Interview with author and activist Edith Mirante

Edith Mirante has travelled extensively into some of the most remote corners of Burma’s war zones, which is courageous beyond anything most of us ever imagine.  Her books about the people of Burma share a deep love and respect for the people of Burma.  Her book, Down the Rat Hole, chronicles her travels in Kachin State offering insights to the military repression the people of Burma have endured.  And back in the 1990s, Edith encouraged the founding members of BHM to travel to the Thai-Burma border, so in many regards she is the reason we came to be.   For all of these reasons, Edith Mirante is my personal hero.

I am so honored that Edith has shared her thoughts about the current situation in Burma in the following Q & A.  I highly encourage everyone to read her books.  They’re not only great to learn about Burma, but well written travel stories, from which you’ll come away both inspired and blown away by her sense of courage and adventure.

Q: One of the themes of Burmese Looking Glass is freedom and self-determination. In the book, the quest of the ethnic groups’ of Burma for self-determination in the face of extreme human rights violations and repression is juxtaposed against your journey as an empowered young woman to explore the world and your choice to use your freedom to advocate for the self-determination of others. How does the concept of freedom and self-determination differ from the concept of democracy?

A: I think democracy is a well-defined system of government, with the public having some level of control through elections. This of course can be corrupted and manipulated in various ways, but at least it provides some level of protection against rule by military or aristocratic elites. In Burma, there was complete domination by the military, from 1962 to 2011, when a parliament with a lot of military men in it took over. Now there’s more representation from outside of the military, but they are still the majority in the “civilian” government. Self-determination is complex and and involves the ability of groups of people to decide for themselves from the ground up about various things that affect their lives. For particular ethnic groups, this has often been denied in favor of larger national or colonial entities. That’s especially true in Burma, which led to a lack of freedom on many levels — speech, religion, movement. Now there are improvements in some areas, like freedom of the press, but not as much in self-determination for ethnic groups.

Q: For years, people have rallied for democracy in Burma and the personal freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi and others. Now, significant numbers of political prisoners have been released, nascent individual freedoms are emerging in urban areas and new political parties are appearing. What do you see as the impacts of these developments on the lives and future of the Karen, Kachin, Shan and other ethnic groups? Do you feel that the ethnic minorities of Burma are closer or farther from realizing their dream of self-determination now that Burma is a burgeoning democracy?

A: The Burmese or Burman people are the largest ethnic group in the country, but if you add up the other ethnicities, that comes to a bigger share of the population. So they don’t like to think of themselves as “minorities” but as “ethnic nationalities” who should have equal rights and local autonomy in a much looser arrangement than the current very Burman-centric state which has existed since independence from Britain. It would probably be a federal system, and that is not recognized in the current constitution which the military devised for the country. So that’s some ways off, but at least now there can be open discussion of these issues and organizing around them.

Q: The Burma army waged a 60-year campaign of violence against the Karen, but then offered a ceasefire with them a year ago. Meanwhile, the regime has now broken a 17-year ceasefire in Kachin State. How do you think the minorities should view the sincerity of the regime’s overtures toward peace? Can they trust the regime? Should they trust the regime?

A: The appalling war against the Kachins, with the same pattern of human rights violations against civilians as had always been going on, is proof that the government should not be trusted. Other groups with ceasefire arrangements are very aware of this and proceed with caution, although they do hope for an eventual political settlement resulting in a federal system. I was in Laiza, Kachinland, a year ago — that’s the town under siege by the government’s artillery, jet fighters and helicopter gunships. They’ve held out for a long time, and that shows the Kachins’ extraordinary resilience and courage.

Q: Conflict and violence in Rakhine State has erupted recently. Why is this happening? What do you understand is going on?

A: The Muslims of western Burma are no threat to anybody and have been there throughout history, but they have become the target of ethnic cleansing. There is huge anti-Muslim prejudice among Buddhists in Burma. Somehow that is considered acceptable even though Buddhism teaches tolerance and compassion. The Muslims are usually very poor and look different, so they are easily bullied and scapegoated. Respected Buddhists like Aung San Suu Kyi who could stand up for them and discourage violence against them, don’t bother to help them. The Rakhine Buddhists who used to live with the Rohingya Muslims as neighbors, now get manipulated into trying to drive them out of the country.

Q: What are your concerns now that sanctions are being lifted and US corporations can now do business with the regime? Do you feel there is reason for caution? What role do you feel US activists can play?

A: There has been a major US corporate presence throughout the rule by the junta, which had a joint venture with Unocal, then Chevron. So even with sanctions, a US petroleum multinational helped finance the regime. And of course there has been investment by China and other countries all along, in resource extraction. So this is nothing new. What has changed is the ability of people in Burma to protest and publicize the effects of such investment without getting jailed or killed for it. Right now most of those protests involve Chinese investments, but if US companies come under the same objections, we can certainly add pressure through shareholder actions, boycotts and other means. One thing to be particularly aware of is land-grabbing for agribusiness like palm oil plantations, as well as mining and logging. Investments that could have a positive impact might include alternative energy, sustainable development, telecommunications and healthcare.

Q: Would you encourage or discourage your friends to visit the country of Burma at this time? If they do visit, what would you want them to pay attention to?

A: There’s no longer a tourism boycott. If travelers go, they should certainly look for ways to support the local peoples’ efforts in sustainable development, new media, architectural preservation, environmental protection, or the arts (traditional or avant garde.) People in Burma are always interested in foreigners and now you don’t have to smuggle in books or music, you can have a much more free and open exchange of ideas. But just because things seem pretty great in the cities now, don’t forget that there is awful poverty, especially in rural areas, and a terrible war going on in the north. An acquaintance is going on a bicycle tour of Burma soon, and I’ll encourage him to support the peace movement (against the war in Kachinland) perhaps by wearing a peace t-shirt and talking about it with people he meets. Of course supporting the outstanding work of Burma Humanitarian Mission is something I always suggest – donations can be made by anybody, whether or not they visit Burma or the neighboring countries.

Q: What are you working on now?

A:  I’ve just done a new Project Maje report on the use of air strikes in the war against the Kachins, and I continue to distribute information on the situations in northern and western Burma, as well as particular issues like mining and logging effects. My new book, “The Wind in the Bamboo: Journeys in Search of Asia’s ‘Negrito’ Indigenous Peoples” will be out soon from Orchid Press. It’s not about Burma but it is about other, very ancient, indigenous peoples of Asia who have been marginalized and discriminated against, and need their land rights protected. I traveled in Malaysia, the Philippines and India’s Andaman Islands to meet them and it was amazing.