“DO YOU WANT A CIGARETTE?” I ask Htan Dah, holding up a pack of Thai-issue Marlboros. We are sitting on opposite sides of a rectangular table, talking over the spread: three bottles of vodka, two cartons of orange juice, plates of sugared citrus slices, nearly empty bottles of beer and bowls of fried pork, sweet corn waffles, pad thai, a chocolate cake. We share the benches with two guys each, and half a dozen others hover.
The men are all in their 20s. Most of them are solid and strong and hunky; their faces shine because they’re drunk, and it’s July. They could be mistaken for former frat boys unwinding after another tedious workday.
Except that they’re stateless. They are penniless. They speak three or four languages apiece. Two of them had to bribe their way out of Thai police custody yesterday, again, because they’re on the wrong side of the border between this country and the land-mine-studded mountains of their own. Htan Dah’s silky chin-length hair slips toward his eyes as he leans forward. My Marlboros are adorned with a legally mandated photographic deterrent, a guy blowing smoke in a baby’s face, but it doesn’t deter Htan Dah. Nor is he deterred by the fact that he doesn’t smoke. Tonight, he is flushed with heat and booze and the virility and extreme hilarity of his comrades. Tonight, as always, he is celebrating the fact that he’s still alive. He takes a cigarette. “Never say no,” he says, and winks at me.
I’D ARRIVED AT Mae Sot a few weeks before. This city in western central Thailand is a major hub for people, teak, gems, and other goods that enter the country illegally from Burma. The place is rife with smugglers, dealers, undocumented immigrants, and slaves. My bus arrived in the late afternoon. I wasn’t connected to any aid or charity organization—I’d just happened on a website of a group that said it was promoting democracy in the Texas-size military dictatorship of Burma, and eventually volunteered, via email, to help its activists living in Thailand learn English. (As I was to discover, the particulars of their mission were far more dangerous, and illegal, so I’ll refer to them as Burma Action.)
At the station, I was met by The Guy, whose name wasn’t The Guy, but whose actual name I didn’t catch when he mumbled it twice and then just shook his head and laughed when I asked him to repeat it one more time. After a brief ride in a three-wheeled tuk-tuk, we arrived at a gold-detailed black gate that stood heavy sentry at the road. Behind it stood Burma Action’s local HQ, a big but run-down house, two stories of worn wood and dirty concrete with a balcony on the left, cement garage on the right. The Guy gave me a quick tour. The “kitchen” had a sink and some dishes; cooking took place out in the dining room/garage. He took a few steps farther. “Bathroom.” He gestured into a cement-walled room through an oversize wooden door. There was a squat toilet set into the floor, and in lieu of toilet paper a shallow well with a little plastic bowl floating on top. There was also, running the length of the left wall, a giant waist-high cement trough filled with water and dead mosquitoes.
“What’s that?” I asked.
I looked at it, jet-lagged. “How does it work?” I asked.
He exhaled hard through his nose, a whispery snort. “Like this,” he said, pantomiming filling a bowl with water and dumping it over his head. “Are you hungry?”
I asked The Guy what was in the soup he offered me.
“I don’t know the word in English,” he said. “Leaves?”
Close. Twigs, actually. The Guy pulled a stump of wood up next to me at the table, and watched me chew through the sautéed woody stems.
“So, where are you from?” I asked.
“I am kuh-REN. Everybody here, we are all kuh-REN.”
Oh, man. It was starting to come together now.
When I’d landed in Bangkok, a Burma Action employee had picked me up at the airport to make sure I found the bus station and the right eight-hour bus north. She was tiny and Thai and heavily accented, and repeatedly told me during our cab ride that everyone I was about to be working with was Korean. It seemed sort of weird that a bunch of Koreans would move to Thailand together to work for peace in Burma, but I thought that was nice, I guessed, and even wrote in my journal, relievedly, “Koreans tend to have excellent English skills.”
When I’d arrived at the Mae Sot bus station, The Guy had asked if I was his new volunteer.
“Yes,” I’d said. “You’re not Korean.”
I’d done my homework before leaving the States. I had read about the Karen. But I’d only seen the word written down, and had assumed that it sounded like the name of my parents’ blond divorced friend. I didn’t know how it was pronounced any more than most Westerners would’ve been certain how to say “Darfur” 10 years ago.
WHEN I TURNED the corner from the kitchen into the large living room, four pairs of dark eyes looked up from a small TV screen. I smiled, but The Guy, leaning against the wall with his arms folded, didn’t make any introductions, so I sat on the marble floor among the legs of the white plastic chairs the guys were sitting in, quiet amid the rise and fall of their soft tonal syllables, deep, bubbling, like slow oil over stones. The TV blared Thai. Mosquitoes sauntered in through the screenless windows, possible hosts to malaria, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis. I’d no natural resistance to the latter two, and I’d opted against taking the sickening drugs for the former. Not wanting to be the white girl who ran upstairs to hide under a mosquito net at dusk, I watched the guys laughing and talking, like a partygoer who didn’t know anyone. I pulled my air mattress out of my bag and started blowing it up. I got bit. I scratched. I shifted my sit bones on the shiny tile. Finally, I stood up.
“I’m going to bed,” I told The Guy.
He nodded, and looked at me for a second. It was 7:30. “Are you okay?” he asked. I’d just taken 27 hours of planes and automobiles. I’d glanced at the phrases “Forced marriage” and “Human trafficking” on a piece of paper taped to the wall behind the computers in the adjacent room. I said that I was fine and headed upstairs. I dropped my air mattress under the big blue mosquito net and lay down. I had no real idea who these people were, or what they did here, or even what I was supposed to do here. I appeared to have my work, whatever it was, cut out for me, since The Guy (real name: The Blay) seemed to be among the few who spoke English. My digestive system had its work cut out for it, too, since these guys apparently ate sticks. Lying there, listening to my housemates laugh and holler downstairs, I comforted myself with the thought that these Karen seemed nice. I couldn’t have guessed then, drifting to sleep to the sound of their amiable chatter, that every last one of them was a terrorist.
