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Surrender Is Out of the Question
May 23, 2010 3:25 PM   Subscribe

For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question. "Living with the crazy, fearless young men who risk life and limb to document Burma's genocide."
posted by homunculus (20 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 


The geopolitics surrounding the ongoing oppression (repression? [is there a difference? {genuine question}]) in Burma are baffling to me -- can someone more informed than me explain why the US and the West seem to treat Burma with kid gloves in a way that we don't with, say, North Korea?* Is it just because of natural resources? My ill-informed understanding is that Burma is under more or less of a general embargo by the US, but I'm puzzled why it's not something that's ever brought up in the same way that the embargo of Cuba, for example, comes up all the time (in US media at least).

*NB: I'm not suggesting that the alternative to kid gloves is counter-productive and dangerous saber-rattling, or worse; I'm just curious to know the precise contours of the hypocrisy and double standards of the "oh noes must condemn certain evil regimes and not others" crowd.
posted by a small part of the world at 4:15 PM on May 23, 2010


(The Harper's link from homunculus's comment answered most of my question):

3. What has the American role in Burma been historically, and how much influence does the U.S. currently have?

Americans are largely unaware that the U.S. was involved in Burmese affairs in the 1950s as part of the war on communism. The U.S. armed and aided a huge Chinese national force in Burma; in a way we had a proxy invasion of Burma. The Burmese knew what we were doing, and when they asked us to stop, the U.S. government acted as if it had no idea what they were talking about. At the same time, we gave the Burmese government tens of millions of dollars in military aid, which it used to fight a force that we were arming. General Ne Win, the original dictator, was invited by Lyndon B. Johnson to the U.S.—he played golf and visited Hawaii. That history has made the Burmese very wary of the U.S. and is also part of the reason why Burma is a military dictatorship today.

Today the U.S. doesn’t have much influence at all. We have had sanctions ever since the Clinton Administration, the only money that the U.S. has there now is a Chevron project that was grandfathered in. China has a lot more influence than we do, India has a lot more influence than we do, because they are massive trading partners. They both have huge amounts of money invested in that country. Burma doesn’t need us because it has so many other countries that will still buy their resources.

posted by a small part of the world at 4:18 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, oil continues to find new ways to make things suck for people everywhere.

Wow. Couldn't stop reading till the end. It's amazing how many different things she manages to touch on. The part about sexual mores was pretty weird, and possibly my favorite part, if only because it provided a slight respite from the horror of the rest of the article.

I think this is an interesting example of why I'm not 100% sold on pure pacifism. Would it be worth American lives and massive deficit spending to kill the junta and try to construct a nation in Burma? I mean, even if it only had a small chance of lasting, it seems like a "quagmire" in Burma might possibly be ethically justified.

This one part seemed kind of "off" to me though, in comparison with the depth of the darkness in the rest of the story:

I apologized to one, after he was moved to a suburb outside cold, gray Cleveland, for his crushing poverty and loneliness and the weather.

Really? I never thought poverty in the US was nearly as bad as what she's describing in that unimaginable hellhole. I know my situation isn't really comparable, but when I had a factory job, I sure wasn't eating boiled sticks and battling malaria, nor were the other workers I knew (who, interestingly enough, were mostly from Southeast Asia). This seems like an important distinction to make, given that stopping genocide should probably be a somewhat higher priority, morally, than making Cleveland nicer.
posted by Xezlec at 5:23 PM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


...can someone more informed than me explain why the US and the West seem to treat Burma with kid gloves in a way that we don't with, say, North Korea...

It's not so much that the US treats Burma with kid gloves as that the US doesn't have the necessary strings to pull with China and India to isolate Burma. Without the cooperation of Burma's big neighbors, there's not much that the US can do.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:25 PM on May 23, 2010


Without the cooperation of Burma's big neighbors, there's not much that the US can do.

...which is to say, there is nothing that they can do. Europe/US = irrelevant. With China & India vying for dominance, any noticeable sanction applied by the rest of the world will be immediately invalidated by one of the two in order to curry favor with the junta.

