The Frontier Lady Speaks: Interview With Edith Mirante
Berkeley: August 27, 2005 [Chinland Guardian note: One of our editors Salai Bawi Lian Mang has the opportunity to interview Edith Mirante, an American artist and author of Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure and a Jungle
Revolution published in 1993 and Down the Rat Hole: Adventures Underground on Burma’s Frontiers published in 2005. Read More Her new book Down the Rat Hole is about a hidden world of guerrilla warfare and jade trading, the AIDS pandemic, rainforest destruction in Burma western border among the Arakanese, the Chins and the Kachins. She is also author of several reports about politics, human rights and environmental issues about the Chins among others; “The Chin Compendium (1997)”, “Ashes and Tears (2001)” (A report a bout Chin/Burmese refugees in Guam), the “Razor Edge” (Survival Crisis for Refugees from Burma in Delhi, India-2004) and “Mithuns Sacrificed To Greed: The Forest Ox of Burma’s Chins (2004)”. Her commentaries are regularly broadcast on the BBC World Service, she’s lectured for Amnesty International and Greenpeace, her articles appears in New York Times, Asiaweek, and she’s given evidence about Burma before the US Congress and the European Trade Commission and International Labor Organization. Ms. Mirante is founder and project director of Project Maje]
Chinland Guardian: I believe that many of the Chinland Guardian readers are already familiar with the name Edith Mirante and I am sure they would love to know more about you. When did you start to get involve in the Burma democratic movement, what made you become involved and what is Project Maje?
Edith Mirante: I was living in northern Thailand in the 1980s and had visited Burma a couple of times as a tourist. Even then, I knew something was very wrong with the Ne Win regime. My first cross-border trip was to the old SURA camp of Mo Heing. I started to learn more and more about the abuse of ethnic peoples in the parts of Burma that were next door to Thailand. Even though I had come to Southeast Asia as an artist, a painter, I felt it was my responsibility to tell people back in my own country about what was happening in Burma. I lobbied successfully against a US program that was giving 2,4-d herbicide to the regime, after I found out it was used against the food crops of hill people as well as the opium poppies. In 1986 I started Project Maje as an information project on Burma’s human rights and environmental situation. I still gather such information and distribute it to the international community, and it is much easier now, because of the Internet.
Chinland Guardian: Would you mind telling us the reason why the Thai government deported you and denied you entry into the country?
Edith Mirante: In 1987 I was arrested by the Thai Border Patrol for crossing the border between Thailand and the Shan State, and I spent a couple of days in jail in Mae Hong Son and at Bangkok’s horrible Immigration Detention Center. Then, in 1988, I went to visit someone at the IDC and was jailed there again, without any charges, even though I had a valid Thai visa. Apparently they mistook me for someone else. The Thai authorities have kept me on their “do not enter” list since then, even though it was their mistake. It seems they have tried to make an example of me to discourage foreigners from going up to the Thai/Burma border, as relations between Thailand and the Burma regime have gotten closer and closer. Anyway, being banned in Thailand forced me to look at Burma’s other borders.
Chinland Guardian: Your new book “Down the Rat Hole” is much about the Western border of Burma, a region less traveled by outsiders. What is your observation regarding the eastern and western borders of Burma in terms of the social and political situations among the indigenous peoples in these two regions?
Edith Mirante: The long eastern border with Thailand has always been more porous, even for foreigners. It was the first place for timber companies to come into Burma and clear-cut the forests, for instance. And it has had a constant flow of refugees. But the other borders have the same problems, with less attention from the outside world. Many thousands of refugees crossed from Burma into Bangladesh. And now it is companies from China which are destroying the forests of northern Burma. There is even an Indian gas pipeline proposed for western Burma which would mimic the destruction caused by the one that went from Burma to Thailand.
Chinland Guardian: Were you discouraged by the complexity of the freedom movement in Burma when you were asked to convey a letter of one of the Communist Party leaders from Arakan to President Bush pleading for help?
Edith Mirante: Burma is first and foremost a diverse country, and its combination of great Asian cultures and civilizations is actually its strength. The discouraging part is when factional fragmentation undermines the opposition. I observed this among those who were fighting for freedom in Arakan. The Rakhine and Rohingya ethnic groups had a hard time getting along with each other — there were many outmoded prejudices — and even within political groups there was a tendency to break up into smaller and smaller rival units. So even the Communists had more than one rival groups. On the other hand, the impressive thing was that people from Arakan have really kept up their struggle in spite of constant persecution (such as the arrest of U Kyaw Min and his family) and they will never give up.
Chinland Guardian: I think “Down the Rat Hole” is not just an extraordinary travel adventure book, but the book that advocates and shed light on the plight of the indigenous people’s struggle to freedom from the world’s most repressive regime? How do your readers from the West react about your book?
Edith Mirante: Well, I wrote this and my first book, “Burmese Looking Glass” mostly for Americans who start out not knowing anything about Burma. It is a way to get more people interested by presenting them stories of travel and adventure, which will introduce them to the stories of the people who live so bravely with so much oppression in Burma. My first book was more about how I got involved, and the second book is more about the situation itself, and how it has changed. I wanted to write human rights books that weren’t like the documents that we have to read, but would be something people would pick up out of curiosity. There have been young people who read my books and went off to work in refugee camps or do other useful Burma works, and some have told me that reading about my experiences makes them feel encouraged in what they are doing.
