.S. (Chevron contributes to a pipeline worth around a billion dollars annually to the junta), sanctions can only fail.

Instead, McClelland sees the Security Council’s responsibility to protect as the way to halt atrocities. She spends a section of the book defining genocide by international standards to show that Burmese atrocities fit: “‘Killing members of the group?’ Check. ‘Causing serious bodily or mental harm to the group?’ Check. ‘Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part?’ Clearly.” Attacks are expressly ordered for the purpose of “diluting ethnic blood,” as Tatmadaw deserters have reported, even though, legally, genocidal intent need not be explicit. Western sanctions have only helped “entrench the regime,” she writes, echoing the likes of Burmese historian Thant Myint-U. “But there’s no popular call for a different policy,” she writes, “because no one’s ever heard of this particular genocide, partly because we’re not calling it a genocide.”

She notes that in some ways Burma’s genocide has been more severe than Darfur: a comparable number of villages destroyed across a longer duration, yet with a higher infant mortality rate. But the comparison should not have ended there. With China doing business in Darfur, an effective resolution was doomed. Repeated calls to end that genocide resulted in an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Bashir retaliated by ousting aid groups, whom he accused of spying. However noble its aims, the genocide charge in practice can result in an even more intransigent reconciliation process, as Mahmood Mamdani points out in Saviors and Survivors, since complex players in a long-running crisis are flattened into merely moral actors.

McClelland is right to urge more from the international community, and detailing the saga of the dictatorship’s victims is an essential part of raising public awareness. But given the duration of Burma’s many woes, a fundamental fix may require an understanding of the generals’ motivations, a process that begins with Burma’s history, its disastrous beginnings, its failure to unify its many armed groups, its fear of outsiders, its sense of betrayal by the U.N.—all of which are cataloged in For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question.

Yet alongside McClelland’s eagerness to push another genocide charge at the Security Council, it should be clear too, from her own reporting, that effective international efforts will likely require the distasteful process of getting as up-close and personal with dictators as McClelland does with their victims. How a genocide charge could play into that process could therefore have been discussed in a little more detail. But with such scant information on this closed-off nation, and with all eyes on the newly released Aung San Suu Kyi, this self-assured debut fills a void that has lasted far too long. For that alone, and in light of the building momentum behind a Security Council Commission of Inquiry on Burma, For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question is an essential contribution to human rights reporting on this troubled nation.

Copyright 2011 Joel Whitney

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Joel Whitney is an editor of Guernica. Read his interview with Zoya Phan here, and with U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin here. Joel’s writing and commentary have appeared in World Policy Journal, The New Republic, The Village Voice, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Paris Review, The Nation, Agni, New York magazine—and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn. He’s on Twitter.

To read more blog entries by Joel Whitney and others at GUERNICA, click HERE .

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