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Trapped between borders

by Stephen Mansfield

Frontier Mosaic: Voices of Burma from the Lands In Between, by Richard Humphries. Orchid Press, 2007, 180 pp., $29.95 (paper)

“A man on a motorbike comes by and we then follow him through the streets of Mae Sot.” So begins one of the narrative vignettes from “Frontier Mosaic.” Based on extensive travel along both sides of the Thai-Burma (Myanmar) frontier and exhaustive research abroad, this new study is both social testimony and reportage on what it means to be trapped in these lands between.

Adamant that research should be done first hand, this is a book about contact, the writer’s refusal to view events from the margin. Collating the stories of real people, each emblematic in some profoundly disturbing way of the tragedy of this region, the writer interviews economic and political migrants, among them fishermen, a deserter from the Burmese armed forces, sex workers, dissidents, labor activists, and boy soldiers. There are heart-rending stories of land-mine victims, abandoned orphans, of friends left buried in shallow pits in the jungle.

There are stories within stories. An inquiry into the workings of a minority media group is momentarily displaced by one of the staffer’s own stories. Forking and bifurcating narratives are a reflection of the hugely diffuse nature of the Burmese community in exile.

If not an area of complete darkness, the borderland is often a place of false hope. In one camp the author visits, a Christian missionary from Britain tells an expectant gathering a brutal, bare-faced lie: that England has not forgotten the Karen resistance movement. Elsewhere, a woman parliamentarian from Australia announces, as if consulting a horoscope of future world events, that the Karen should prepare themselves for an auspicious year.

Though the author is rightly coruscating in his assessment of the unscrupulous who prey on those ensnared along the border, he never fails to remind us of the source of all this intractable wretchedness: the Burmese regime itself. Rejecting external influences and developments, the generals who rule Burma have chosen isolation to preserve their deformed system. In turn the outside world has shown little more than a passing, baffled interest in its affairs.

Similar in degree to the fear and repression generated by military rule in Romania before the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, Burma is a country of suspicion and rumor, where it is never easy to ferret out the facts. The writer, who spends a great deal of time sifting and sorting the narratives he has collected, corroborates this when he observes, “It is often impossible here to distinguish truth from half-truths, innuendos, boasts, and outright lies. Rumor is a border commodity.”

In an area of deep historical enmity and long memories, cross-border cooperation is a recent concept yet to be embraced by all the frontier and riverine peoples of this region. The borderlands remain a region of visible inequalities, where drug lords and top brass military types build fortified mansions next to the impecunious hovels of refugees and ethnic peoples.

Given the inbred contempt in which many mainstream Burmese hold the tribal elements within their own borders, one should not assume that if military rule is ever terminated in Burma, its minorities will inherit the earth.

War correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s method of coping when faced with human suffering on a scale like this was, as she put it, to report “with a cold eye, and a warm heart.” This is Humphries’ approach. In light of recent events in that benighted country, this timely work is an essential read for anyone with a serious interest in the human politics of Southeast Asia. The wealth of information and detail that the author brings to his investigation of this troubled and treacherous region and the sensitive treatment of its victims’ stories, make this one of the most perceptive recent dispatches from an area largely forgotten by the rest of the world.

The author of this article, as does the author of the book here reviewed, prefers to use Burma rather than Myanmar, the government’s name for the country.