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Burma’s Refugees: An Interview with Mac McClelland

Recently Foreign Policy in Focus published excerpts from Nowhere to be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime, a new book edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West for McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series. To compliment the series, FPIF re-published an interview I conducted with Mac McClelland, author of another recent book on Burma, For Us Sur­ren­der is Out of the Ques­tion (Soft Skull Press) which recently appeared in the CUNY Advocate newspape.  What follows is the transcript of our discussion. 

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 me 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.

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Michael K. Busch

Michael K. Busch