Chinland Guardian: You have hiked through the mountains of Kachinland surviving thousands of leeches that ambushed you through your way. It will be interesting to hear your observation on the political development of KIO between your first and last visit to their headquarters.
Edith Mirante: There was a big change in the KIO between my first visit to the Pajau HQ in 1991 and the second in 1995. In ’91 they were actively fighting the Tatmadaw (Burma Army) and even winning territory from them. The Kachin soldiers were very strong and aggressive, and Chairman Brang Seng was pursuing peace negotiations from a position of strength, in hopes of ending a decades-long war for everybody. In ’95, the ceasefire had gone into effect, Chairman Brang Seng had died, and it was becoming apparent that the KIO was no longer in a position of progress. The Burma regime had taken advantage of the ceasefire to do whatever it wanted, controlling the jade mines and other resources. My most recent Kachinland visit was south of Pajau in 2002. Unfortunately, things have gotten worse and worse, with large scale Chinese logging and gold mining destroying what had been a precious, pristine environment under KIO protection.
Chinland Guardian: Have you ever seen poppy field in Burma? Did that chilling video tape of the KIA version drug eradication action gained attention from international drug enforcement agency like DEA of the US?
Edith Mirante: In the 1980s I saw opium poppy fields growing profusely in the Shan State, as well as those which had been eradicated with chemicals. Later, in 1991, I saw fallow fields where poppy growing had been abandoned in KIO territory. I think it was the real results — a real decrease in Kachin State poppy cultivation, which could be verified by aerial photos, that impressed the US drug enforcement professionals more than the execution video.
Chinland Guardian: You have tried hard to get permission to go to North East India to meet with the CNF contact. Now Mizoram is opening up for tourism, and I heard that the CNF is expecting their American black belt friend, there is rumor that they have brew “Zupi” rice wine to be opened in the special occasion when their friend visit them.
Edith Mirante: Because Northeast India is beset by its own violent conflicts, it has been very difficult for foreigners to contact the CNF on its own border. So I’ve always made a special effort to meet with the CNF, and also Chin refugee and human rights groups, wherever I can. So our meetings have taken place in Bangladesh, Delhi, the US, and even Guam, as well as Manipur. I would like to go to Mizoram, but even more than that, I look forward to visiting a liberated Chinland in the future.
Chinland Guardian: Since you are the one and only outsider highlighting human rights situation about the Chins, except Chris Lewa of “All Quiet on The Western Front”? Published in 1997, I am sure that the Chinland Guardian readers would be interested to hear your involvement with the Chins. Tell us about the reports you have made namely the Chin Compendium, Ash and Tears, and Razor Edges, and “Mithuns Sacrificed to Greed: The Forest Ox of Burma’s Chins?
Edith Mirante: I put together the “Chin Compendium” so that people could see whatever had been written about the Chin (Zo) situation and resistance from various sources at the time, to make research about the Chins easier for outsiders. Since then, the Chin people themselves have ably taken on the task of informing the outside world of their plight with excellent newsletters, websites and email news lists. Last year I did a similar Compendium report about Burma’s Moken “Sea Gypsies” because they are also not very well-known. My other two Chin reports are based on my interviews with refugees from Chinland (and elsewhere) on Guam, and in New Delhi. The situation in Delhi is still very bad, although I hope the UNHCR is re-evaluating its role there. It is nearly impossible for refugees to compete for survival in the slums of India. They desperately need financial support and third country resettlement.
Chinland Guardian: Refugees from Burma in Guam got much attention by the US media compare to other Burmese refugees in neighboring countries (of course Guam is a US territory). Did your report “Ash and Tears” play any role in that regard?
Edith Mirante: When I flew to Guam, I mainly wanted to get information from the refugees about what was happening in their more isolated home regions of Burma. The report was helpful as background information for some immigration cases. Mainly it was US church refugee aid groups who kept the pressure on our US government to process the Guam refugees as quickly as possible so they could come safely to the US mainland.
Chinland Guardian: Having testified at the US Congress, the International Labor Organization and the European Trade Union and having deeply involved in the Burma democratic movement, what are your suggestions for the ethnic armed political groups from Burma in terms of international campaign and lobby?
Edith Mirante: It is important for the armed struggle groups to show that they really have the people’s interests at heart, and are not just warlords interested in economic gain from drugs, timber, etc. They also have to keep from any actions that harm civilians. As long as they are not corrupt and are not violent towards noncombatants, they will have the sympathy of the outside world, since the Burma regime which they fight is so obviously horribly corrupt and abusive of human rights. But even with sympathy, outside funding and support will only go to non-military and nonviolent opposition groups. That’s just political reality these days. I’d suggest not depending on resource extraction for weapons funds, and not expecting to be armed from outside — which leaves guerrilla warfare as the best possibility: being aggressive and taking arms from the enemy, keeping the enemy off-balance.
Chinland Guardian: You have covered Burma eastern border in your first book “Burmese Looking Glass”. And your new book “Down the Rat Hole” is much about Burma western border. What shall we expect to read next, are you working on another book about Burma?
Edith Mirante: Right now I’m not working on another book, but I am mostly involved in campaigns against the harmful extraction of resources – wood, minerals, petroleum – from Burma. Particularly the scheme of Daewoo, from South Korea and companies from India to transport natural gas from Burma. Also the logging and gold mining by China in Kachin State. And I have an interest in other environmental issues, such as the dangers to the survival of the mithuns of Chinland. Of all the large domesticated mammals in the world, those sacred oxen are the fewest in number. So they need to be carefully protected and not tampered with in commercial experiments.