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Burmese Looking Glass

Burmese Looking Glass, written by Edith Mirante, describes Ms. Mirante's clandestine journeys into Burma in the late Eighties. Mirante, an American artist, moved to Thailand in 1982, where she soon became deeply involved in human rights causes. She has worked to raise awareness of the plight of the people of Burma since 1983.

Her commentaries have been broadcast on the BBC World Service and published in Asiaweek, and she has lectured for Amnesty International and Greenpeace. Her activities in Burma led Thai authorities to jail her twice, and she was deported from Thailand in 1988.

Burmese Looking Glass is published by Atlantic Monthly Press. An excerpt from the book follows.


       That night we stayed in an unusual house, two stories enclosed by woven bamboo walls. The other houses in the countryside were built high on stilts with an open space underneath rather than a ground floor. A Shan sayah, a spirit doctor, lived in the two-story house, which was near a stream. The closest village was thirty minutes away, but its Shan residents often traveled to the sayah's house for potions, charms, tattoos, and exorcisms. The sayah had a servant who cleaned and cooked, a young Shan boy about fifteen years old, from inside Burma's Shan State. The boy hopped around on one leg, the other having been amputated just above the knee. He cooked fish caught in the stream with greens gathered in the forest. When he had served dinner to the sayah, Nang Lao, and me, he settled down on a low bench in the corner to eat his own meal.
       "This is not good for the boy, this hopping all the time," Nang Lao commented. "He needs a what-do-you-call-it leg."
       "An artificial leg," I ventured.
       "Yes, that. A new leg that they make in Bangkok. Tatmadaw got him in Burma." The Tatmadaw was the Burmese government's army. They were a well-disciplined force, totally indoctrinated for absolute loyalty to the regime. Their abuses of human rights in the war zone were neither random nor sporadic; they were carefully planned elements of Ne Win's counterinsurgency. Civilian populations were to be systematically terrorized into giving up all support for any insurgent groups. If that meant burning every last ethnic minority village out of Burma's frontier areas and scorching the remaining earth, well, the Tatmadaw was more than willing to do so. Its tactics were consistent, and much closer to the American frontier edict, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" than to any semblance of winning hearts and minds.
       In his youth, Ne Win had been trained by Japanese fascists prior to their invasion of Burma, and his army behaved like the Japanese occupation forces, like packs of samurai gone berserk, demanding absolute obedience with automatic rifles. One of the Tatmadaw's favorite tactics was to capture ethnic minority villagers like the Shans or hill tribes people and make them carry heavy loads of ammunition and other army supplies through the mountainous war zone.
       "What happened to the boy?" I asked.
       "Tatmadaw made him their porter-slave. They do it all the time to any man, woman, boy. They take them to carry their heavy things to the fighting. No good. Tatmadaw gives this boy no food them. He drinks some water, but bad water. Many porters are carrying the ammunitions for Tatmadaw. This boy got sick, like the running stomach. He cannot go along. Fell down. Burma soldier kicks him. 'Get up, lazy Shan.' Fell down again. 'Dirty Shan, you don't want to walk, okay you don't walk then!' So the soldiers kick his leg again and again with the army boots until it breaks like a stick, one, two, three places." The boy was watching us from his bench, quietly pushing morsels of rice and fish into his mouth. "They leave him in the forest like that. Running stomach all over the leg breaks, with the bones showing, too. He is like a dead boy, then. But some hill tribe hunters, they find him, cut off the bad leg, give him their own rice and tea. No doctor is there, nobody knows the Shan language, so they brought the boy here to our sayah."
       I looked over at the boy. He smiled and got up and hopped to a shelf to get the teapot for our after-dinner tea.


Burmese Looking Glass is available from Amazon.com and other online bookstores.