IMAGINE, FOR A moment, that Texas had managed to secede from the union, and that you live there, in the sovereign Republic of Texas. Imagine that shortly after independence, a cadre of old, paranoid, greedy men who believed in a superior military caste took over your newly autonomous nation in a coup. Your beloved president, who had big dreams of prosperity and Texan unity, whom you believed in, was shot, and now the army runs your country. It has direct or indirect control over all the businesses. It spends 0.3 percent of GDP on health care, and uses your oil and natural gas money to buy weapons that Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea have been happy to provide. It sends your rice and beans to India and China, while your countrymen starve. There is no free press, and gatherings of more than five people are illegal. If you are arrested, a trial, much less legal representation, is not guaranteed. In the event of interrogation, be prepared to crouch like you’re riding a motorbike for hours or be hung from the ceiling and spun around and around and around, or burned with cigarettes, or beaten with a rubber rod. They might put you in a ditch with a dead body for six days, lock you in a room with wild, sharp-beaked birds, or make you stand to your neck in a cesspool full of maggots that climb into your nose and ears and mouth. If you do manage to stay out of the prisons, where activists and dissidents have been rotting for decades, you will be broke and starving. Your children have a 10 percent chance of dying before they reach their fifth birthday, and a 32 percent chance they’ll be devastatingly malnourished if they’re still alive. What’s more, you and 50 million countrymen are trapped inside your 268,000-square-mile Orwellian nightmare with some 350,000 soldiers. They can snatch people—maybe your kid—off the street and make them join the army. They can grab you as you’re going out to buy eggs and make you work construction on a new government building or road—long, hard hours under the grueling sun for days or weeks without pay—during which you’ll have to scavenge for food. You’ll do all this at gunpoint, and any break will be rewarded with a pistol-whipping. Your life is roughly equivalent to a modern-day Burmese person’s.
Now imagine that you belong to a distinct group, Dallasites, or something, that never wanted to be part of the Republic in the first place, that wanted to either remain part of the United States, which had treated you just fine, or, failing that, become your own free state within the Republic of Texas, since you already had your own infrastructure and culture. Some Dallasites have, wisely or unwisely, taken up arms to battle the Texas military government, and in retaliation whole squads of that huge army have, for decades, been dedicated to terrorizing your city. You and your fellow Dallasites are regularly conscripted into slavery, made to walk in front of the army to set off land mines that they—and your own insurgents—have planted, or carry 100-pound loads of weaponry while being severely beaten until you’re crippled or die. If you’re so enslaved, you might accompany the soldiers as they march into your friends’ neighborhoods and set them on fire, watch them shoot at fleeing inhabitants as they run, capturing any stragglers. If you’re one of those stragglers, and you’re a woman, or a girl five or older, prepare to be raped, most likely gang-raped, and there’s easily a one-in-four chance you’ll then be killed, possibly by being shot, possibly through your vagina, possibly after having your breasts hacked off. If you’re a man, maybe you’ll be hung by your wrists and burned alive. Maybe a soldier will drown you by filling a plastic bag with water and tying it over your head, or stretch you between two trees and use you as a hammock, or cut off your nose, pull out your eyes, and then stab you in both ears before killing you, or string you up by your shoulders and club you now and again for two weeks, or heat up slivers of bamboo and push them into your urethra, or tie a tight rope between your dick and your neck for a while before setting your genitals on fire, or whatever else hateful, armed men and underage boys might dream up when they have orders to torment, and nothing else to do. And though you’ve been sure for decades that the United States can’t possibly let this continue, it has invested in your country’s oil and will not under any circumstances cross China, which is your country’s staunch UN defender and economic ally, so you really need to accept that America is decidedly not coming to save you. Nobody is.
Now your life is pretty much equivalent to a modern-day Burmese Karen’s.
SHORTLY AFTER DAWN, someone dropped a pile of thinly sliced onions and whole garlic cloves with the skins still on into a wok of hot soybean oil. As the smell wafted up, I climbed out from under my mosquito net and walked softly out of my room.
Htan Dah—whose name was pronounced, to my unceasing delight, the same as the self-satisfied English interjection “ta-da!”—stood at the gas range, which spat oil at his baggy long-sleeved shirt. He tilted the wok, concentrating harder than he needed to on the swirling oil. Htan Dah was worried about me. As the office manager of Burma Action for the past two years, he’d heard the nighttime weeping of plenty of self-pitying philanthropists, who tended to arrive tired and instantly homesick. The last girl, a Canadian with a lot of luggage, had started sobbing almost as soon as he’d picked her up, and couldn’t be calmed even by the hours she spent taking calls from her boyfriend back home. She’d cried for days.
Indeed, I’d had a very sad moment the night before when, after my air mattress deflated and my angles pressed into hard floor, and I realized that the ants patrolling the grounds were trekking right through my hair, I actually hoped that I had contracted malaria or Japanese encephalitis from the mosquito bites raging hot and itchy so I would have a legitimate excuse to bail back to the States. That way I wouldn’t have to be mad at myself for being too chickenshit to hack it through loneliness and less-than-ideal bathing arrangements. I’d even considered taking the bus back to Bangkok. If there wasn’t an immediate flight out, I could just hang out on Khao San Road and read books. I hated Khao San Road, with its hennaed European backpackers and incessant techno and beer specials, but at least it was familiar. I’d realized then that I might start crying, but I was determined not to. Instead, I saved the tearing up for when Htan Dah put another bowl of stick soup in front of me now and asked, “How long are you staying?”
“Six weeks,” I said.
“Six weeks!” he hollered. “Why not four months? Or six months?”
“Six weeks is a long time to go out of the country in America,” I said. “Besides, I was in Thailand for a month two years ago.”
“How many times have you been here?”
“Wow,” he said. Then, more softly, “You have traveled a lot. That’s nice.”
He had no idea, even. “Have you traveled?”
“No, I cannot.”
“Because! I am Karen!”
“So, I cannot go anywhere.” He dumped chunks of raw, pink meat into the oil, which sputtered furiously. “If I go outside, I can be arrested.”
“Yes! I am refugee!”
