Voices of Burma from the lands in between
by Richard Humphries
2007. 200 pp., 80 colour images, 3 maps, bibliography, index, 24.5 x 17.5 cm., softcover.
ISBN-10: 974-524-092-3 $29.95
Book review by Christopher Smith
In August 2006 I found myself staying in a small guesthouse in the border hamlet of Mae Salid, the mountains of Burma rising up from the opposite bank of the River Moei and only a few kilometers from where the cover photo for this volume was shot. To say the house had seen better days would be an understatement, everything seemed from an era long since past, covered in dust and cobwebs.
One item that particularly caught my attention was a pamphlet advertising a tour of Burma, sadly no longer an option. The tour was to take the visitor a good distance along the River Moei, frequently stopping off on the opposite shore to visit Burmese villages and occasionally trekking inland for further investigation. But to advertise this as a tour of Burma was slightly off the mark, in truth it was a tour of Kawthoolei, the name the ethnic Karen give to the land in Burma which they claim as their rightful ancestral home.
Yet over the course of time, ever increasing regions of “Free” Kawthoolei have fallen at the hands of government and government-allied forces. Today, only a few disparate pockets of Karen/opposition controlled areas remain. And with the physical occupation of land and the further prying of Burmese government and allied troops, more and more people set out for the hoped-for relative safety and prosperity of the Thai/Burma border region.
Frontier Mosaic is not merely a snapshot of the Karen along the Thai/Burma border, though the Karen do take center stage, it takes the reader on a sojourn the length of the border region, from Ranong and Kawthaung in the south to Mae Sai and Tachileik in the north; with an added bonus of a final journey all the way to the Burmese border with China in Eastern Shan State. Further, having regularly visited and traveled the region over the better part of two decades, author Humphries is able to chronicle the changing patterns of the border region, helping bridge the gap from when the tour of Burma (Kawthoolei) was possible to its present impossibility resulting from politics and security.
This volume explores a range of issues, each allotted its own chapter, through the eyes and words of not only the author, but to a large extent the inhabitants of this volatile region. Subjects included for study are media groups, Burmese Army defectors, insurgent soldiers, gem dealers, health and healthcare workers, monks, sex workers and a mix of characters one can only hope to find inhabiting the “lands in between.” For instance there is an odd “storyteller” who claims to have inside knowledge relating to the God’s Army of “would-be-Gods” Luther and Johnny Htoo, at the time no more than teenagers, who led a splinter guerrilla outfit right from the pages of a Hollywood script.
As of writing, protests in Burma continue in relation to the rising cost of basic commodities by what, in Western terms, is hardly anything to get worked up about—a dollar here or there. Frontier Mosaic paints a picture of lives and a region where life itself too frequently seems cheap and even the seemingly most trivial amount of currency can decide the survival of a single person or an entire family, shedding light on the true economic hardship ravishing the entire country.
The reader is introduced to the lives of illegal migrant workers on the Thai side of the border, working a minimum of eleven hours a day for six or seven days a week, earning from their labors maybe 2,000 baht a month, the equivalent of approximately two dollars a day. Understanding the income level of these migrant workers, it then becomes more understandable as to why some of them, when detained by Thai officials threatening to repatriate them across the border to Burma, struggle to come up with the few hundred baht necessary for the Thai authorities to look the other way. However, these people might be deemed the lucky ones.
Across the border in Burma the situation is even bleaker. In the Burmese border town of Myawaddy, we meet a typical local resident who must balance several jobs just to survive on what amounts to paltry earnings. The man in question splits rent on a small home with his brother, the rent totaling 5,000 kyat per month, less than four dollars at today’s exchange rate. His income? One component of this comes from his tutoring of children six days a week in the evenings. For this service he charges each child 2,000 kyat a month, the price of a beer in the lively cities and streets of urban Thailand.
