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Down the Rat Hole

Down the Rat Hole: Adventures Underground on Burma's Frontiers is the new book by Ms. Edith Mirante, author of Burmese Looking Glass.

In Asia, the book can be ordered from Asia Books. Down the Rat Hole is also available at Powells.com, and can also be requested from your local bookshop or ordered at bookshop.org.

Reviews from the South China Morning Post and The Irrawaddy magazine are reprinted below.


Teri Fitsell
South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). 29 May 2005.

Edith Mirante has been aptly described by her publisher as "a dedicated writer with the soul of a poet and the passion of a revolutionary". She describes herself simply as a gatherer of information on Myanmar. It's a task to which this American artist has dedicated nearly 20 years of her life. Her commentaries are regularly broadcast on the BBC World Service, she's lectured for Amnesty International and Greenpeace, and she's given evidence about Myanmar before the US Congress.

Mirante's first book, Burmese Looking Glass, was about her clandestine journeys into Myanmar from Thailand in the mid-1980s. It was subtitled A Human Rights Adventure and a Jungle Revolution and described how her eyeswere opened to oppression in Myanmar. In 1986, she founded Project Maje (www.projectmaje.org) to disseminate information around the world about the plight of the Myanmese people. Her efforts in Thailand resulted in her being jailed twice and then deported in 1988.

Mirante's new book is as interesting as the first. Starting in 1991, it describes her journeys through China, Laos, India and Bangladesh to talk secretly to indigenous people struggling to gain their freedom. She visits the rebel Chin National Front, active on the Bangladesh/Myanmar border; she crosses treacherous hills on the China border with members of the Kachin IO's 3rd brigade to visit the Kachin State; and she hides out in Chittagong, Bangladesh, awaiting her chance to reach the Hill Tracts of Bandarban.

The book is so named after the words of an Arakan ruler who described "the futility of an army pursuing hill tribe raiders as an elephant trying to 'enter the hole of a rat'". However, Mirante says that, "in modern Burma, the elephantine Tatmadaw tramples everything in its path, rat holes, nests of insurgents, peaceful villages, alike".

The book details not only human rights abuses but also the destruction of the Burmese environment under SLORC (the State Law and Order Restoration Committee, now known as the SPDC), "the junta ruling Burma following its suppression of the 1988 democracy uprising". She describes unregulated logging, strategic deforestation, gas and oil exploration and gold mining, the use of dangerous pesticides such as paraquat and increases in pollution.

The list of environmental crimes is almost as long as the list of different factions of rebels struggling in these remote areas. There are the Chins, the Was, Kachins, Karens, Rakhines, Mons and many others. The succinct glossary help sort any confusion.

It's the author's no-frills passion for her subject, as well as her wit and humour, that make the book so readable. Her journeys comprise arduous days of hiking over hills, wading through streams and hiding from the authorities. Her aim is to reach the people who live in the midst of the struggle and destruction and tell their stories to the world. She rarely focuses on herself or how (or why) she endures the dangers, rigours and hardships that go with her task. Nor does she indulge in polemic or cries of outrage. She tells it as she sees it -quietly, without fuss, simply gathering information with which to confront the authorities later.

In Burmese Looking Glass, Mirante travelled among opium drug lords and troops of women soldiers. In Rat Hole, she enters the worlds of guerilla warfare and heroin and jade trading, and realises the full extent of the AIDs pandemic in the region.

The book covers one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century - the typhoon and tsunami that engulfed Bangladesh in April 1991, killing 139,000. As she relates seeing bodies washed ashore and caught in trees, the passagehas deep resonance, given the events of December 26, 2004.

Among the hardship and tragedy, there's humour and irony. At one stage Mirante narrowly avoids being caught at a dangerous checkpoint because a truck in front of hers nearly swerves off the road, and by the time it's salvaged the guard agrees there's no time for security. She spends much time in cockroach-infested hotel bathrooms repeatedly dying her blonde hair black so as to blend in.

In the end though, Mirante's message is a simple one, just the two words that close the book: "Free Burma."