Htan Dah’s exclamations suggested that none of this should have been news to me—though I soon realized that this was also just how he talked. But my books hadn’t said much about refugees, or mentioned that most of the Burmese refugees in Thailand were Karen, and Burma Action hadn’t told me that my housemates were refugees, and certainly not refugees who’d run away from camp to live and work illegally in that house. I, after all, was the one who’d just figured out that no one here was Korean.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Why would you be arrested because you’re a refugee?”
“Because! I don’t have Thai ID. I am not Thai citizen, so, I cannot go outside refugee camp.”
“Yes! I can be fined, maybe 3,000 baht”—nearly $100 in a country where the average annual income was about $3,000—”I can go to jail, or maybe, be deported…” We looked at each other, and he nodded in my silence, emphasizing his point with a sharp dip of his chin. “You have a lot of experience. You have been to a lot of places.”
“Did you live in a refugee camp before?”
“Yes. Before I came to BA.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“In Thailand?” Htan Dah asked. “I was born in Thailand.”
TO BE A KAREN refugee in Thailand is to be unwelcome. The Royal Thai Government, already sanctuary to evacuees from other Southeast Asian wars by the time the Karen showed up in the ’80s, was hardly in a hurry to recognize and protect them as refugees—and, not having signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it didn’t have to. This is only the latest misfortune in the Karen’s long history of troubles. They were massively oppressed and enslaved before Burma became a British colony in 1886, but their relations with the Burmese were nothing so nasty as after they played colonialists’ pet and then joined the Allies in World War II. British officers promised the Karen independence for helping us fight the Burmese and Japan. They lied. The Karen resistance started, and the Karen National Union formed, about as soon as the ink was dry on Burma’s postwar independence agreement. Their oath had four parts: (1) For us surrender is out of the question. (2) Recognition of Karen State must be completed. (3) We shall retain our arms. (4) We shall decide our own political destiny. The Karen had been well trained and well armed by Westerners. They nearly took the capital in 1949, and when they were pushed back to the eastern hills, they built the largest insurrection (among many) against the Burmese junta. By the ’80s, the KNU claimed that its annual income, from taxing smuggled products flowing through the porous Thai border, was in the tens of millions of dollars a year.
The junta responded with Four Cuts. You’ve never heard of Four Cuts, but it’s a Burmese army strategy that every Karen child knows very well: cutting off the enemy’s sources of food, finance, intelligence, and recruits (and, some say, their heads). Unfortunately for villagers, these sources of support include the villagers themselves, in addition to their rice and livestock. It’s the same strategy the British used to extinguish uprisings back in their day: “We simply wiped out the village and shot everyone we saw,” wrote Sir James George Scott, an intrepid administrator who, in addition to killing Burmese, introduced soccer to them. “Burned all their crops and houses.” Htan Dah’s parents were among the first wave of Karen to flee the wrath of the Burmese army. Today the Burmese camp population in Thailand is 150,000, and the No. 1 answer people give when asked why they left Burma is “running away from soldiers.”
I ASKED HTAN DAH, on my third day, how many people lived in our office/house. I’d been working on lesson plans all day for the soon-to-start English classes. Men had been working alongside me at the other computers, keeping to themselves.
“Maybe 10,” he said.
A lot more dudes than that had been milling around. Many of them were dudes in Che Guevara T-shirts. Htan Dah said that in addition to present staff, there were visitors from other offices and NGOs, plus staff currently “inside”—in Burma.
“Doing what?” I asked.
“Doing interviewww, taking videooo, taking picturrre…” he said, drawing out the final syllables. “They go to the village, and they tell about what is going on in Burma, and about how to unite for democracy. Also, they ask, ‘Have you seen Burma army? Have they raped you, or shot you, or burned your village?'” This explained the “Human Rights Vocabulary” translation cheat sheet I’d noticed on my first night. I’d since gotten a better look at it, studying the 15 most-used phrases. One side listed words in Karen script, a train of round characters, with loops that extended lines or swirls above and below the baseline. The other side was in English: (1) Killings (2) Disappearances (3) Torture/inhumane treatments (4) Forced labor (5) Use of child soldiers (6) Forced relocation (7) Confiscation/destruction of property (8) Rape (9) Other sexual violence (10) Forced prostitution (11) Forced marriage (12) Arbitrary/illegal arrest/detention (13) Human trafficking (14) Obstruction of freedom of movement (15) Obstruction of freedom/expression/assembly. These were going to be English classes like no other I’d taken or taught.
“Then they enter information into Martus.”
“Human rights violation database.”
“Then what happens to the information?”
“We can share, with other HRD.”
“Human rights documenter.”
“So you guys collect it all…”
Htan Dah stared at me.
“And then what? Then it just sits there?”
Htan Dah shrugged.
“How do the guys get to the villages?”
This explained the physique of Htoo Moo, he of the silent h and the constant smiling and the never talking to me and the stupefyingly round and hard-looking ass. “How long are they gone?”
“Depends. Maybe three months.”
“Do they just hide around the jungle that whole time?”
“Yes!” Htan Dah said. “If they are caught, they could die.”
HERE’S HOW IT worked: Somebody had to document what was going on in Burma—and stealthily. One activist who gave an interview to a foreign reporter served seven years in prison. Another was sentenced to 25 years for giving an interview critical of the regime to the BBC in 1997. Of the 173 nations in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2008, Burma ranked 170th, behind every other country except the “unchanging hells” of Turkmenistan, North Korea, and Eritrea. Burma has the third most journalists in jail. As for coverage of eastern Burma, ground zero of the Karen war…forget about it.
So a couple of times a year, Htoo Moo, one of Burma Action’s human rights documenters, shouldered a bag carrying what he wasn’t wearing of nine shirts, three pairs of pants, two pairs of shorts, four pairs of underwear, and two pairs of socks—plus a tape recorder, six tapes, a notebook, three pens, a digital camera, a battery charger, a kilo of sugar, cold, sinus, and stomach medicines, a bottle of water, and 150 bucks’ worth of Thai currency—and trekked clandestinely into his homeland.
