Burma Revisited: An Interview
Hideyuki Takano, the author of the recently published "The Shore Beyond Good and Evil: A Report from Inside Burma's Opium Kingdom" ("remarkable" The Japan Times, "highly recommended" The Daily Yomiuri, "riveting" I-S Magazine), has recently returned from his latest trip to Burma's remote and unstable northern region gathering material for his next book. In this interview, Takano describes a grueling two-month jungle journey, talks about his motivation as a writer and gives his views on what the future holds for this troubled country.
Why are you interested in Burma, and more specifically the northern
This time I visited the Kachin State, escorted by fighters from the main rebel group, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The situation there is very different from the one in the Wa State, although guerrilla groups in both states are currently observing cease-fires with the Burmese military. The Kachin State is home to a more "classic" insurgency. The KIA controls most rural areas, while Burmese government forces are in control of the main cities and transport routes. There were no Burmese troops or civilians when I visited the Wa State, so the presence of Burmese military and civilian security forces this time meant that my trip had to be a more clandestine one.
The Kachin people, especially in Mitkyima, the largest urban center in the region, know what is happening in the outside world, whereas the Wa people knew little beyond the existence of Burmese, Chinese and the other ethnic groups living close by. Also, most of the Kachin people speak Burmese as well as their native languages, which gives them access to many other sources of information about the outside world.
"The Shore Beyond Good and Evil" was the culmination of years of preparation and its focus was on bringing the reality of life in a typical opium-producing village to readers. For my next book I intend to produce an engaging and entertaining look at life in this part of the world combining a journey through the Kachin region with my previous experiences. Rather than simply writing for those already seriously interested in the Burma situation, I believe this approach will make my work accessible to more people.
In Japan and China, the ancient Silk Road has been a source of fascination for generations. This was the trade route that helped mold today's Asia ethnically, economically and spiritually. When people think of the Silk Road, they usually think of the northern route through China, Afghanistan and Central Asia. However, a lesser-known route ran to the south, which researchers have discovered was both older than and just as important as its northern cousin. I planned to follow this southern Silk Road, and its route took me through the jungle and villages of Kachin State.
Preparations were a little easier this time as my old friend Seng Suk, one of the leading figures in the Shan independence movement, helped set things up. The Kachin leaders agreed to allow a writer into the region, though they were concerned that the Burmese authorities should not know of the arrangement.
I was treated very much as a VIP, which was somewhat restrictive. The fighters escorting me were unfamiliar with taking responsibility for outsiders and they were understandably tense, often shy and overly protective. Nonetheless, the Kachin leaders were very pleased that a foreign writer was willing to visit and write about their situation, the first visit by such a person in 15 years.
I got very excited when I heard the news on my short wave radio during my trip, but the reaction of the Kachin fighters accompanying me was decidedly cooler. They have been subdued and numbed by a past littered with broken promises, betrayal, disappointment and brutality. Some of the officers were interested in the development, as they understood that they must rely on her in the future; however, Aung San Suu Kyi is Burmese and they neither like nor trust her.
Things didn't go as planned on this trip either. The first obstacle presented itself on my arrival. Due to the sensitive nature of my journey, the fragile cease-fire in place and Burmese military checkpoints on many of the roads, the car I had been promised for my month-long journey to the Indian border failed to materialize. Instead, I found myself embarking on a two-month slog through the jungle for which I had not prepared.
If that wasn't challenging enough, the rainy season decided to arrive two months early, which in one of the highest rainfall areas in the world is nothing to take lightly. On an average day I was removing upward of 150 leeches from all parts of my body. When we stopped for food, I would eat with my right hand and simultaneously remove the bloodsuckers with my left.
Health concerns seemed to be one of the defining features of the trip, and at one stage my entire upper body was racked with cramps and convulsions so violent I couldn't breathe. As this mysterious affliction continued into a second day, my KIA companions found a local healer, who cured me within the hour with a special massage and a herbal drink. His diagnosis bad air had penetrated my muscles.
I think that the hardships of the journey speak for themselves. By the time I reached the Indian border my physical condition had deteriorated to the point that a two-month return journey through the jungle and exit through China had ceased to be an option. I was basically forced to take my chances on crossing the closed border and entering India illegally. However, the Indian government is extremely sensitive about illegal border crossings given the heightened tensions with Pakistan, the upheavals and Maoist insurgency in Nepal and the separatist activities of the ethnic guerrillas in Nagaland, the area into which I crossed. With the help of the Naga fighters, I pretended to be a Naga student, and I was able to move around in India without too much trouble.
On arrival in Calcutta (Kolkata) I presented myself to the Japanese consulate and was duly informed that I was facing a possible five-year jail sentence for illegal entry. If the Indian authorities had discovered that Naga separatists had assisted me, it could have been a very unpleasant stay rather than deportation.
During my trip this time, I observed much less overt repression by the Burmese authorities, although forced labor and the suppression of local languages was still widespread, according to local people. It seems that the Burmese government is becoming smarter: mass arrests, beatings and extortion have gradually been replaced by exploitative 'official taxes' in recent years. This change has in great part been brought about by international pressure.
I believe that Burma will eventually democratize, but I can't say exactly when. It may take three, five, ten years or more. The democratization process, though, is only a step towards "normality" and the country could easily go down the road of fragmentation and conflict that the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union experienced. Most of the interested parties are looking toward a federation of some kind with guaranteed regional autonomy. Others are fighting for full independence, notably the Shan, Wa, Karen and Kachin peoples. Any solution that is hammered out will be unable to satisfy everyone in the country and with so many armed groups and vested interests fostering instability in the region, the situation is as volatile and dangerous as ever.
The greatest fear among the ethnic groups fighting for survival is that their plight will be forgotten by the outside world. My message is simple: if you are planning to visit the country, listen to the local people there, come to know the whole country and its rich ethnic diversity and on your return home, tell people of your experiences. If you are a politician, take political action. If you are a writer, write. If you belong to a humanitarian organization or other NGO, become active on these peoples' behalf. If you are none of the above, simply talk to everyone you know make it an issue. Don't let them be forgotten!