The Irrawaddy magazine (print and online) www.irrawaddy.org
The Frontierslady
By Bertil Lintner
April 2005

A female author's exciting, but ugly account of her travels in Burma's border areas

Down the Rat Hole: Adventures Underground on Burma's Frontiers by Edith Mirante. Orchid Press, Bangkok, 2005. P189.

Edith Mirante got her first pair of moccasins when she was two years old. They were made of beaded deerskin, and she put them on and walked out of her family home on Atlantic City's Boardwalk. She hurried down the road, alone and proud of her new moccasins, the American Indians' traditional shoes. That was her first adventure on the unsafe path that would eventually lead to Burma 's remotest frontiers.

Mirante arrived in Thailand in the early 1980s and, again alone, visited Shan, Karen, Pao-O, Karen, Karenni and Mon ethnic minority rebels along the border with Burma . She went further, to the isolated archipelago of the Tenasserim coast, where she and her Mon guerrilla friends "camped like buccaneers on an obscure island in the Andaman Sea. We were pirates, our treasures the interviews, images, information.

Established, respected human rights groups could not go to those places... I had become a pirate, a human rights pirate, raiding the coast for all the information I could thieve from Ne Win's Burma," as she wrote in her first, 1993 book, Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure and a Jungle Revolution.

For Mirante is no ordinary adventurer. Apart from her books, she has written numerous reports about human rights abuses in Burma 's frontier areas. That was not popular with everybody, and in 1988 she was arrested on her return to Thailand from one of her trips to a guerrilla camp on the other side of the border. She was subsequently deported and remains blacklisted in Thailand . But that did not stop her from visiting areas of Burma not controlled by the government in Rangoon , approaching from other directions. Having finished her first book, she immediately set out to write another on her later travels. The outcome: Down the Rat Hole, which, like Burmese Looking Glass, is beautifully written. It is also outright exciting because she really does go through one adventure after another.

She was trapped in a cyclone in Bangladesh while interviewing refugees from Burma . She sneaked into Kachin State from China with her hair dyed black and disguised as a Muslim woman. She traveled to Manipur, a restricted area in India's northeast, as member of a "bona fide tour group"—but that was only an excuse to get into an area riddled with ethnic strife, drug abuse, and AIDS. She crossed the Mekong river into Burma's Shan State from Laos, and everywhere documented forced labor, rape and torture.

But Down the Rat Hole also reflects her disappointment with some of the rebel groups she once had felt so close to. When she first trekked into Kachin State in 1991, she met rebels who wanted to change the politics of Burma, students who had taken part in the 1988 urban uprising, and then fled to the border areas where they had teamed up with various ethnic rebel groups to fight against Burma 's military government. When she returned to Kachin State 11 years later, the rebels had signed a ceasefire agreement with the same government. Now, they were fighting among themselves over lucrative logging concessions.

Nothing she had heard about Pianma, a small town on the Kachin border, she wrote, "really prepared me for the shock of it. I'd expected something like a Pacific Northwest logging town -one or two lumberyards - but Pianma had at least 40. It was a horizontal forest, piled high to the sky. This was Kachin wood. Logging had been banned on the Chinese side of the border, in Yunnan province, so each log bore a red stamp certifying that it came from Burma . Pianma was the graphic evidence of the demise of the Kachin forests." It was also clear evidence of the collapse of the Kachin Independence Organization, or KIO, as a political organization and resistance force. Corruption was widespread and no one was any longer interested in documenting human-rights abuses. She was told of forced labor and rape by government troops, but the KIO had publicized none of it—"silent, complicit in their new role as timber warlords," as Mirante puts it.

But it is not all doom and gloom, she notes. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi may be back under house arrest, but she remains a symbol of freedom. The Kachin forests may be gone, but the American oil giant Unocal is to be tried in court for its Tenasserim pipeline security campaign. The little girl who once ventured out in her deerskin moccasins has become older, wiser, and perhaps a bit despondent. But she has not lost her ability to write, and to continue documenting what she perceives as gross violations of human dignity. Read this book. It's worth it.