Nearly 50 years after a military-led coup overthrew Burma’s last democratically elected government, 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. Although the government of Burma has perpetrated human rights abuses for decades, a concerted military effort targeting ethnic minorities has been underway since 2001. Since then, well over half a million ethnic Karen Burmese have been killed, conscripted into forced labor, internally displaced, and driven from the country. 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 Foreign Policy in Focus 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.
MICHAEL BUSCH: 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?
MAC MCCLELLAND: 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.”
BUSCH: Did you travel there with the intention of writing a book?
MCCLELLAND: No. I really just wanted to go and see what was going on.
BUSCH: What was the most surprising thing that you experienced while you were there?
MCCLELLAND: 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.
BUSCH: 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?
MCCLELLAND: Yeah, well, it seems to me that the fact that the war 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”?
BUSCH: 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?
MCCLELLAND: 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 the scathing, 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 drier 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 queue 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. Even the modern ones 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 them and 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.
BUSCH: 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?
MCCLELLAND: 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 UN would be forced to address it.
BUSCH: Let’s talk about U.S. foreign policy for a moment. Given the necessary political will to act on the situation in Burma, what options, if any, could the Obama administration reasonably pursue to have a positive impact there?
MCCLELLAND: 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 UN, 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 have to say, “We need to do this thing, right now.”
BUSCH: You make the point in the book’s closing chapter that when it comes to U.S.-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?
MCCLELLAND: 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.
BUSCH: 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?
MCCLELLAND: 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, 4,000 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.