His most recent trip had started with a six-hour drive, five hours in a long-tail boat watching the banks of the Salween River and a darkening sky, and two days of walking over mountains and jungle trade paths subsisting on just sugar and found water until he reached a village. Even by Karen standards, this settlement was pretty remote; a fish-paste purchase was a day’s walk away. At night, he slept outside on the ground, and during the day he stood thigh-deep in a river, trying—though he couldn’t get the hang of the procedure, however effortless the villagers made it look—to net fish while chatting up villagers about abuses by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which is what the government of Burma calls itself.
After a month, Htoo Moo walked two days to interview escaped porters. He took pictures of lesions the straps left in their shoulders—raw, pink holes infested with flies and maggots. The porters told of being starved and dehydrated and repeatedly beaten with fists, kicks, and bamboo, of how prisoners who still fail to get up are shot or left to die, of doing double duty as minesweepers. SPDC offenses can be partially charted by the trail of porters’ corpses.
Dodging land mines, Htoo Moo walked to the next small village. He entered it to find that some sort of plague had landed on all 10 houses, and most of the people were dying. One house contained a dead boy whose father, the only family member left, was too sick to bury him. The villagers encouraged Htoo Moo to look, to bear witness, and he did, but left after a few days, because there was nothing else to be done.
By the time he walked two days to another village, listened to and documented the story of a boy who was shot along with his father and brother by Burmese soldiers while cultivating rice, by the time he’d looked at the fresh bullet holes in the boy’s shoulder and ass, and at the bloody track another round had grazed into the side of his head, by the time the boy had explained how he’d sent other villagers back to the field to get his brother and father as soon as he’d staggered home but it was too late, they were already dead, by the time he took pictures of the boy’s wounds, which had been treated with only boiled water and cotton dressing, Htoo Moo was ready for a rest.
“The SPDC is coming,” the chief told him.
So this is the drill: You flee, carrying everything you can—big heavy loads, as much rice as you can stand on your back in giant baskets, any clothes or anything else you want to own for maybe the rest of your life, your baby. Htoo Moo helped the villagers hide rice, salt, fish paste, and some extra sets of clothing among the surrounding trees before they all took off together in the early evening. He followed the 80 villagers along a path hidden beneath tall grass. Figuring a six-hour walk put them far enough out of harm’s way, they stopped at midnight and Htoo Moo slept, finally, on the forest floor.
But the next morning, a scout told them the SPDC was coming; everyone needed to leave. Htoo Moo had slept through breakfast, and there wasn’t time to make more. Neighboring villages had evidently joined the flight; there were 200 people in the makeshift camp now. They had with them one KNU soldier. Not wanting to further strain the villagers’ rations, Htoo Moo stalked an enormous rat he’d spied lumbering around and killed it with one strike of a piece of bamboo. When he smiled, pleased with his efficiency, an old man next to him laughed. “Before you woke up,” he said, “I tried to kill that. I think it was already tired.”
The villagers fled until noon. Some of the children with no shoes lost flesh and bled as their feet pounded the ground, and some of them cried silently as they ran. Htoo Moo carried his bag on his back, the dead rat in one hand, his digital camera in the other, occasionally snapping pictures of the exodus. When they stopped, he dug his fingers into the rat’s skin and ripped it off. He tore the meat into pieces and went in on lunch with another man, who provided a pot, chilies, and salt. Five minutes later, his belly was full of seared rat meat. He closed his eyes as sleep slowly started to overtake him, and then—gunshots.
Gunshots. He clutched his bag and jumped to his feet. Nobody screamed. The boy with the bullet holes started running, new blood rushing from the wound in his ass. Htoo Moo took off, ahead of even the village chief, reaching a flat-out run, crashing shoulder-first through tall croppings of bamboo in his path, before realizing he had no idea where he should be going. He stopped, turned around a couple of times, and considered ditching his camera. What if the SPDC caught him? What if they saw that he’d been taking pictures of gun-shot farmers, prisoner-porters with skin disease, cigarette burns, knife wounds, raw and infected shoulders that bore the permanent scars of carrying over mountains for days or weeks at a time? Though he felt like a coward, he fell back into the middle of the throng. By the time they stopped at nightfall, news had spread through the crowd that one man in the rear had been shot dead.
Htoo Moo listened to the men next to him talking. Of the 200 people, four had guns, four or five rounds apiece. One admitted that he had only three bullets left. “No problem,” another told him. “You will just aim very well.”
After three days of squatting and swatting bugs in the jungle, Htoo Moo told the chief that he wanted to leave. Sometimes, villagers hide out for weeks because they don’t know if it’s safe to go back yet. Sometimes, it never is. Htoo Moo needed to get back to work.
“I will take you myself,” the chief said. “I am ready.” He was in no hurry now. He’d heard over the radio that the soldiers had killed the pigs and the chickens, and then burned the village to the ground. There was nothing to go back to.
To slow down the SPDC advance, the KNU had set up scores of new land mines, and the way in was no longer a safe way out. Htoo Moo and the chief trudged through the jungle for three days to a KNU headquarters, where they shook hands and parted, and Htoo Moo asked a KNU insurgent to guide him the rest of the way. Shortly after they started off, the parasites that had been multiplying in his liver since entering his body via mosquito burst through the cells that hosted them and flooded Htoo Moo’s bloodstream. He trekked slowly, through his fever, stopping when the retching brought him to his knees. “Don’t rest there!” his guide screamed when he moved toward a smooth patch of soil just to the side of the path. He’d nearly knelt on a land mine. It took another two days to reach the riverbank, where he bought antimalarial tablets with his last few baht and boarded the boat toward Thailand—which had, by default, become home.
“DO YOU HAVE PICTURE?” Htan Dah asked one evening. “Of your friends?”
“Let’s go to the computer room,” I replied. Thus were several Karen refugee activists of Mae Sot, Thailand, bestowed with one of democracy’s greatest gifts: that of wasting exorbitant amounts of time on social networking websites. I logged in to MySpace, and clicked through some of my pals’ profiles, talking about who they were, or where they were, or what they were doing in the pictures. Htoo Moo, working diligently at the next computer, glanced over as nonchalantly as possible. Htan Dah said very little. Once, he asked me to clarify the gender of the girl I was pointing to on the screen. “Are you sure?” he asked. “She looks like a boy.” I laughed and told him that she was a lesbian, my ex-girlfriend, actually, which seemed to clear it up for him. Other than that, he mostly just stared at the monitor in stunned silence, for so long that it started to weird me out.
