Beyond Sympathy: Traveling to the Thailand-Burma Border

By Morgan McDaniel

The only word I can think of that could encompass our trip to Burma is “overpowering.”  Before the trip, I had spent a lot of time researching, learning, and writing about the conflict.  I was fascinated by it and compelled to teach others about it, but at such a great distance, with so little contact with actual people affected by it, I had a hard time relating to it on a deeper level than intellectual interest and sympathy for the suffering people whose stories I had read.

After going on this trip, and seeing the landscape, and having long conversations with Burmese people who have suffered but also fought back, I’ve realized that there are a few different ways people can understand issues like Burma.  We can look at it academically, and understand it through principles and theory.  We can understand it from an advocacy perspective, analyzing it to determine how we can most effectively take action and find compelling stories to capture the attention of our target audience.  Or we can understand it from their own perspective.  By this I don’t mean that we sympathize with the people caught up in conflict beyond their control.  I mean that instead of looking in from the outside, we can understand it the way they understand it, and see the value in how they choose to lead their communities and fight their own fight.

I’m not saying this last way is easy.  It’s probably impossible for any of us to really get there.  I understood this mentally, but I couldn’t really wrap my head around it emotionally until I went on this trip.  Several of the groups of Burmese pro-democracy activists we met with told us that a major problem with mobilizing resistance is that there is no culture of human rights or democracy in Burma.  This means that ordinary Burmese people don’t necessarily have an intellectual context that legitimizes their complaints against the military regime– to quote a member of Generation Wave, a hip-hop and graffiti art resistance group, the people of Burma “don’t know that they’re right.”  But just like the people in Burma must learn to conceptualize things that to us seem to be based in basic moral principles, we have to try, from such a great difference and with so much silence between us, to understand the terms in which they view their own lives.

Let’s start with the term “victim.”  It suggests powerlessness – a prisoner or a refugee, someone who has suffered who has no escape, someone with no control over the course of their lives as they are caught up in the conflict surrounding them.  Let’s back up and see who these people really are.  Some are men and women who have risked and sometimes chosen imprisonment, torture, and death to fight for their freedom, many of whom are suffering the consequences.  Some are mothers and fathers who took the initiative to leave their homes and communities to protect their families from harm.  Some are impoverished but would rather live on a dump than move to a refugee camp because in the camps they won’t have the chance to earn a living.  Some are monks who are using their roles as community leaders to provide services for migrants and promote democracy from outside Burma.

These people all make choices, and as actors in the resistance movement they will continue to make the most necessary choices that will determine their future and the future of their country.  Every person in a refugee camp has an individual story, and wants his or her own chance to earn a livelihood and strive for a secure and happy life.  Most of all, the people we spoke to wanted to return home, though in some cases they will never be able to.  Despite all of its problems, it is still their homeland.

I don’t mean to say that after nine days I completely understand what it means to be Burmese and that makes me qualified to dictate what needs to be done.  Of course not – it would take a lifetime to truly understand, and even then it’s not for us to determine the solution to Burma’s problems.  That’s the responsibility of the Burmese.  But if we try to understand the conflict from their perspective, we can understand how best to help them as they take on that responsibility, and that makes us better and more effective activists in the end.

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