Mac McClelland writes “The Rights Stuff” blog for Mother Jones magazine and her work has also appeared in The Nation, GQ South Africa, Hustler, and other publications. She is the author of the new book For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma’s Never-Ending War, which is about her experience living and working with Burmese rebel refugees living near the Thai/Burmese border. My research associate Caryn Freeman recently spoke with McClelland, who replied to six questions about her new book. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
1. Burma is largely off the media’s radar. How did you get interested in the story and how did the book come about?
By accident, in that I was planning on going on vacation to Thailand and was digging around on the Internet and saw something about this refugee crisis. I didn’t have time to volunteer with any of the organizations that worked with refugees, but it haunted me for a couple of years. Every time I checked back on the situation it was even worse, and there was no information on what was driving the refugee crisis. So I just went there to check it out and to volunteer. The refugees wanted to tell me about what was going on because they don’t have the opportunity to tell their stories. Every day someone would tell me stories of people being attacked and having their houses burned down, how their parents were killed and other people were living in the jungles running away from soldiers. They had pictures and videos and interviews and all this documentation.
2. What was the hardest part about writing this book? Did you ever feel that you were in any danger?
I definitely did not feel like I was in danger. I had the luxury of being a young white girl and nobody wants to hurt a young white girl—it brings bad press. It’s not like the Thai police had a problem with me; I was basically with refugees and they were safer when they were with me. Fact checking was probably the hardest part of writing the book. I had an assistant for ten months and we ended up having about 800 sources to corroborate.
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.
4. Has there been any shift in American policy under Obama? More broadly, what is the international community doing to redress the situation in Burma?
There has been talk of more U.S. engagement, but so far they have only talked without making any headway. Obama has renewed the same sanctions that have been in place. Many people are calling for a commission of inquiry on war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court. Members of Congress have signed on and sent letters urging President Obama to refer the matter to the UN Security Council. One of the reasons that the UN can get away with doing nothing—when it looks like there is a moral imperative—is because no one knows about the situation in Burma. There was an amazing PR campaign around Darfur, which led to a large peacekeeping force. Where is the call for Burma? China has huge pipeline investments in Burma, and there are people who think that we don’t want to get involved because we don’t want to make China mad. If we put a resolution together that was strongly worded and contained proof of crimes against humanity, would it be so easy for China to stand behind Burma? Probably not.
5. Elections in Burma are scheduled for later this year. Is there any chance that voting will be even remotely free and fair?
Probably not. Burma had its constitutional vote immediately after Cyclone Nargis, and magically the constitution passed with more than ninety percent of the vote. Even if there were going to be actual free and fair voting policies, the military has embedded itself permanently into the political structure via the constitution. Twenty-five percent of the seats in parliament have to go to the military, candidates for president are picked by the military, and the military has given its members immunity from being prosecuted for any crimes. Even if they did allow the elections to go through and they did lose, the military could still just refuse to honor the results. Which is what they did in 1990. They lost by a landslide and their response was to refuse to accept the results. It’s political theater basically.
6. You say in the book that as long as there is money to be made in Burma, there is unlikely to be “international financial disengagement.” If that’s the case, is there any chance of change?
Aung San Suu Kyi is the figurehead of democracy activists in Burma, and recently she suggested that her party, the National League for Democracy, not even take part in the upcoming elections. In terms of international policy, change should come from the inside. There are certainly a lot of democracy activists in Burma. Unfortunately several thousand of them are in prison. It is very difficult to organize any sort of movement there. I can’t promise that a strategy of engagement and financial investment will work, but I can assure you that total disengagement has not worked and there are no signs that it is going to work in the future. So I think more engagement instead of less is the way to go.