Books / Reviews

Indomitable Karen of Burma

by David Burleigh

This is an impassioned book, the story of an insurgency in Burma drawn from interviews with those who experienced it. The narrative tells how the writer, Mac McClelland, traveled to Thailand to work as a volunteer with a group called Burma Action, and stayed for several weeks, teaching English.

FOR US SURRENDER IS OUT OF THE QUESTION: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War, by Mac McClelland. Soft Skull Press, 2010, 388 pages, $15.95 (paper)

If the trials of a temporary teacher seem slight as a subject, there is much more to it all than that.

For one thing, the name of both the organization, located near the border at Mae Sot, in what is ostensibly a camp for refugees, and the names of all the participants, have had to be disguised. Burma is now called Myanmar by the military government that runs it, and the liaison group for those who have fled from conflict does not exist, at least under the name of “Burma Action.” Those involved have all taken part in the insurgency, or are victims of it, but they are not recognized as refugees in Thailand.

The Karen (accent on the second syllable) constitute one of the larger minorities in an incredibly complicated country, “with seven major and a dozen subnationalities, where the minorities collectively are not so minor.”

What is remarkable about the Karen is that they have been fighting against their Burmese overlords, who form the majority, since 1949.

Burma became independent in 1948, in a union that rapidly disintegrated. It is now more than 60 years since the Karen National Union declared war on the government, the world’s longest-running conflict.

The title of the book, one of their four principles of revolution, suggests their unyielding determination. The book opens with a drinking session at what is in fact the author’s leaving party, six weeks after her arrival.

During that time she gets to know the displaced rebels, and hears their stories, sometimes movingly expressed in English compositions. She learns how they are harassed by the Thai police, and are sometimes the victims of cross-border incursions from their own country, to which they secretly return to gather intelligence from time to time.

The insecurity and cramped living conditions that they endure as displaced persons pale beside the sufferings of people in the homeland, at the hands of the Burmese Army.

What is most valuable about this book, which is well reported, is the background information that McClelland interpolates into her tale. We learn, therefore, how brave the Karen are; how they cooperated with the British conquerors, who subsequently abandoned them; how many of them are animist or Christian, and thus at odds with the predominantly Buddhist state.

The long conflict has not been going well for them lately, with the formation of a new group of Buddhist Karen, and several significant defeats. Despite the lack of clear accounts from inside Burma, the scale of violent oppression is well attested to by the tens of thousands who have escaped to Thailand.

Among the subjects usefully aired in the book is whether tourists should go there (and using the old name for the country is one form of protest). Sixty pages of notes support the wealth of information about matters such as health, education, and breaches of basic human rights. But the claim that child soldiers are widely used to fight in Burma is slightly undermined by the fact that this famously includes the Karen, prompting a defensive footnote.

Whether suppression of the Karen insurgency can be properly called “genocide” is not the point — which is rather that they have been forgotten by the outside world. The military government has promised to hold a new election this year, which will certainly be something to watch.