“What do you think?” I asked him when I’d finished the tour.
“Wow,” he said quietly.
“So, those are my friends,” I said. He made no move to get up or take his eyes off the page.
I asked him if he wanted to see how the website worked. I showed him the browse feature, dropping down the long list of countries whose citizens we could gawk at. “How about Myanmar?” he asked, spying the junta’s official name for Burma among the options.
I was surprised it was there, and even more surprised that our first search turned up 3,000 profiles. The junta has some awesome restrictions on owning electronics, especially computers. In 1996, Leo Nichols, former honorary consul for Scandinavian countries and friend of Burmese activists, was sentenced to three years for the illegal possession of fax machines and phones. (Taken into custody, he was tortured and died.) There are Internet cafés, but café workers are required to capture customers’ screenshots every five minutes and submit their Web histories, along with home addresses and phone numbers, to the state. Humanitarian geeks in other countries, though, work full time to give Burma’s citizens Internet access, with proxy servers that they update when the government figures out how to block them. From the look of it, they were doing their job.
On MySpace, ink-haired Burmese teens and twentysomethings stared at us: the chin-down-sexy-eyes-up shot, the haughty chin up/eyes half-closed look, the profile with eyes askance. Their faces were surrounded by HTML-coded sparkles, animated hearts and stars, slaughtered English colloquialisms. Htan Dah paused long and hard at each picture that came up.
“I don’t know them,” he said finally.
This conclusion struck me as pretty foregone, since he’d never lived in Burma. “Did you think you would?”
He looked at me, realizing his mistake. “I don’t know,” he said softly. We made Htan Dah his own profile, and he stayed logged in long after I’d gone to bed.
At dinner the next day, Htan Dah, Htoo Moo, and another refugee, Ta Mla, spent a fair amount of time watching me and muttering to each other in Karen.
“Something on your mind, tiger?” I asked Htan Dah.
“We are talking about your girlfriend,” he said.
Yeah, I’d thought that conversation had ended a little too easily. “All right. You can talk about it with me.”
“Do you ever have boyfriend?”
“Yes. I’ve had boyfriends and girlfriends.”
This produced a moment of confused silence, which I filled with a lame description of the sexuality continuum, along with an explanation of the somewhat loose sexual mores of modern American gals like myself. Htan Dah responded by telling me that they had heard of gay people, since a visitor to the house had informed them of their existence—last year.
“Last year!” I hollered.
“Yes!” he yelled back. “In Karen culture, we do not have.”
“There’s never been a gay person in a Karen village in the history of Karen society.” All three men shook their heads. “Come on.”
“If there was a gay person, they would leave,” Htan Dah said. “It is not our culture.”
“Let’s just say there was a gay person,” I said. “Couldn’t they stay in the village?”
“No,” Htan Dah said. “I would not allow gay people in my village.”
“Are you kidding me?!”
Htan Dah held my gaze, though his seemed more uncertain the longer it went on.
“Are you going to make me leave?”
“No! For you, in your culture, it is okay,” he said. “You are not Karen. But in our culture, it does not belong.” Htoo Moo and Ta Mla were nodding, and I scowled at them.
“You’re a refugee,” I said. “And it sucks. It’s ruining your life. But you would force another villager to become a refugee because they were gay?”
Nobody said no. I turned on Htan Dah; I was maddest at him, and he was probably the only one who could follow my fast, heated English. “If there was peace in Burma and you lived in a village and there was a gay Karen person,” I asked again, “you would want to make that person another Karen refugee by making them leave?”
That, or my anger, shut him up. “I am interested in your ideas,” he said, evenly, after a minute. “I think it is important to keep an open mind.”
I shut up, too, and focused on eating rice for a few awkward moments.
“So,” I said eventually. “Do you guys have sex?”
Htoo Moo and Ta Mla shook their heads while Htan Dah said, “Sometimes.”
“Ever?” I asked Htoo Moo.
“No,” he said.
“Because, I am not married.”
“What about you?” I asked Htan Dah.
“Yes,” he said, nodding hard once. “I am married.”
Htan Dah laughed. “Yes! I am married.”
“I didn’t know that. Where is your wife?”
“She is in camp. With my kid.”
“You have a kid?”
Other things I didn’t know: that everyone currently in the house—save The Blay and Htan Dah, who were married, apparently—was a virgin. This extended even to kissing. They hailed from the parts of Burma that had been heavily influenced by Christian missionaries, and premarital sex was taboo. Htoo Moo volunteered that he wasn’t actively looking for a girlfriend, and that he wouldn’t know what do with her even if he found one.
Htan Dah told me I had to show them MySpace again. We crowded around a computer, our cheeks flushed with satiety and humidity and new camaraderie. Htoo Moo interjected burning questions about American life as they came to him.
“Do you eat rice in America?”
“Yes. Usually I eat brown rice.”
“It’s rice with the hull still on it. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“No. I don’t believe that…Have you ever eat tiger?”
“Eaten tiger. No.”
“Have you ever eat…monkey?
“‘Have you ever eaten monkey,’ you mean. No.”
“Are there black lady in America?”
“What language do they speak?” Htan Dah chimed in.
I gaped at him, disbelieving, but before I could formulate a response, Htoo Moo said, “In America, you have cream to grow hair.” He ran his hand over his baby-smooth jawline.
“Yeah. I think that’s true. I think it’s generally for people who are bald, though.”
“Do you have that?”
“Hair-growing cream? Oh, yeah. I use it on my ass.”
The sarcasm seemed to translate, since they laughed for minutes.
We made Ta Mla a MySpace profile, and he and Htan Dah started giving the other guys tutorials as they wandered in. My work here was done.
A few days earlier, when I’d asked my students what they did for fun, I’d had to explain the concept of “fun” for about five minutes before anyone could answer me, and then the answers were “Nothing,” “Nothing,” “Watch TV,” and three “Talk”s. By the time I went upstairs, every computer screen was lit, the guys scrolling through the faces of Burma, a window into a world they considered home but where some had never been and probably none would ever live again.
