Burmese Looking Glass

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Since 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (“SLORC”) in the Southeast Asian country of Burma (also called Myanmar) has killed thousands of protesters, refused to honor 1990 election results, imprisoned dissident politicians, and driven many into exile or jungle-based rebellion. Events of 1988 were dramatic enough to receive world media attention, and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, has become—like her fellow laureates the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu—a world famous symbol of courageous nonviolent resistance to oppression.

But few in the West know that 1988 was only an intensification of a ruinous, decades-long civil war pitting the Burman-dominated military dictatorship of Ne Win (in power since 1962) against a dizzying collection of ethnic minority armies operating out of jungles bordering Thailand, Laos, and China. American painter Edith Mirante first visited Burma in 1981. In a lively and well-written narrative, she traces her own deepening understanding of a complex situation, without preaching too much. When people ask her for a synopsis of the situation, she writes, she tells them the war “is World War II”—the government supported the Japanese, the ethnic minorities supported the British, and when the world powers left, Burma’s groups continued fighting.

BURMESE LOOKING GLASS ends in 1988, just after the SLORC crackdown. Readers should supplement it with Aung San Suu Kyi’sFREEDOM FROM FEAR AND OTHER WRITINGS (Penguin) and BURMA: THE NEXT KILLING FIELDS? (Berkeley, CA: Odonian Press), a slim, helpful paperback by former Buddhist monk Alan Clements.

Mirante is not uncritical or naive. She sees clearly, for example, the moral failings of northeastern Burma’s Shan rebel armies, deeply corrupted by the lucrative, deadly opium trade, which supplies half the heroin in the United States and which becomes an end in itself, leading sometimes even to cooperation with the government army. But she is unremittingly hostile to the regime, and charges that the United States, as part of the “war on drugs,” has supplied it with a defoliant which kills not only opium poppies but also food crops, animals, and people.