Burma, by the way, is just awesome. They really don't deserve what's happened to them.
posted by aramaic at 5:41 PM on May 23, 2010


What a sad and touching story. Thanks homunculus.
posted by HLD at 6:51 PM on May 23, 2010


Not about the Karen specifically, but an interesting recent documentary on Burma is Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country.
posted by gudrun at 10:02 PM on May 23, 2010


That article was great. So humanizing, and for a group about whom you hear so little. Thanks.
posted by !Jim at 10:34 PM on May 23, 2010


Thanks homunculus especially for the second link which ably compliments the first. There is also his previous FPP and for those interested in further reading the excellent Irrawaddy has a Burma Index.
posted by adamvasco at 1:47 AM on May 24, 2010


This is an outstanding article. Thanks.

Amitav Ghosh's 'The Glass Palace' is an excellent historical fiction about the usurped Burmese monarchy, spanning the first half of the 20th century.

Really? I never thought poverty in the US was nearly as bad as what she's describing in that unimaginable hellhole. I know my situation isn't really comparable, but when I had a factory job, I sure wasn't eating boiled sticks and battling malaria, nor were the other workers I knew (who, interestingly enough, were mostly from Southeast Asia). This seems like an important distinction to make, given that stopping genocide should probably be a somewhat higher priority, morally, than making Cleveland nicer.

I would also highly recommend the David Eggers book 'What is the What?' which details the life and times of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who eventually makes it to the US, and whose life doesn't get a whole lot better in the end. In fact, it details the story of one refugee who is driven quite mad by the US experience, and ends up killing himself and a lover in a murder-suicide.

Refugees who end up in the US are pretty much guaranteed to stay at the bottom of society, living an incredibly isolated life. For example, the Laotian refugees (the Hmong) from the 70's were systematically scattered across the US, and it took decades for them to come together into a couple towns, where they still endure near-total estrangement from the dominant culture. (See 'The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down' for more; also a fantastic book.)

Even the ones who do well do badly. A Cambodian refugee by the name of Haing Ngor was a doctor in his life before the Khmer Rouge and became an actor in LA, starring in the well-known film 'The Killing Fields.' He wrote his own autobiography which described the Cambodian genocide ('Survival in the Killing Fields,' also a fantastic book), which I believe is still in print. None-the-less, he lived in a shit neighbourhood and was killed in a mugging in LA some years ago.

So end result: Yes, getting refugee status in the US may help someone escape from the impending threat of landmines, marauding soldiers, But it creates new problems of social isolation and plunges the refugee into a life full of the worst that the bottom of US society has to offer. Cleveland might be better than Burma, but it still sucks.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:20 AM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nothing to take away from the plight of the Karen people; their struggle is often under-reported, and it is crucial that this gets highlighted even more in the western press.

Some thoughts on India's tryst in South East Asia, though. While I had already stated my views on Indian participation in Burma, I've been recently exposed to a contrarian view on matters Burmese / South East Asian:

a) Talking about regime-change and sanctions is all fantastic, except that India has a very very direct cost to bear if things get out of hand in Burma; most of the border is porous, and will see a stream of refugees flowing into a region of India that is already ethnically diverse and strife-ridden.

b) (a) applies to Thailand as well, even more so, one could argue.

c) Chinese soft-power: The joke in these parts is that China gets details on ASEAN's decisions even before the ASEAN secretariat does; polity in 'mainland' South East Asia, mostly Laos, Burma and to an extent, Cambodia, are heavily influenced, and invested in, by China. When I was in Vientiane, I was reading articles in the local English daily on how a crucial section of the transport budget would be funded entirely by China; there appears to be little taxation or actual reserves to go around in Laos.