HTAN DAH DILIGENTLY kept me company during meals. “You are so slow,” he said one morning, watching me chew every bit of rice into oblivion. “Why don’t you eat fast?”
“Why should I?” I asked. “I’m not in a hurry.”
“But what if you are under attack, or have to run away?”
I scoffed at him. “I’m from Ohio.”
“Yes, but I am refugee! We are taught to eat fast.”
Be that as it may, we were in peacetime Thailand, so this attack seemed like an incredibly hypothetical scenario, and even though Htan Dah had mentioned something about refugee camps getting burned down on the very first day of class, I’d kind of dismissed it.
So boy did I feel like an asshole when he turned in an essay with this intro the next day:
Having been fallen a sleep at midnight, my parents, sister, aunt and I heard the children’s screaming and the voice of the shelling mortars simultaneously came about, and suddenly jumped through the ladder from the top to the bottom of the house to get away from the attacking troops’ ammunitions without grabbing any facility.
For a while, Htan Dah’s family and all those other asylum-seekers in Thailand were safe, relative to the Karen still in Burma. If they ventured out of the squalid camps, they were subject to harassment and arrest from one of the world’s most corrupt police forces, but at least Burmese soldiers were less likely to march into a sovereign country to attack them.
What the Burmese army could do, though, was help a rival Karen faction to do so. They called themselves the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, or DKBA. There had been discontent within the Christian-led KNU for years, complaints of abuses of power, religious discrimination, and grueling jungle-warfare conditions. In 1994, by which point there were 80,000 Karen living in the Thai camps, a government-allied monk persuaded several hundred Buddhist KNU soldiers to defect. The junta was only too happy to support their cause—which included attacking refugee camps filled with Christian Karen.
The huts at Htan Dah’s settlement of Huay Kaloke were cloaked in thick, warm Thai darkness as DKBA soldiers moved in on the 7,000 refugees living there in January 1997. Residents generally went to bed early; there was no electricity, and flammable materials cost money nobody had. But Htan Dah’s mother sometimes hired herself out as a laborer, plowing fields for about a dollar a day. That was far less than what the legal Thai workers alongside her made, but she needed money to buy nails—her scavenged-bamboo-and-thatch hut wasn’t going to hold itself together—and candles, since she wasn’t wild about her kids using homemade lamps, essentially tin cans filled with gasoline.
The small encampment had become overpopulated, so that there wasn’t even enough space to play soccer, and Htan Dah barely ever left it. But a Christian organization had donated some books, and NGOs were running a full school system now. Htan Dah had exams the next day; he had stayed up past sundown studying and had been asleep for hours by the time the sound of gunshots reached his family’s shelter. Some children somewhere screamed as they leapt out of the elevated hut. They ran, backs and knees bent, low to the dirt, for the surrounding woods as DKBA troops set fire to the camp. The huts burned hot and fast. Htan Dah kept his head down, so that he hardly registered the other people running alongside, not even noticing that some were in their underwear. “Please, God,” he prayed. “Oh my God. Save me. Save my life,” over and over again. It was a few days before his 16th birthday. He prayed and ran until he reached the forest, where, like everyone else, he stopped, turned around, and stood silently watching the camp—bedrooms, books, photos, shoes, a shirt woven by a grandmother—burn to the ground.
The next day, the refugees returned to the smoldering plot and made beds in the ash. They began slowly rebuilding, though none could have any illusions that the Thai security posted at the front gate would protect them. They had long ago noted that the function of the guards was not so much keeping danger out as keeping the refugees in, collecting bribes from those who wanted to leave the camp to work or collect firewood or make a trip to the market. Their attackers met no resistance on their way into Huay Kaloke that night. And less than 14 months later, when vehicles full of DKBA soldiers drove in again, no one stopped them. Again.
“How do you know the Thai soldiers just let them drive right in through the front gate?” I interrupted Htan Dah as he told me this story on the reading bench in my room. That an army would allow raiding foreign troops unfettered access to 7,000 sleeping civilians—twice—seemed frankly a little far-fetched. “Maybe the soldiers were trying to protect the gate, but the DKBA just went around or something.”
Htan Dah had told this story before, and to several foreigners, but never to one rude enough to suggest that he was a liar. He cocked his head. “Because,” he said, “There is only one road. The only way into the camp is through the front gate!”
For a second time, Htan Dah awoke in the middle of the night to gunfire and shouting; for a second time, he fled with his family and the clothes he was wearing for the safety of the surrounding trees. But this time, the soldiers also shelled the camp. This time, a pregnant woman was shot dead and two girls from Htan Dah’s school who hid in a well suffered burns that killed them. This time a seven-year-old died of shrapnel wounds and dozens were injured—and nearly the whole damn camp was burned down again.
“We accept that we were inactive,” the secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council conceded later. Thai authorities decided to close the camp. Htan Dah’s family set up a temporary shelter made of sticks and a raincoat, under which they lived while they were waiting to be moved elsewhere.
The trucks didn’t arrive for almost a year and a half. When they did, Htan Dah and his family were shipped to a camp in the mountains, where the population in exile eventually became 20,000 strong, where Htan Dah eventually grew up and got married and had a baby of his own, where the cold, wet winds cut through the shacks stacked high in the hills of central Thailand, far away enough to be safer from the DKBA.
MY DAYS FELL INTO a strange routine. I taught two classes of English a day, beginner and intermediate. After and between classes, and before the evening of drinking began in earnest, I snacked on coconut-fried cashews I bought at the 7-Eleven while helping the guys translate their HRD interviews or fill out applications for asylum. They kept filling out the applications, even though they had little chance of success—certainly no chance of resettling in the United States, which, under the Patriot Act, had effectively declared all Karen from the contested highlands terrorists for providing “material support” to the “terrorist” KNU.
After class one day, one of the guys wanted to show me a word he saw all the time so I could explain its meaning: marginalized. (He grasped the concept pretty quickly.) He also wanted to know what the thing used to bind people’s feet together was called. I told him I didn’t think we had a word for that in English. (I was wrong. Though archaic in noun form, the word exists: “fetters.”) When Htoo Moo asked me later for the word for systematically slicing open the skin on someone’s forearm, I told him I didn’t think we had a word for that, either.
