Cut off by more than 30 years of xenophobic rule, Burma is little more than a blank spot to the rest of the world. Even maps bought in neighboring Thailand have huge empty white spaces on them. But for those who have pierced that country’s “lacquered screen of isolation,” as Edith Mirante phrases it in “Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Activist on the Forbidden Frontier,” Burma (recently renamed Myanmar) is an extraordinarily complex and compelling place, both “lyrical dream and political nightmare.”
Born into an eccentric New Jersey family, the “feral kid who appears even in the heart of suburbia from time to time,” Mirante is a fitting guide to this shrouded and eccentric land. After studying painting at Sarah Lawrence and a few years as a rock-and-roll groupie, she fell in love with Asia on a two-month tour of Kyoto, Bangkok and Katmandu, eventually returning to visit Burma in 1981.
At that point Burma was 20 years into a military dictatorship under Gen. Ne Win, whose military Establishment, the Tatmadaw, had crushed its democratic opponents and had put the country on a ruinous course of national self-sufficiency called the Burmese Road to Socialism. Ne Win and his generals had also made a priority of suppressing ethnic minorities like the Karens, the Kachins and the Shans, who had never been fully integrated into Burmese national life and had challenged the legitimacy of the central government. As a result, Burma was a country that had been consumed by one long civil war almost since the day of its independence in 1948. With the country barred to the outside world, very few outsiders were allowed access, and then only under heavily restricted visas.
Rangoon was nothing but “a steamy implication to me,” Mirante says of the British-built capital before she first traveled there, “some vague Joseph Conrad evocation of intrigue and palm trees.” But all it took was one week of Burma’s “gripping charm” to hook her. “The people tiptoed between army and police and rice-growing drudgery starvation, but they did so with such grace, such wild creativity,” she writes. “They were hungry people with attics full of books, artists in ripped sarongs, beggars with degrees. In the overgrown gardens of decayed British estates, the Burmese whispered and wept to me. They brought me into their terrible world as an automatic co-conspirator.”
Because the military regime is quick to bar those foreigners deemed enemies, Mirante soon had to satisfy her Burma cravings by visiting border areas reachable from Thailand where the central government’s hold is weak. At first she joined ranks with other “border addicts"--Western anthropologists, art smugglers and retired intelligence types. They got their esoteric kicks road-tripping into inaccessible tribal villages for special festivals and savoring newfound places along the border such as the freewheeling Three Pagodas Pass, like “gourmets finding a great little restaurant hidden in the French countryside.” Gradually, though, Mirante’s adventurism took a back seat to more serious concerns. She became a human- rights activist, starting Project Maje (named for an Asian ceremonial bell), a one-woman organization dedicated to publicizing the heinous mistreatment of ethnic minorities at the hands of Ne Win’s Tatmadaw.
Burma was like a cave-in in a mine, she explained: “If a miner was trapped underground and you walked on the earth above not knowing, then you didn’t have to do anything. But if you heard his cries for help, then you were morally obligated to try and rescue him. Knowledge bred responsibility and I lived with that.”
Until then, most established human-rights organizations had been frustrated in documenting the cruelty of the Tatmadaw because the frontier was so hard to reach. But Mirante, naturally unorthodox, had more success. She became a human-rights “pirate,” “raiding the coast for all the information I could thieve.” The chronicles of these raids serve as the book’s narrative.
One of Mirante’s strongest suits is her ability to evoke the mystique of these remote Burmese compass points, areas cut with paths that carried jade, rubies and heroin, and peopled by tribes who covered themselves with magic blue tattoos for protection against myriad evils stalking the jungles. Edging all this exotica is a sense of Burma as a lost world, a time capsule last known as a major theater of World War II. Mirante sees remnants of the brutal Japanese occupation all over and finds scornful, yet still-loyal Anglophiles among the ethnic minorities who regularly fire off letters to Margaret Thatcher bemoaning their betrayal to the “infernal Burmese,” who are the majority.
Another strong suit is her ability to evoke the sensuous and wild frontier landscape. “The moon frosted the trees,” she writes in one passage. “The night smelled like a doctor’s office, a Chinese apothecary’s shop, a barber shop. Things bloomed at night and whistled and flew.” Equally strong is her celebration of the athleticism of Third World travel. Hopping onto a motorcycle strapped to cargo in the back of a truck she says it “was like riding a winged rhinoceros through the air.”
