Why Are There Burmese Refugees? A ramble from me and an except from “For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question”

8 Jan

(skip to the end of this post for a great excerpt from “For Us Surrender is Out of the Question”…I have written an introduction to the excerpt mostly to appease my mom who complains that I don’t write enough. Well Ma, your welcome. Everyone else, sorry.)

We sort of understand why someone would want to flee a country like Burma, Somalia or Zimbabwe. There are helpful buzz words in the New York Times, like Poverty, Oppression, Rape, Military Dictatorship, etc. that give us a seemingly clear impression of what it must be like to live in such a place. Surely, given the option, its better not live in these countries.

Then again, the other options usually aren’t all that great.

In New York, when refugees arrive from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Burma, Bhutan/Nepal (yes Bhutan! — turns out that country ain’t quite Shangri La if you don’t happen to be from the majority ethnic group), they are housed in the worst parts of the Bronx, isolated from everything and everyone they know, and without the language skills to get them a job anywhere but behind a sink at Peter Lugars or on a factory line in Brooklyn (often a 2hr commute from the Bronx). Food stamps don’t feed a family of 4 in New York City. For those who don’t make it, and many do not, its off to the factory farms and cheap rents of the Midwest. Once there, they are stuck chopping up cows and chickens for happy meals. No health care, terrible education, isolation….

Now it turns out that the few who make it to our shores are the lucky ones. They left family and friends behind not just in their countries of origin, but in the refugee camps where they waited years for a precious visa that would allow them to come to America and wash our dishes.

Maybe 1 in 10 make it out of the camps here in Thailand and to a third country (US/UK/Canada/Norway/Australia). For everyone else, life is limited to the camp. You can’t leave to work a job in town. You can’t go back to Burma without risking jail (working camps/human land-mind detection) for yourself and your family. You wait. Maybe you go to school to learn Thai, English and Burmese (many Burmese refugees do not speak Burmese). If you are lucky you get a job with an NGO working in the camp, you have a small shop selling fish and veggies as part of the large informal economy or you have a relative abroad who sends occasional remittances. But really you just wait…for your monthly ration of 1kilo of rice…for a UN ID number (which they havent given out to anyone in 3 years) they may eventually get you a ticket to America…for a Thai working permit (if they exist actually exist)…or for things to miraculously get better back home in Burma (they wont).

Was it really so bad in Burma? Its hard to imagine that there is a life much worse than life in a refugee camp, or in a sweltering 6th floor walk-up in The Hood.
This is a question that I have had a lot of trouble with, both back in NYC and here in the Mae La refugee camp. The tragic stories of my students and friends in the camp go so way to clearing things up…but I don’t have the ability to communicate their stories to others, or even to fully comprehend them myself.

This week I cracked open my copy of a Mac McClelland’s “For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story From Burma’s Never-Ending War.” In it she provides a great, albeit hyperbolic, analogy to life in Burma and life for the Karens in particular. I think this goes some way towards answering the question: Why are there Burmese refugees.

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.



One Response to “Why Are There Burmese Refugees? A ramble from me and an except from “For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question””

  1. Richard K January 13, 2011 at 4:00 am #

    Jeff S stay safe. We miss you and are proud of your efforts. We will be looking for more blog postings.

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