Another day, I sat outside holding an impromptu pronunciation lesson on some of the words in an HRD’s report.
“Repeat after me,” I was saying. “Rape.”
“Try again. Rrraaape.”
Another day, a Burma Action staffer I’ll call Lah Lah Htoo asked if I wanted to see a video. He loaded a DVD of some footage taken in eastern Burma by aid workers, mostly Karen, some of whom are also medics, called the Free Burma Rangers. (See “Operation Rescue”.)
It starts with war footage, guys shooting guns in tall jungle bush, and loud rocket fire, and a village burning down and screaming women running for their lives, before moving briefly to photo stills: a picture of villagers standing over a group of dead bodies, a picture of a dead woman with her shirt torn open, a picture of murdered children lined up in a row. Then the camera centers on the face of a 17-year-old boy with lifeless, unfocused eyes, a longyi (sarong) held up below his neck so he can’t see his completely exposed lower leg bone, a bloody white stick still hung with a few slick and glistening black-purple sinews, protruding from a bloody knee—a land-mine wound swarmed by flies. Then he’s in a thin hammock, with a man in cheap plastic flip-flops at each end of the bamboo pole from which it swings, and another walking alongside holding an IV drip dangling from another piece of wood, being carried through the mountainous terrain. For four days. Which is how long it takes the Ranger team to get him to a clinic on the border, where a proper amputation can be done.
By that point I’d twisted my face into a permanent wince, and it didn’t get any easier to watch. A husband and wife sit next to each other while he explains that their two sons and daughter were taken by Burma army troops. Local Karen leaders negotiated the return of the two boys, but they haven’t seen the girl since. “We want her back,” the woman says, smiling sadly, before dropping her face to her knees, covering it with her pink sweater, and starting to sob. There are people getting ready to run from an attack, little girls running around talking fast directions to each other while they throw shit in baskets and sacks they strap to their foreheads. A man on his back breathing fast and shallow as Free Burma Ranger medics jab their fingers and instruments into the bloody stump below his knee. Skulls and bones on the ground and a Ranger telling how he brought a bunch of children’s presents donated by kids overseas only to find that there are no children in this village anymore. Rangers tearing out infected teeth with pliers. Rangers cleaning the gory, festering wound on a little kid’s leg as the child stands still, calm, pantsless. Rangers delivering a baby in the darkness by the green glow of the camera’s night mode, on the jungle floor. A shot of a Burma army compound, the camera zooming in shakily on the faces of the boys with rifles, the hiding cameramen whispering breathlessly to each other. A man rocking the tiniest sleeping baby; his wife died in childbirth during their flight through the jungle. He worries he has no idea how to take care of this child without her. Tears streaming hard and quiet down the face of a woman mindlessly fingering her jacket zipper with one hand, standing among the ashes of her old village, in which her husband was killed. A toddler barely old enough to stand picking his way through the jungle as his village flees, carefully parting the brush with his chubby little fingers and stepping through with his bare, scratched legs and feet. A Ranger team leaves a group of internally displaced persons and the IDPs call out please don’t leave us, please come back. A man keeps hiding his face contorted with sorrow as he sobs convulsively, “I don’t understand why they killed my children. They didn’t even know their right hand from their left hand,” while the woman next to him weeps silently and gnashes her teeth. The video ends with a quote from Galatians on the screen: Let us not grow weary while doing good. In due season we shall reap if we don’t lose heart.
“What do you think?” Lah Lah Htoo asked me when it ended.
I thought I might like to close myself in the bathroom so I could punch myself in the chest, just a little, to try to release some of the tightness and weight there.
“Good video?” he asked, because I was taking so long to answer.
“Yeah, it’s a good video.”
He nodded and waited politely for me to continue, but I just sat quietly, awkwardly, before simply nodding back at him. Eventually, I asked him what they did with the videos they made.
“We send them. To human rights organizations, UN, news.”
“Do they ever use them?”
Lah Lah Htoo shrugged.
MAKE NO MISTAKE: Though most Americans are woefully uninformed about the shit going down in Burma, your federal lawmakers are on it. In 1997, President Bill Clinton barred new US investment in the country. In 2003, Congress introduced the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, which banned any Burmese imports, opposed loans to the regime, froze any of its US assets, and denied its leaders entry visas. In 2005, Condoleezza Rice awarded Burma a special designation as an “outpost of tyranny.” Bush 43 gave it shout-outs in several State of the Union addresses. (“We will continue to speak out for the cause of freedom in places like Cuba, Belarus, and Burma.”) There’s a US Senate Women’s Caucus on Burma, and Obama just extended sanctions again and said this at his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance: “When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma—there must be consequences…And the closer we stand together, the less likely we will be faced with the choice between armed intervention and complicity in oppression.” Also blacklisting Burma: Australia, which won’t sell the regime weapons and has financial sanctions against 463 members of the junta. And the EU has stripped Burma of trading privileges and put an arms embargo in place.
The trouble isn’t so much a lack of measures as their total ineffectiveness. Though US investors have had to pull their money out of, say, the garment industry, they can still deal in Burma’s oil and gas, which is where the junta’s big money comes from. When Congress passed that 1997 law restricting new investment, Unocal got its gas fields grandfathered in. After Chevron absorbed Unocal in 2005, its lobbyists worked tirelessly to ensure that no sanctions would force it to divest. It appeared as though the 2008 Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act would finally force Chevron to give up its Burmese holdings, until the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, chaired by Joe Biden (whose former chief of staff was one Alan Hoffman, once a Unocal lobbyist), stripped out the provision and replaced it with a suggestion that the company “consider voluntary divestment over time.”
Okay, but if we only fashioned better—and better-targeted—sanctions, advocates say, Burma’s economy would collapse and the government might just get packing. But whether or not you believe that sanctions were the straw that broke South Africa’s back, you cannot believe that they would have worked in that country if half the world’s governments had said, “We’re not going to give you money for your stuff anymore” while the other half had said, “Awesome. More for us.”
