The Rumpus Interview with Mac McClelland: Burma, the Karen and Genocide

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In March, Soft Skull Press released For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question, Mac McClelland’s memoir of the six weeks she spent in Thailand, helping refugees from Burma living illegally in a border city. These refugees were from an ethnic minority called the Karen (kuh-REN), and they’ve been persecuted by the junta in Burma, McClelland convincingly argues, to the point of genocide — though it’s not officially called that, for complicated reasons. The memoir of her time assisting the refugees is very entertaining, and rich with interesting characters, among them a man she formed a close friendship with, Htan Dah (pronounced ‘ta da’ — he eventually made it to the States). But the book is more than a memoir: McClelland uses her personal experiences as a springboard for reporting the documentation on the atrocities committed by the junta against the Burmese people, and for delving into a detailed history of the conflict in Burma, especially as it touches upon the 60-year old armed insurgency that the Karen National Union (KNU) has sustained to the present day.

Her book lays out the refugee situation at the Thai border in a direct and compelling way, but with a note of contained outrage that makes you want to get up and do something about the conflict. Which is kind of the point. In the book, she tells one of the refugees that nobody in America knows about Burma, and he says in perfect seriousness: “Well. You are going to tell everybody in America, then.” I spoke to McClelland by phone in late April, shortly after her book tour ended.

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The Rumpus: So I’m curious what drew you to Burma in the first place, there are so many humanitarian crises you could get involved with. What drew you to working there and how’d you find out about it?

Mac McClelland: It wasn’t like I was shopping for a huge humanitarian crisis, although if I had been, Burma would have been at the top of my list. It happened the way I described it in the book, that very lame story of how I was kind of just screwing around on the Internet and saw some information about this big refugee crisis, but couldn’t really find much information about why there was this huge refugee crisis. It was a total fluke of a Google search, but it stuck with me for a couple years. I kept going back to this website, and there was still a refugee crisis, and there was still no information. So when I graduated from grad school, I just decided to go check it out.

Rumpus: Lack of information in the news is kind of a big thing with this story; I’m not especially well-versed about international humanitarian crises, but I do read the news, and like almost everyone else I talked to while reading your book, I had no idea about the situation in Burma. The first time I really became aware of Burma was last fall, and it wasn’t something in the news, but the fact my wife had a student in her class who was a refugee, and that reminded me of the monks’ protest, which I had read about. And then one day I was hanging out with Isaac and I asked him to tell me about his experiences in Thailand. The point is: how I learned about Burma was basically from a refugee, and from Isaac.

McClelland: Right. As you mentioned, there was a protest in 2007, and when monks get shot, apparently that makes it internationally newsworthy. And then in 2008 there was the cyclone that killed 140,000 people, and that made it into the news also. And then last year, when Aung San Suu Kyi got re-sentenced to house arrest, that also made the news. So you have maybe an annual Burma-mentioning in the news, but even when those stories make it into Western media, this other story, this story about this rampant ethnic cleansing campaign, is not ever part of that, and is not ever mentioned in that. So even if you did read the Asia-Pacific sections of newspapers every day, you still wouldn’t know about this really crazy genocide that’s going on.

Rumpus: You put it really well when you say that the situation is the “opposite of news.”

McClelland: Right. Because it has been going on for such a long time. These insurgents have been fighting since 1949. There’s more than 60 years of war at this point, which, yeah, technically I guess that is kind of the opposite of news – it’s twice as old as I am. But the thing is, this particular war that has been going on in the east has actually been getting worse in the last few decades. So that aspect of it could potentially be news, and of course, anything nobody has heard of is news.

Rumpus: Since you bring up the war in the east, which is obviously a big part of the book, could you describe the Karen and their situation a little bit?

McClelland: Basically you’ve got this ethnic group who were the darlings of the British Empire when the British colonized Burma. And the Karen also fought on the side of the Allies during World War II, and then were promised autonomy as a reward for that, basically their own Burmese state. But they didn’t get it, and the British and the Americans just sort of bailed on them. And so, since independence in 1948, some members of this group, the Karen, have been fighting in this armed insurgency against the government. Over time, as is usually the case, the government has been winning in a major, major way. So now, their numbers are dwindling, their resources are dwindling, they don’t have as many weapons, they don’t have as many guys, they don’t have much money. So now, you just have just a few thousand scrappy soldiers who refuse to give up the fight in the jungle, versus 350,000 Burmese Army soldiers of the oldest military dictatorship in the world. And so as payback for this fight that’s been going on for such a long time, the army has started trying to wipe out civilians from this group, in addition to the insurgents themselves. So now, nobody is safe. Its not a matter of just the soldiers fighting, it’s a war on anybody of that minority who is unfortunate enough to live in that area.