One of the overriding impressions from this collection must be the human face given to the array of characters, from the landmine victims and backpack medical staff, to the internally displaced in Burma and the refugee population in Thailand. And more than anything else it is the ability of these people to eke out a daily existence, and retain at least a ray of hope, while confronting such hardship, that stands out. Even the AIDS patient, life rotting away, yearns to return home and resume his physical labor so as to assist in providing for the family.
In another entry the reader is introduced to two Karen women, residents of a small village community of internally displaced persons hemmed in by a field of landmines. But in a world where rights groups clamor for a ban on all landmines, these unbiased and lethal weapons were placed by the villagers themselves, as a last line of defense and possible warning of approaching, hostile army troops.
This community, by no means the only one that is brought to life through the pages, has ebbed and flowed in size and even location, depending on the security situation. One of the women mentioned above is chronicled as having to have fled no less than four other locations as a result of attacks from the Burmese Army.
Then there is the refugee village with no name; not because the residents could not think of one, but because it is the practical decision not to assign a name to the village. Far too often this seems to sum up the attitude of the wider world to the people and voices of this border region: for practical reasons it is best to pretend they do not exist.
Humphries does not purport to be without his own prejudices and opinions on matters related to the affected communities—you will not find him wining and dining in the halls of Naypyidaw—but he does strive to be fair; and in this he largely succeeds, while raising some highly sensitive questions regarding the common caricature of the Burmese jigsaw, its composition and prospective remedies.
On one occasion, duly noting the existence of child soldiers on both sides of the line, Humphries writes of young, armed Karen boys watching over Burmese prisoners, one of whom “looked years under fifteen.”
Interviewing a former Burmese Army soldier who had fled across the border to Thailand, Humphries finds the soldier telling him: “They [Burmese soldiers] don’t want to know so much about Aung San Suu Kyi. For many soldiers and their families, how to make rice and curry today is more important.” Simple, yet striking, voices such as this point to huge questions and debates regarding what should be the focus of today’s policies vis-?-vis the ruling junta and what problems will undoubtedly confront any future government.
And Humphries himself is certainly not immune from throwing his own two cents into the debates, as when philosophizing on the merit and role of armed resistance and the arms trade, and the changing times of morally accepted revolution from 1776 to the present: “Well, force was okay for us, you see, but not for you. Times have changed and we are all so civilized now. Sorry!”
For those that have spent time in the region the book ushers in memories of both times and places, while complimenting the experience with the infusion of tales, triumphs and sorrows from the people themselves. And for those without a firsthand point of reflection or little prior knowledge of the region, Frontier Mosaic informatively brings to life the lives and people in this forgotten stretch of land.
Interspersed throughout the accounts is a quick, and most would say wry and slightly facetious, sense of humor. Take for example the following passage dealing with Special Region Number 4, nominally in Burma, of businessman and warlord Lin Min Xian: “.he grandly labeled his praetorian guard the National Democratic Alliance Army. Voltaire’s quip about the Holy Roman Empire being neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, comes to mind.”
Overall the book is a highly readable and personable account of a complex and fascinating, if often neglected, sliver of humanity. It is not an in-depth study of one particular group or issue; rather it is exactly what it advertises to be: a comprehensive introduction to and portrayal of some of the varied peoples, often in their own voices, and issues at the heart of border life and the Burmese conflict. As the author notes, “Perhaps we should look at conflict not to domesticate or to demonize it, but more to understand it.”
Burma is a land of over 50 million people, most of whom lead lives far away from the powerful halls of international politics, lives lived on a daily basis and facing real threats, be they of physical security, infectious disease, economic hardship or otherwise. If a solution or way forward is to be found to the current crisis afflicting the country, a pulse and understanding of the myriad of estranged border communities must be gained. To this end Frontier Mosaic provides one critical tile in what is a vastly larger mosaic—that of Burma as a whole.
All proceeds from the book will be donated to the border community, especially to the Mae Tao Clinic, which provides healthcare and education to refugees, migrants and others along the border.
[Read a review of this book from The Japan Times] [Read a review of this book from Irrawaddy Magazine] [More Orchid Press Reviews]
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