But it is in her character descriptions that Mirante is at her best. One of them is her boyfriend, a gangly New Zealander known as Spin, who had knocked about Asia for 10 years as a free-lance photographer, “picking up camera equipment, photo skill and little else.” joining up with Mirante to meet reclusive guerrilla leaders in their jungle redoubts, Spin is Bobby Magee to her Janis Joplin, “killing time in police custody on the road to Mae Hon Song.” There, in a Thai jail that was better than some of the fleabags they had actually paid money to stay in, she wryly observes, he reads Kerouac while she reads Mishima.
Another great character in this Terry and the Pirates world is Mirante herself, the “Dragon Lady,” as Spin calls her. As fascinated by the revolutionary struggles of the many Burmese resistance groups as she is by the magic potions and fetishes various shamans offer her, Mirante is like Edgar Snow reincarnated as a biker chick with a taste for Dewar’s cut with bear’s blood. Residing in the edge-consciousness of the ‘60s generation, Mirante says she became addicted to the border, that “secret world, with its AK-47-toting 12-year-olds, its refugee school mistresses, its warlords. You can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take the Jersey out of the girl. Traveling to the awesomely beautiful shores of the Adamana Sea with Mon rebels, she facetiously declares: “This was as I suspected, a war with a great beach. “
Written as a political travelogue, “Burmese Looking Glass” doesn’t go too deeply into the history of the ethnic rebellions she visits. Yet we do get a taste for the odd flavor of some of the ethnic groups. Many of the Karen, for instance, are Christian fundamentalists, yet have little trouble mixing Bible-banging and bullets. We also learn that among the various ethnic groups with the same Burmese enemy there is great antagonism, and that even within the same group there is often a debilitating factionalism. The Shan, Buddhists in the opium-rich highlands, for example “break apart like frenzied amoebas” over politics, military strategy and domination of the opium trade.
Sometimes, though, Mirante goes over the top with minutiae, which is symptomatic of a larger problem of perspective that undercuts some of the book. There are too many trees and not enough of the forest as a whole. At one point, for example, she wonders about “the Palaungs in their red sarongs, the coin-spangled Akhas and the forlorn Lahus”; at another she treks off “to find out what was going on between the KMT and the TRC and to see the War in action.” Meanwhile, the reader gets lost.
Another form of near-sightedness is revealed when Mirante journeys to the camp of the opium warlord Khun Sa, “one of the most notorious criminal kingpins in the world.” The impetus for the trip is to gather information on a chemical-spraying program that the U.S Government paid for so the Burmese government could suppress narcotics production in the frontier areas. Very quickly, though, the program was used to suppress unruly ethnic hill tribes, destroying crops and disfiguring babies. The documentation Mirante obtained was crucial to a Senate investigation that ended the program. But Mirante never acknowledges a basic conflict of interest; her tour into the Shan territories where the spraying took place was arranged by Khun Sa, whose interest in stopping the program had more to do with protecting the poppy crop than with human rights. It is also aggravating to hear Mirante apologize to Khun Sa for the actions of her government when Khun Sa is responsible for pouring more heroin onto the streets of American cities than any individual alive today.
Another problem involves her simplistic depiction of Ne Win. Like other human-rights activists, many Burmese exiles and some journalists, she depicts Ne Win as an “evil troll,” an amalgam of Marcos, Papa Doc Duvalier and Ceauscescu. The reality, however, is more complex than this demonized caricature allows. Ne Win’s hold over Burma is somewhat akin to the power of Pol Pot over the Khmer peasantry, reflecting a similar cultural logic: Both are rooted in a complicated mix of nationalism, superstition and Buddhist fatalism that Mirante, who speaks Burmese, might have discussed.
Mirante also fails to communicate just why she became so engrossed in Burma. At one particularly dangerous pass she tells that she did not stop and think “What was I doing here in a war nobody cares about in the middle of nowhere?” She should have. Burma, after all, is not “a cave-in in a mine.” It is a country many people do not even know exists, and few lose sleep over it. The impulse that drives human-rights activists to focus on such places is a mystery to me; Mirante should have taken more pains to explain her passion. Still, for the most part, Mirante has succeeded in fulfilling the goal she set for herself on her first foray across the border--to return and lay out her experiences, like a black marketeer with contraband, “like a gem smuggler displaying rubies.” “Burmese Looking Glass” is a contribution to the literature of human rights and to the literature of high adventure.