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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #14 (April 1, 2008), page 15 & 16.
Finding common ground
Down the Rat Hole: Adventures Underground on Burma’s Frontiers
By Edith Mirante
Orchid Press, 2005
Paperback, 188 pages, $21.95
By Josephine Bridges
When Edith Mirante writes in the author’s note leading into Down the Rat Hole that an excursion "had all the traits of a good adventure: a train trip, getting lost, breaking the law, and a core sample," she is making an unlikely connection between the MAX Westside Line and Bangladesh, China, India, and Laos — countries that border her beloved Burma. Finding common ground in uncommon places is one of the things the Portland author does best.
The first chapter, "Insurance," serves as a brief, surreal introduction to Burma, though the setting is "a concrete bunker-like edifice in the New Jersey woods." When a seriously misguided FBI agent arrives at Mirante’s workplace to investigate her correspondence with the Czech Embassy — intuiting Castro sympathies — she takes the opportunity to educate her interrogator: "Actually, the democracy movement of Burma is kind of like what happened in Eastern Europe last winter, all these people demonstrating peacefully for freedom, only in Burma in ’88 they got shot for it instead."
"My stay in Cox’s Bazar … was bracketed by the corpses of two children," begins "Vultures Over Chittagong," the author’s account of her visit to Bangladesh during a cyclone that took the lives of at least 139,000 in one night. It was followed by three tornadoes, hailstorms, an earthquake, and two floods, yet "refugees stubbornly continued to cross over from Burma."
"Kachin Warpath" takes readers through Ruili, China, where "seedy-looking stores had signs painted in Chinese, Burmese, and sometimes English — ‘The South Pole Cold Drink Den,’ ‘International Viand Shop.’" It’s a vertical trudge and a horizontal slog all the way to Pajau, Burma. Like her companions in the Kachin Army — "probably Burma’s most effective insurgent army" — Mirante jokes about the leeches, including one which "parachuted out of a tree to fasten itself right to my jugular vein."
"Nobody had heard much about the Burma-related tribes of the Northeast frontier, except that they were embroiled in constant messy political bloodshed." By now it’s no surprise that Manipur, India, long forbidden to foreigners, ranks high on Edith Mirante’s list of must-see places. "Why the hell you want to go there?" asks a sneering flight attendant, a native of Manipur’s capital in "Shooting in the Dark." "Back in the 1930s, women in Manipur had staged a feminist revolt and won the economic empowerment that was still only a dream for most South Asian women," the author points out. And if that’s not reason enough to make your reservations, "like urban Burma, Manipur had a bleak hell-bent teen subculture that still worshipped Ozzy and Black Sabbath."
"The Off Season" recounts a return trip to Pajau, which "looked so cold and forlorn in the winter gray late afternoon. It resembled some Appalachian holler, smoke curling from the stovepipes of the plastic-patched tar-paper roof cabins, some dirt road dirt poor coal miner’s village, those hills inhabited by Asian rebel soldiers. The Kachins were as dogged, as inured to punishment, brave, as any West Virginia miners, any moonshine runners."
"Travel restrictions had recently been eased in Laos, so I thought the time had come to investigate another border of Burma," the author writes in "Salt." Visiting the developing world frequently entails an enormous amount of time spent waiting for transportation, sometimes contrary to the advice of locals who insist that no truck will ever come. Edith Mirante’s optimism pays off twice in Laos, where she describes her arrival on a truck loaded with salt in a village near her destination on the Mekong River: "The villagers were delighted. A truck, a foreigner, and even salt. What wondrous things would appear if you waited by a dirt road in the jungle long enough."
"The View of the Cemetery" is an account of a return trip to Bangladesh, where the author’s hotel room overlooks an unlikely piece of real estate. "I slept, dreaming of being buried alive, although not in a bad way, just temporarily," she writes, then "spent the rest of the day as a sporadic funeral voyeur."
"Now it is November 2004," Edith Mirante confides in the book’s afterword, "and I sit in another café, in another rainy city, and the news from Burma is today, as every day, a strange collection of despair and hope, defeat and defiance."
"In the last couple of years, since Down the Rat Hole was published, the situation in Burma has not gotten any better," the author writes in the spring of 2007 from the Philippines, where she is researching her next book. "Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains incommunicado under house arrest, and thousands of other political prisoners languish in horrendous conditions. What has been termed "agricide" takes place in many regions, with crops confiscated or destroyed and peasant farmers taken away for forced labor. Persecution of ethnic peoples continues and military offensives have destroyed thousands of villages. Meanwhile the regime has built itself a lavish new capital city, and is getting petroleum investment from China and other support from India. America’s own Chevron continues in a joint venture with the junta, having taken over the Unocal pipeline investment. One hopeful note is the rise of a nonviolent movement led by survivors of the 1988 Democracy uprising, with brave and creative attempts to resist the regime, including petitions and days of prayer within Burma itself. Overseas, the U.S. Campaign for Burma (based in Washington, D.C.) is one of many excellent organizations supporting Burma’s struggle for freedom."
Portland and Burma are both fortunate to be able to claim Edith Mirante as their own. Out of respect for this dogged and passionate author, I will end this review as she ends Down the Rat Hole.