Chinese soft-power is all very visible on the ground too: the flight I took from Laungprabhang to Vientiane was full of Chinese engineers who were flown in to expand the small runway in Laungprabhang's airport. The best doctors in Laungprabhang are Chinese; Laos' premiere cultural venue in Vientiane was built by the Chinese, as is their national sports stadium. This display of softpower is actually increasing quite significantly; there is now talk of China bankrolling a high-speed train system connecting these countries and India with its own budding high-speed rail system. Essentially, I don't think it's fair to say India and China are peers in this regard; Chinese influence in these parts vastly exceeds that of India's.

Given all of this, the thinking in Indian circles seems to be that engagement is reasonable, and that a lack of engagement will directly result in India being disadvantaged strategically and economically.

Which, I'd say, _could_ have been reasonable hadn't South Block been so frustratingly ineffective in issue-management; as with other internal political crises facing India (Naxals for one, Manipur for another), the Indian central government so far simply hasn't shown much needed nuance in its policy. It hasn't set parameters for engagement, it has set opaque goals for its engagement, and even those goals are in its limited self-interest, not in terms of demonstrating leadership in improving the political situation.

Despite China's obvious shock-and-awe show of economic might, India still has significant cultural and historic soft-power; most of Laos' imams are Indian, the t-shirts display the Ramayana, monks in the region's many wats still learn Sanskrit, many Burmese still speak Hindi. There is a huge scope for a regional power to convert these cultural commonalities into raj-dharma, a values-based position on creating common development and political goals for the region. Simply given where we are, and what the Indian nation ultimately strives for, India can effectively apply a vast amount of social capital to articulate a values-based leadership. That it doesn't is a sad, frustrating reflection on the lack of imagination and morals-based thinking that pervades Raisana Hill today.
posted by the cydonian at 5:00 AM on May 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


For example, the Laotian refugees (the Hmong) from the 70's were systematically scattered across the US, and it took decades for them to come together into a couple towns,

Maybe I lived near one of those? A friend of mine married a (very beautiful) Laotian woman he'd met at work, and so I got some exposure to her and her friends. Nice, nice people. They spoke English fairly well, and from what I could gather from light social interaction, seemed to be prospering. Many of them had fled the Communists, and when they talked about it, I've rarely seen such a transformation in people; their hatred of Communism was intense.

I went to a few of their parties, and enjoyed them very much. There's an essential kindness to them that I found very comfortable to be around. They liked to drink by opening a big bottle of some kind of hard liquor, sitting in a circle, and passing it around and around until it was empty. That always felt a little weird to me, but they liked it.

If there was anything I was uncomfortable with, it was their enthusiastic embracing of all things American, and their attempt to reject most of their home culture. Even in my early 20s, I wanted very much to tell them not to throw away their old values so lightly, that they were substituting a nicer-looking but largely inferior product. They didn't really understand the strength their connectedness gave them. It's easier for me to understand, now that I have more exposure to what was really going on in Asia, why they would want to.... as the shattered remnants of a culture, it must not seem like it's worth saving. But it made me sad.

And wow, could they ever cook. They had some Thai friends, too, and the buffets they'd put out were incredible. At least one of the ingredients, though, was nauseating. They had this noxious, horrible substance called 'fish paste'. It smelled exactly like cow manure, except about a thousand times stronger. All my friend's wife had to do to clear the apartment was open the jar of fish paste for about ten seconds... all us Yankee boys would flee for the hills, and would find the whole apartment largely unbearable for ten or fifteen minutes. You can't imagine how awful that stuff is without experiencing it. I assume it ended up in the food, and it wasn't noticeable there, but the raw stuff should be declared a biohazard.

One strong memory was watching my friend's wife eat. When she was done, there wasn't one calorie left on a plate. She wasted nothing. The bones would be polished clean, in a small pile, and the rest of the plate would be spotless. I remember observing to my friend that that was someone who'd understood what hunger meant, that just watching her eat was a story all by itself. But I don't think he ever really understood that.

