In the summer of 2006, Mac McClelland left flood-ravaged New Orleans to volunteer as an English teacher in Thailand. Armed with a freshly-minted creative writing MFA and plenty of experience with squat toilets, McClelland was as prepared as anyone possibly could be for the situation in which she found herself: cohabiting with political refugees (terrorists, if you opt for our government's parlance), ensnared in the fall-out of a civil war she hadn't even known existed. Last week, the Mother Jones human rights reporter wrapped up her book tour with readings from For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A story from Burma's never-ending war at Tulane University and the University of New Orleans. Here, she gives a few words about genocide, the differences between refugees and evacuees, and why, after 61 years of fighting, the Karen and the Burmese dictatorship find it next-to-impossible to give peace a chance.
Tell us about the book.
It is...a hybrid of historical narrative, personal travel narrative and investigative journalism that collectively aims to convey the situation thats going on in Burma, as well as provide historical context for understanding why it is happening and also what other countries are doing or not doing about it. You hear about the vague but still very serious censorship and oppression when Burma occasionally does pop up in the news, but what no one ever hears about is that there is a war in eastern Burma, and that as a result of this war, the military is trying to exterminate an entire ethnic group. It is a genocide.
Thats very serious subject matter, yet you chose a casual, fun tone that has been likened by one reviewer to a trash-talking Midwestern mall rat. Why that choice?
It wasnt really a conscious choice so much as that I generally write the way I talk. That was an organic thing. But I was concerned about it, given this subject matter. As it turns out, the reason people have a hard time reading about this is because the accounts are often so dry, boring and dire. And the characters in the book, who are all real people, are not dry or dire at all. They are hilarious. And the way they have chosen to deal with their trauma is to combat it with lightheartedness and general hilarity. Even though the subject matter was so intense, it was easier to use that kind of tone because the people I was with--the way they described things was always in that style. When guys would describe running away from government soldiers or some other very serious thing, they were always laughing.
Why do you think the Burmese rebels used humor as a mode of communicating really painful experiences?
I have since talked to some trauma therapists who say that is not that uncommon of a way for human beings to deal with that level of trauma, so apparently it is a coping mechanism that is not unique even to their culture, and I imagine it is derived largely out of necessity. The situation is so violent, bloody and horrifying. Their only other choice would be to cry all the time.
So with that level of suffering, how is the war still going, sixty-one years after it started?
This insurgency is very important for [the Karen] in their fight for independence and freedom. It is still a regime. They need access to a lot of human rights that they arent going to get under that junta. So that is part of it. There are many cease-fire groups, and after they sign ceasefires and lay down arms, oftentimes the government will still attack these groups. These insurgents have concerns that if they do lay down their arms, there may be nobody left at all to protect these villagers.
Do you think it is possible to bring peace to Burma?
No, I dont think it is immediately possible, but ultimately, yes. In the very immediate future there need to be peacekeepers on the ground as a moral imperative to protect these civilians from the absurd levels of violence that are being visited upon them. There needs to be more engagement between their country and our country and other countries around the world. The kind of change that needs to take place in their political system could take many years. So thats why there need to be peacekeepers on the ground now, to protect people in the meantime.
As interesting as their history is and as interesting as the U.S. entanglements with Burma are, it still is not a a story that anyone is aware of. As horrifying as the war is, you would think it would be the kind of thing you could publicize easily. It is gory and juicy, and people like that kind of thing. I think simple awareness is going to be a big step in that change that everyone wants. And we havent gotten to that step yet. I think awareness is one of the first catalysts of change.
When you went out to Burma in the months following Hurricane Katrina, did you have any idea that youd be among the catalysts for that change?
No. But once you are aware of it, it is so shocking that you cant help but become that vanguard.
New Orleans has been likened to a third-world country by more than one major media outlet, especially during the months following Katrina. As a Katrina survivor and as a person who has spent a lot of time in a real third-world country, do you think that analogy holds water?
Remember how when we evacuated from Katrina, there was that big argument about whether to use the word evacuees or refugees? I was on Team Refugee. I was like, We are refugees, because this is horrible, so we have to use a horrible word to describe it. And when I was (in Burma) standing next to this guy who cannot vote or have a job, who doesnt have citizenship in any country and cant travel or be free from death threats or arrest, I felt like such an asshole for likening my situation at that time to what those real refugees were going through. Not to say that my problems as an evacuee werent problems and also serious shit, but its all relative, right?