That’s the reality in Burma, where China is building an oil pipeline so as to avoid the long trip around the Strait of Malacca. Thailand has the rights to 1.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in one concession alone. One Indian firm has signed up for 5 trillion cubic feet. Russia has several firms drilling. A single pipeline operated by France, Thailand, and, yes, Chevron earned the junta more than $1 billion in 2008. The South Korean company Daewoo International plans to earn more than $10 billion over 25 years from its drilling project in Burma’s immense Shwe gas reserve; handling Daewoo’s exploratory Burma drilling was the American firm Transocean. As a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Burma is included in a free-trade agreement with India that eliminates tariffs on thousands of products; India plans to invest billions of dollars in two Burmese hydroelectric dams. The EU is discussing a free-trade agreement with ASEAN nations as well, although the UK swears it won’t make a deal that would benefit Burma—it’s worth noting the UK already has oil and gas dealings there. In 2008 Burma saw a 165 percent increase in the number of Chinese multinational companies involved in Burmese mining, oil and gas, and hydropower development. The regime ran a $2.5 billion trade surplus in 2009, with $5 billion in currency reserves.
The United States can better target its sanctions all it wants, but already they’ve pushed tens of thousands of Burmese textile workers out of factory jobs—and, as even the State Department has admitted, into sex work. And as Chevron has pointed out, if we pull out our remaining investments, someone else—perhaps someone less conscientious—will gladly fill the gap. The international community can’t even agree to stop giving the regime weapons. Even if it could get China to play ball on that front, not so much North Korea. As long as there’s money to be made in Burma, a cohesive or constructive policy of international financial disengagement—from an energy-rich country neighbored by the world’s two most populous, energy-desperate countries—is never going to happen.
You know a situation is dire when its best chance of a good outcome depends on action by the United Nations Security Council. At the 2005 UN World Summit, member nations resolved that if a government perpetuates or allows any of four “atrocity crimes”—war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, or genocide—the world body is responsible for taking “timely and decisive” action to protect that nation’s people. When in 2007 a draft resolution on Burma was brought before the Security Council, some activists felt that there was a strong case for it to include charges of genocide against the Karen. The UN 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines “genocide” as an attempt “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” with at least one of five methods. One of them the SPDC isn’t guilty of: “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” But “killing members of the group”? Check. “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”? Check. “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”? Clearly. “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group”? If you count gang-raping and murdering pregnant women, yes. Since the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, systematic rape has been recognized as a key feature of genocide. In Burma, it’s systematic, institutionalized, and indoctrinated into soldiers, who are explicitly ordered, “Your blood must be left in the village.”
But not one government has officially leveled the charge at Burma, and some academics and even activists argue that these genocidal actions aren’t genocide-like enough to count. We can’t just be throwing the word around to describe any old horror. Or as my father put it when I tried to impress upon him the seriousness of my BA housemates’ situation, “But how does it compare to Sudan?”
If Sudan is the bar against which we’re measuring genocide, okay: Burma was alongside Sudan on the list of the world’s worst displacement situations for four years running. Sudan’s mortality rate for children under five, a common measure of conflict epidemiology, is 109 per 1,000 live births. In eastern Burma, it’s 221. In the Darfur genocide, 400,000 civilians have been killed. A junta chairman once estimated that the body count of Burma’s civil war—the Karen are only one of seven major minorities that have been involved in dozens of armed insurgencies—”would reach as high as millions.”
It comes down to this: A draft resolution that compellingly charges genocide against a country is a draft resolution that’s likely to get passed—because no one wants to be the nation that vetoes that. But the 2007 Security Council draft resolution to declare Burma a threat to international peace and security didn’t contain charges of genocide. Nor ethnic cleansing, nor crimes against humanity, nor war crimes. China and Russia vetoed it.
SINCE I FIRST ARRIVED at Burma Action’s Mae Sot offices, four years ago, some 50,000 Burmese refugees have left Thailand for UN-orchestrated resettlement in Western countries. In 2007, the United States waived its material support prohibition for refugees who’d assisted the KNU, and the next year allowed in more than 14,000 refugees, including several BA staff members. In America, they try to make rent with welfare or factory wages, and talk, weirdly, about struggling to survive. I apologized to one, after he was moved to a suburb outside cold, gray Cleveland, for his crushing poverty and loneliness and the weather. “It’s okay,” he replied. “You can never find a good place to live in the world. Only in heaven.”
Though some of the documentary activists have emigrated, their footage and reports gather dust in Thailand, awaiting, the human rights community hopes, the day when they might be used at a trial of the junta or in a truth and reconciliation process. Some Burma Action footage made it out and into the opener for Rambo part four, whose producers paid—after some hard haggling—about two grand for it.
Lah Lah Htoo is one of those activists who’s stayed behind. At a going-away party my last weekend, he sat with a guitar in his lap. On a previous night he’d played a hard-twanging, pentatonic melody on a stringed Karen instrument while he sang, in flowing minor notes, a traditional song about a river, so haunting that I had nearly drunkenly wept. But now the guitar he held was idle, and he tipped his head back and looked at me through half-closed eyes.
“Do you think that we will see each other again?” he asked, one arm dangling over the body of the guitar.
“Of course we’ll see each other again,” I said. I looked at Htan Dah. “I’ll come back to Thailand soon.”
“When?” several voices asked.
“Probably next summer. I have to figure it out with work, and money.”
“So,” one of the guys said, “we will see each other again maybe next year.”
“I hope,” I said. “Hopefully next year.”
“When we see each other again,” Lah Lah Htoo said, “it will be in Burma.” The other guys cheered. “When we see each other again, you will come to Burma. And you will not need a visa to enter. And I will pick you up at the airport.” His face was barely wide enough for his smile, and he was hollering a bit, over the approving shouts of the other guys. “In a car. In my car!” Lah Lah Htoo had left his village when he was a teenager, when he’d run away with the rest of his family and neighbors, and hadn’t been back since. A silence settled over his coworkers in the wake of his fantastic predictions, and they all smiled softly and looked off or at the floor or at the wall as they considered cars and airports, and I thought about doomed POWs in movies who know their fate is sealed but talk anyway about how they’re going to eat a big cheeseburger when they get back to America, and I kept quiet as long as the guys were quiet, bowing my head as if in reverence of something that had died.