Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Living In History: The Coup d'etat in Burma

 There was a coup yesterday. 

I’m not talking about a guy with viking horns taking selfies in front of congress. Coup as in the military going into parliament building, capturing the most prominent politicians, and declaring a new government. Few coups are on film. Saddam Hussein seizing power and few Latin American coups are the exceptions. They are all quite frightening, as exactly as I would expect a coup to be. This coup from yesterday, at least the film of it is not at all what I imagined when I thought coup. She was aerobics class when she accidentally captured this. (link in case embed is not functioning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD8BDCjq6AY)

New meaning to Dance, Dance, Revolution

A girl doing a dance routine to electronic music while a coup takes place is perhaps as emblematic of our times as could possibly be captured on film. A strange pairing of military force and happy everyday life filming an online fitness class. A strange reminder that while we go about playing basketball and watching Netflix, history moves forward around us. We may think Burma is far away and won’t affect us, yet the last military coup in Burma affected me, and millions of others, significantly. Growing up in the 90’s it often felt as if History with a capital H was over. We were wrong. We assumed sometime around the fall of the Berlin Wall everyone collectively decided “Okay, we're done here, wrap it up boys!” There were no more great wars, or communists about to blow up Washington D.C. It was over for us millennials, all we had to do was to play basketball for those who could, or play video games for those who could not. 9/11 was a wake up call for everyone in America. For a quick moment we realized we were not as Post-History as we had thought. But after a month of everyone with an American flag, life returned to normal and we were once again playing basketball if you could, and video games if you could not. There were however several of us that took up writing poetry as we felt we perhaps had something to write about. There were other occasional slaps of history, like when we watched the invasion of Iraq on live TV. But at the same time it felt different than history. Did people during the Revolutionary War or the Battle of Britain, take a break from playing Super Smash Brothers to watch a city get bombed thousands of miles away, before returning to their game? The notion was absurd. Our poetry reflects it. Peace is a beautiful thing which like many beautiful things are not fully appreciated when you have them. We wanted adventure. I went to Thailand where I lived in a refugee camp. I was among people who lived history. I had already met dozens of Karen, an ethnic group from Burma, not a middle-aged American woman in America, before I left for Thailand. They had been relocated from the refugee camps to begin their life anew. I loved learning about their often tragic and often beautiful stories. People who had lost family, who had their lives and villages burned before them, about traveling through the jungle in the dead of night to escape the oncoming forces. Having hunger pains so intense that tree bark seemed as a viable alternative to food.

A picture I took of Mae La refugee camp which I took from behind the school at which I taught

Tragic, but in it there was also beauty, they left their homeland they had fought for and created their own in mountain jungles on the edge of Thailand where they were out of reach of the Burmese forces. There they built churches and had families, and lived their lives. In as beautiful and normal a way as someone who had their lives previously burned to the ground. In December when I was there it didn’t feel a lot like Christmas, there was no snow, there were no Mall windows filled with ideal scenes of London. But large numbers of the Karen are Christian, and I was invited to go to I believe it was a presbyterian church that day in December. You can imagine my surprise to see a full probably 30 or so piece orchestra. I have been to Abravanel hall and seen some of the best orchestras in the world, but none were as beautiful as seeing this group, of people living in literal bamboo huts, yet carefully maintaining their instruments in about the worst circumstances imaginable so that I and those around me deep in the Jungle of Thailand could hear Silent Night that Christmas day. Out of great terror often arises the most sublime beauty.

There were a few beautiful monasteries in the refugee camp. I knew several of the monks, one attended the school I taught at. They were incredibly friendly and generous to share their food with me, despite having almost nothing themselves.

The history that created these unfortunate events fascinated me, perhaps in part because I knew people who had been there, and knew all the key players. And the worst chapter of it all began, in a similar way yesterday, with a military coup. The conflict between the Burmese and the Karen goes back hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years. Its modern form re-spawned in 1949, just a year after Burma gained its independence from Great Britain, which was only a few years after Burma had been liberated by Britain from the Japanese. The Karen wanted their own country, the Burmese didn’t want to give it to them, and the British, had given up caring about that part of the world, with far too many other fish (and chips) to fry. Civil war broke out. It was technically a war, but skirmishes and casualties were few. Burma had other troubles and did not have the military might to do much more than keep the situation at a stand-still. Then 1962 happened. The general Ne-Win rolled into the then capital Rangoon and took over the government from then president Win Maung. I doubt there was a girl doing her aerobics class in front while this happened, but I’m sure, just like today, many thought it was an ordinary day with a strange blip in the news, which surely would not change their lives much. Ne-Win’s reign would mean the building up of the military and the most brutal aspects of the civil war against the Karen. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes as their lives burned behind them.