Rumpus: Could you talk a bit about the Four Cuts strategy that the dictatorship deploys against the Karen?

McClelland: That’s actually a strategy that the British brought into Burma when they were trying to keep the insurgents under control, because, like many countries, Burma was not crazy about being taken over by a bunch of old white guys from overseas. So there were a lot of uprisings then as well. The British would go into villages and burn them down, and kill anyone that they saw, and if they kept doing that, then there wouldn’t be enough bodies, and there wouldn’t be enough resistance, to keep the Burmese fight going. It reduces their resources, because you destroy crops, and you destroy farmers, and if you don’t have farmers, then you don’t have food, and if your soldiers can’t eat, then they can’t fight. So this is a strategy that the Burmese Army adopted in the 70s, in fighting these Karen insurgents. It’s the same thing, they just burn down villages and kill villagers. They’ve destroyed more than 3,000 villages so far in eastern Burma as part of this fight, and that’s why there are hundreds of thousands of refugees and millions of people displaced both inside and outside the country.

Rumpus: Kind of looks like genocide to me. So why isn’t it called that?

McClelland: There’s a variety of reasons. For example, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to the United Nations for Myanmar had this report a couple weeks ago where he basically said — and this is a senior UN official — hey everybody, these are crimes against humanity, and everybody knows it, when are we going call for a Commission of Inquiry into Crimes Against Humanity for what is going on here? So United Kingdom backed it up and agreed that it should happen, Australia, the Czech Republic, this panel of international jurists from Harvard, the President of East Timor — all these people know that it is going on. But the Obama administration has remained totally silent on the crimes against humanity / genocide issue so far. A lot of people think that is because of China, because China is Burma’s very, very staunch UN ally. And so, any time the Security Council tries to talk about Burma, China and Russia will often say no, we’re not talking about this, so we’re going to veto this, and we’re not going to do anything about it or get involved, it’s their business. And our own relations with China, obviously, are incredibly important. So that could be part of it. Another part of it is that, that term, “genocide,” is so politicized that a lot of people just don’t want to use it. Some people think that it takes away from the gravity of the Holocaust. And there are also socio-political factors in play, so it’s not 100% ethnic driven, though that was the case in the Holocaust as well, of course. There’s a variety of reasons. But at this point, why people on the ground like you and me aren’t using the word, it’s because they just don’t know about it.

Rumpus: You mentioned Burma’s relationship with China, and China’s influence – I think you make an argument in there that that’s why US trade sanctions have been so ineffective.

McClelland: Correct. I couldn’t really feel any more strongly about sanctions than I do, in that they have never worked. I mean, we’ve had sanctions in place since the Clinton administration, and despite that, now, the situation on the ground is that we have more people being raped and shot in the face than ever. The civilians are poorer than they have ever been, and the regime has more money than it has ever had, so I cannot understand people who are making the argument that eventually, they are just going to cave. Because China will never pull their money out of Burma, neither will India, neither will Thailand. North Korea and Burma have been forging a lot of diplomatic ties lately, they will remain friends. A minister from Malaysia just came out a couple days ago saying that “we can’t punish Burma because India and China aren’t punishing Burma so we’re not going to start either.” You need the whole world to adapt the strategy, and that’s never going to happen.

Rumpus: What you wrote stuck in my head, where you said, “what’s the use of saying ‘I’m not going to play’ if everybody just says, ‘well, more for us.’”

McClelland: Exactly.

 

Htan Dah with KNU

Rumpus: Could you describe the significance of the title of the book?

McClelland: That’s the first tenet of their revolution, this insurrection that started six decades ago. They had a leader who was assassinated very early on, but he laid down these four principles that the insurgents would have to live by, and the first one was “For us surrender is out of the question.” The others were, “we must decide our own political destiny, we will not lay down our arms, and a free Karen state must be realized.” Not in that order. But these four rules for their insurrection, are on everything, if you are hanging around with Karen people. People have them tattooed on themselves, they have them on t-shirts, lots of t-shirts, t-shirts that they hand out in schools in refugee camps. The Karen National Union live by those principles, which is why they are one half of the longest war in the world. Because they have never signed a cease-fire. There are dozens of cease-fire groups in Burma. These are hardly the first people to have a beef with the regime, so lots of other armed insurrections have come and gone, and have eventually given up or laid down their arms or reached some other sort of agreement. Not so the Karen.