This was, by the way, near Santa Rosa, California. They seemed to be doing very well there. Their kids were in school and doing fine, and spoke excellent English. They seemed healthy and happy, and while I didn't see where they lived, their clothes were high quality and didn't seem worn. (They probably dressed better than I did; I certainly wasn't particularly prosperous at the time, but I was far from starving, and they seemed, if anything, to be doing better than I was.) You can obviously hide a lot in light social interaction, but I didn't see any sign of creeping malaise or systematic marginalization. It seemed like a thriving community to me, a very solid environment for kids to grow up. No, they weren't exactly investment bankers, but there are a LOT of people in this country that aren't doing as well.
posted by Malor at 5:03 AM on May 24, 2010 [3 favorites]


According to this site, Hmong and 'normal' Laotians live in the US in about equal numbers, with a concentration of Laotians near San Diego and San Francisco, and the largest concentrations of Hmong in Fresno and Merced. It's impossible to be sure without asking, of course, but there's a good chance it wasn't Hmong you met. While things have been better for the second generation Hmong, my understanding is that the first-generation refugees had a famously bad time.

The Hmong suffered a number of major difficulties in their integration in the US; they were a very reclusive hill-dwelling people until the Laotian communists started poking into the hills and the CIA started giving them guns. Their written language was invented in the early fifties, for example, meaning there is/was a high rate of illiteracy. Here's an article with more information. There are a couple good Wikipedia articles too.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:11 AM on May 24, 2010


"why I'm not 100% sold on pure pacifism."

Indeed. The amount of misery and death created by 'leaders' like Stalin, Hitler, Amin and the Burmese military etc. etc. justify Zapata's "better to die on your feet than live on your knees."

The PolySci people need to coin a word like 'Brutalitarianism' for such states. We who would prefer to live in a peaceful world will never enjoy it until we find a solution to this, most ancient of all, political problems.
posted by Twang at 9:48 PM on May 24, 2010


Yeah, I must have met Lao, not Hmong. Your link says they're in the Bay Area, which is a somewhat nebulous term that generally means Marin and Sonoma Counties, just north of San Francisco. Santa Rosa is the major city in Sonoma County.

Further, I remember them referring to 'the mountain people' in disparaging tones. My friend, who had a lot more exposure than I did, made it sound like it was kind of a big deal, that they really didn't care for the mountain people, and that it was still somehow important to them. Our little group of friends figured that must be the Laotian version of racism, but it sounds like there might be more to it than that.

The Lao seemed to be doing very well... they sure looked like a success story to me. I've been kind of missing them since I made that last post. I fell out of touch, and now I wish I hadn't. I'm sure they must have their share of jerks, but I sure didn't meet any. They were neat people.
posted by Malor at 7:17 AM on May 25, 2010


Refugees who end up in the US are pretty much guaranteed to stay at the bottom of society, living an incredibly isolated life.

Could that be an overstatement? I wouldn't really know, since I don't know of any studies on the subject, but you list anecdotes that were worth writing books/articles about, which suggests a possible selection bias. Not that I'm really trying to mount an argument -- you could be right -- but just to offer a happier refugee story: my co-worker was smuggled out of Vietnam on a boat during the war, married a Vietnamese-American girl, and seems to enjoy his comfortable middle-class life as a data analyst here in Austin. He occasionally visits his relatives back in Vietnam now that it's safe.

I'd bet that whether you find any compatriots here to ease you in, how young you are at the time, and whether you still have contact with your family have a lot to do with whether you end up happy as a refugee. I suppose it also matters whether you're able to find your way through the education system and score a decent job.
posted by Xezlec at 9:42 PM on May 26, 2010


Yeah, I probably overstated the problem a bit. There are a shite-ton of factors, though. But the way is hard: imagine trying to get through the education system while holding down a low-wage job and trying to learn the language at the same time. Size of the influx from one's culture seems to be an important factor - the Vietnamese and the Irish probably did a bit better than the Hmong. But even the Irish had a rough time for the first generation or two... And yeah, things seem to get better after a generation.
posted by kaibutsu at 3:59 PM on May 27, 2010






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