The border of Burma and Thailand where I crossed illegally into Burma, and likely where many of the tens of thousands of Karen who had fled Burma during the war had crossed as well.

Living in that refugee camp, I met people who knew all the main characters in that story, who were there when Ne-Win crushed the 8888 student uprising in 1988 which was bigger and more deadly than the well-known Tiananmen square protests a year later. It was history, it was exciting, and for them it was just their lives. Humans will get used to anything, and they had. It had become life, and what is more, the war itself had come to a close, well technically it had not, the war is ongoing to this day and remains the longest ongoing civil war in the world. Though at that time we didn’t think it would continue much longer. In 2012 the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) had entered into a cease-fire which had kept a tense, if not complete peace. After 50 years of strict military rule, Burma had returned to democracy, as well as a tentative peace with their neighbor tribes. It appears that democracy lasted 8 years. 

I crossed into Burma to attend a celebration of the KNLA. One of those moments when aesthetically at least it feels as if you are part of history. I only spent a day in "Karen Country" inside Burma, possibly the only time I stayed a night illegally in a country, a night I spent sleeping literally on a pile of straw under the stars.

Sitting among those refugee camps, I felt, as I believe many of those I spoke to felt the war was essentially over. Cease-fire had been signed, and it was only a matter of time before Noble peace prize winner, daughter of former leader of Burma, and current leader of the largest party in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi would make a deal with Karen and peace would return. I think they felt, much as I had in the 90’s that perhaps they were also “Post History.” Yet they were not. 

History, like life follows Kierkegaard’s axiom that it, “can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forward.” Nassim Taleb elaborates on this in his famous book The Black Swan. He lived through the Lebanon civil war and everyone he talked to thought they understood what was going on, yet no one actually did. They all thought they were going to be done with the war in a matter of weeks, just a small blip and they would get back to their lives. It carried on for over a decade. Everyone seemed to understand what was happening, but failed to see how everything they predicted didn’t come true. “History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is a fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what's inside the box, how the mechanisms work.”Taleb writes. 

When we look back at events, we see them fundamentally different than when we are going through them. Nassim says the book that influenced him most was not many of the great history books or philosophical thinkers, but rather Berlin Diary by William Shirer. It is as the subtitle says, “The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934 - 1941.” What it provided was a look at history as it happened, versus what we usually read, History, the narrative of the past. The journal of the moment lacked the big narratives and meaning that we as humans put on a collection of facts, mostly because the author didn’t know the facts going forward. He didn’t know World War II was going to break out, or who Hitler was. 

If we had the ability to ask some bloke in England in 1776 about what was going on, my guess is he might mention the Revolutionary War, but doubt it would be any more prominent in his mind than say the latest fashion trends in London. We don’t know exactly what they would say, but I think it is a safe bet that it wouldn’t match the narrative we have read in our history books. 

Unlike in the 90’s we seem to now feel that as opposed to History being behind us, it is now right before us, that we are on the precipice of something huge. History goes forward, despite the fact that we still are playing basketball for those who can and an increasing many who can’t having diversified our activities from playing video games to playing video games AND watching Netflix. All the world’s a stage, and we are but actors, yet we don’t know our lines, and are confused when our cue is supposed to happen. 

There is little we can do to change the future of history, but we can do our best to make it the best for those we love around us, and pray for those that we cannot help directly, like the people of Burma, who we hope will not suffer nearly the pain, war, and chaos that took place after the last coup that led to countless death, sadness, and destruction.

Regardless of how this play develops, I hope we can find some beauty and comfort, regardless of how crazy and chaotic our world gets. May we be able to have the peace, tranquility and resolve to keep on going, whether it be with our electro-music aerobics, or like this man, of this piano player during some riots in Spain, making beautiful music.  (link in case embed not functioning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4BMp3hnE7Hk)