Rumpus: The group you’re working with is called Burma Action in the book, but you mention that this is not the group’s real name, because what they are doing is illegal.

McClelland: In Thailand, it’s not legal to employ refugees, and it’s not legal to keep refugees outside of a refugee camp, and it’s not legal to send them over international borders secretly. So, yeah. I asked them a hundred times, and they said, “Are you out of your mind? We’re going to be thrown out of this country.”

Rumpus: You said that you just showed up not knowing anything, so how long did it take you to figure out that these people are in Thailand illegally?

McClelland: That actually was my first morning, when I was having breakfast with one of the guys. He said something about how he was a refugee, and I didn’t even know that. Because for security reasons, they hadn’t told me that people who were living in this house were refugees who had run away from camps. They didn’t tell me anything. He said, “we’re all refugees,” and I said, “Oh, really?” I didn’t know anything. So then every single minute became a matter of me trying to figure out what was going on. Not just with these guys personally, but also the whole history of the situation. I learned a hundred things a day. I kept asking questions and they kept telling me things I couldn’t believe I’d never heard before. They were totally blowing my mind. It was a process. Even after that, there is so much to know about a conflict that deep. I’ve read a hundred books about it by now, and I could still read a hundred more that would tell me things I hadn’t been aware of before. At least I figured out the basic staples of the situation on my first day.

Rumpus: So you are learning a hundred things a day and writing them all down, obviously. It didn’t sound like you went into it thinking that you were going to do some reporting on Burma, you didn’t seem to go into it as a journalist, really. Was it more a matter of taking notes on the situation from day to day?

McClelland: Yeah, exactly. I have this habit that I got from my mom, of writing down everything that I think is funny, and everything that these guys said was either mind-boggling or hilarious, or both at the same time. So I was not thinking about writing a book later, but I just had to get it all down. And I ended up with stacks and stacks of note pages.

Rumpus: Interesting. Because sometimes people get the charge, if they’re not going into it as a journalist, of seeking out an experience in order to write a memoir about it.

McClelland: Right. Yeah, I don’t know how that would have changed my experience. But yeah, it happened more organically than that.

Rumpus: So wait, how much time did you have to set aside, how did you do that? Because whenever I go on a trip and I try to write stuff about my trip, I find it very difficult to get any time away from other people.

 

Htan Dah's first restaurant visit and first ice cream sundae

McClelland: I did most of it at night. I mean, when I would sit down with the guys and just start asking them questions, I would hold a pen and would write stuff as we went. And I even recorded some of them a few times, and then I would play it back later. But for the most part I would just do it at night. I would go to bed and just take an hour to write it down. Or, if I was way too drunk that night, then I would do it first thing when I woke up the next morning. But you’re right, it takes hours to get all that information onto paper. But it just felt like, everything seemed so significant, that I had to write it down. And if I had to carry it around, then I would repeat it to myself in my head until I had a chance to actually write it on something.

Rumpus: I am curious as to whether you were concerned people might look at your book and dismiss it out of hand because you “only” spent six weeks in the area, because I read a rather stupid review that raised that issue.

McClelland: You’re not going to mention Britney Spears now, are you?

Rumpus: Yes, it was that review.

McClelland: That is such a ridiculously sexist review, it was pretty hilarious how over the top it was.

Rumpus: Yeah, it actually irritated me quite a bit to read it after I’d finished your book, how he was so dismissive, so I’m glad you’re laughing about it. But was that a concern of yours, that maybe your experience was too thin?

McClelland: I had actually never thought of that before. Six weeks is kind of a long time to be in the middle of a place you have never been before, and I have been back, I spent another month there doing follow-up, and I’m still in touch with the guys. So the research still took years. I think that if I had been claiming that I had converted and became an honorary Karen insurgent, and said I was an integral part of the Karen revolution or something like that, then yeah, six weeks would not have been enough. But I wasn’t positioning myself as an experiential expert. I mean, I admitted on the first page that I had no idea what the fuck was going on, until I figured it out piecemeal.

