May 2010

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma's Never-Ending War by Mac McClelland

In 2006 Mac McClelland did a very unusual thing and traveled to Thailand as a six-week volunteer with “Burma Action.” The group (which is actually not named Burma Action; she changed it to protect the members), helps the Karen people, an ethnic minority in Burma who have been suffering in refugee camps and other types of hell ever since a military coup rocked the country in 1962. The Karen are stuck between Burma, which would like them all to disappear (after working them half to death), and the Thais, who make it nearly impossible to cross the border and live in Thailand. It is hard to be Burmese in this world, and the Karen have it much, much worse. McClelland, who lived in Southeast Asia before, decided to go and help. She thus found herself in a house more akin to a college fraternity than anything else, ultimately teaching English as a Second Language classes (for which she had no experience) and everything she knew about the Internet. The book she wrote from this experience, For Us Surrender is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma's Never-Ending War, is an in-your-face look at Burmese history as well as modern life for refugees in Thailand. It’s a book where the author is as likely to write that the Burmese government sucks as she is to discuss the relative hunkiness of her housemates. In other words, it is deeply personal, opinionated and utterly compelling.

If Surrender was only about McClelland’s experiences, it would have been mildly diverting in a “western woman finds herself eating odd food, getting drunk with the locals, and deeply touched by relationships with those in a grim situation” sort of way. We’ve all seen those in the travel section and learned that always -- always -- they are more about the author’s shining moments of self-realization then the actual place she is visiting, or the people she meets. McClelland knows these books, and while certainly detailing more than a few odd or uncomfortable moments with toilets, meals and various forms of transportation, she easily sets a tone that mocks the earnest young traveler motif. Yeah, it wasn’t downtown Seattle, but what do you expect? You’re in freaking Thailand, staying with a bunch of desperate refugees (actually wannabe refugees, because Thailand refuses to recognize, and thus protect them, as such) so of course it’s not like home. McClelland gives readers enough of her experiences to keep the Western sensibility clear to readers, but she juxtaposes this aspect of the story with a riveting chronology of Burmese history that encompasses Western involvement dating back more than a century. (Basically, it is Britain’s fault. Again. Damn them.)  

What impressed me most while reading Surrender is that while it is not a complete history, it is still a very determined one. McClelland does not hide her own sympathies (she is living and working with the Karen, after all) but they do not prevent her from laying on the line who did what to whom, who changed sides, and who has been far too willing to remove themselves from political concerns and ignore the agony in front of them. She writes with an immense amount of passion, and no small degree of outrage, which will likely diminish the book’s significance for those who prefer their analysis from a distance -- but I found it to be far more engaging then most historical titles. I was also quite dazzled by her research, which she details in an highly readable and forthright afterword. This is a serious book about a significant subject, written in a bold, shrewd style that works. Readers will learn how the current political situation came to pass, why the country has been able to hold itself apart so effectively from world opinion (to the point of even denying humanitarian access to flooded areas after the 2004 tsunami), and just what it is like for people whose government denies them citizenship while their neighbor denies them immigration. Consider what it is like for just one of McClelland’s housemates: 

He couldn’t get a job in Burma, because he wasn’t qualified to do anything and they were few. He couldn’t continue his education in Burma even if the government didn’t regularly shut the universities down, because he didn’t have any money, just like he didn’t have any identification papers, or money to bribe his way into some. He could, of course, have resigned himself to sitting in a six-foot square of hut floor area -- the space each camp refugee is allotted per international humanitarian recommendations -- literally all day, forbidden to leave camp or work, waiting for his monthly or semimonthly rations like a paycheck, maybe get married have some babies so they could do nothing, too. Given his options, and his anger over his father’s death, well, that would be when taking up arms as an insurgent became the clear path.

The whole situation does suck, and at least McClelland is willing to say it. She leaves her readers thoroughly educated on Burmese history and infuriated by the plight of the Karen people. It’s not the only book written on Burma you should read, nor does it claim to be. It is simply the one that makes you want to holler, and sometimes, those are the ones that matter most. Mac McClelland has done something good with this book, and she deserves credit for that -- and for not being afraid to say exactly what she thought of just how unfair this part of the world can be.  

For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: A Story from Burma's Never-Ending War by Mac McClelland
Soft Skull
ISBN: 1593762658
304 Pages