Rumpus: Did you feel yourself to be in any danger when you briefly crossed into Burma briefly and found yourself being followed by a spy? What about later, when you crossed with refugees?

McClelland: I was never worried about it, because, you know, it’s really bad press when bad things happen to white girls. So the chances of either Thai or Burmese government officials doing anything to me other than deporting me are really not that high. That’s the worst thing that could have happened to me, that I could have been arrested and deported. Probably. So who cares. The second time that I went over, with the refugees, where we just crossed illegally through the jungle and then over a river — I don’t know. The thing about them is that, because they are survivors of such intense trauma, those dudes are pretty calm most of the time. They’ve adapted to it, and when you hang around with them, you assimilate to their “well, we’ll see what happens, it will probably be fine” viewpoint. I adapted that along with them. But if there was ever anybody’s safety that I was concerned for, all the time, it was theirs, because much more significant things could happen to them than could happen to me.

Rumpus: Reading the book is a little perspective-altering; you know, you realize how small your problems are, how insignificant they are in the scheme of things. One day I read a huge chunk of this book, it was an absolutely beautiful Monday afternoon and I’m sitting in the middle of Dolores Park, and I got to the part where you are describing that video, page after page of these atrocities in great detail, which is really hard even just to read. I remember looking up and looking around at how beautiful and peaceful everything is here, that I’m in no danger of any of those things happening to me, and I’m thinking, “okay, I’m not allowed to complain about anything ever again, I don’t think.”

McClelland: Yeah, that’s a viewpoint that my fact-checker has adopted. When something bad happens, she’ll call me with whatever the issue is, and say that “I know that people have real problems and I can’t complain about this, but it still seems like a big deal right now.” We both do that all the time. And there’s a part in the book where I was fighting with my girlfriend via Gchat or something ridiculous like that, and I really wanted to whine to somebody, I really wanted somebody to feel bad for me because I was having girl problems, but then I thought, there is nobody in this house that is going to take pity on me for this ridiculous-ass drama that I’m having.

Rumpus: Except for the guy who took pity on your mosquito bites.

McClelland: That’s right. Well, he was such a sweetheart, that guy. He was a walking pile of sympathy, he was such a doll. Anybody having any sort of problem ever, he would totally baby you. And baby me, even though I was like, bitching about my mosquito bites. Which is embarrassing, frankly, I was embarrassed.

Rumpus: How is Htan Dah doing now? In the epilogue you paint him as being frightened by his new life in the US, not wanting to go outside and all that.

McClelland: He’s still in Sacramento. The last time I saw him he was less traumatized by his Sacramento surroundings than he had been a year prior. He still talks about how he wants to go back to southeast Asia, even if he can only be in Thailand, because it’s still closer to what he considers home, even though he’s never actually lived in Burma. He still talks about how he can’t fight for his people because he has to struggle so hard to survive — it’s weird to talk to refugees who are genocide survivors, survivors of all this insane violence, and hear them use the word “survive” when they’re talking about living in the suburbs. Because they never used it to talk about their old, actually very dangerous lives. But here it’s a matter of actually feeding themselves — you can’t just live in the jungle here. You have to pay rent and things like that. The shock of it gets better, but I don’t think it ever really goes away.

Rumpus: It’s a perpetual challenge. Especially if you’re not acculturated to it.

McClelland: Right, but it’s a challenge even for most people who were born here and don’t have a lot of money or a lot of education. Of course they are set back a hundred steps from that, with their language and cultural barriers.

Rumpus: How about a few words about what people can do to help?

McClelland: As I mentioned on my blog, I am aware it sounds really lame to say that you should let your congressman know, but I do think that is an important step for people who are interested in helping. Because, the reason politicians aren’t talking about it now is because the public is not talking about it. If the public isn’t talking about it, then it’s not an issue, right? We can keep pretending that it isn’t happening or we can acknowledge that it is happening, and this is the first step towards actually making something happen. There are organizations that you can donate both money and time to, here and in Asia. As I mentioned, we have tens of thousands of current refugees here in the United States. Its a struggle, a really big struggle, for them and a lot of times their communities are isolated. They are afraid to interact with Americans because they think Americans don’t want anything to do with them. So reaching out to those communities would not only be enlightening but also be very helpful to them.

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If you’re interested in getting a taste of the book, check out the excerpt that Mother Jones ran in their March / April issue.

Special thanks to Zach Koehn for preparing a rough transcript of this interview.

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Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →