Fantastic accidental journalism

This Mother Jones article about human rights in Burma is the best piece of journalism I have read in a while. The writer started teaching English to a group of Burmese refugees in Thailand before even really understanding that they were among a group of Karen refugees who risk their lives to document the massacres and brutality of the Myanmar junta. The story became a book and earned her a promotion from copy editor to “roving human rights reporter” at Mother Jones.

She didn’t seem to go into the project with any preconceptions or perhaps even a plan to write her story. But she ends up with a piece that is gripping and flows beautifully, while being tragic, heartbreaking and, at times, surprisingly funny. She writes in first person and clearly acknowledges that she changed the story through her presence (too many writers pretend otherwise). She is also wonderfully honest and open about her fears, confusion and vulnerability.

Most important, it puts human faces on the underreported travesty of brutal oppression in Burma. Here is her cleverly presented summary of the situation in the country:

“Imagine for a moment, that Texas had managed to secede from the union, and that you live there, in the sovereign Republic of Texas. Imagine that shortly after independence, a cadre of old, paranoid, greedy men who believed in a superior military caste took over your newly autonomous nation in a coup. Your beloved president, who had big dreams of prosperity and Texan unity, whom you believed in, was shot, and now the army runs your country. It has direct or indirect control over all the businesses. It spends 0.3 percent of GDP on health care, and uses your oil and natural gas money to buy weapons that Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea have been happy to provide. It sends your rice and beans to India and China, while your countrymen starve. There is no free press, and gatherings of more than five people are illegal. If you are arrested, a trial, much less legal representation, is not guaranteed. In the event of interrogation, be prepared to crouch like you’re riding a motorbike for hours or be hung from the ceiling and spun around and around and around, or burned with cigarettes, or beaten with a rubber rod. They might put you in a ditch with a dead body for six days, lock you in a room with wild, sharp-beaked birds, or make you stand to your neck in a cesspool full of maggots that climb into your nose and ears and mouth. If you do manage to stay out of the prisons, where activists and dissidents have been rotting for decades, you will be broke and starving. Your children have a 10 percent chance of dying before they reach their fifth birthday, and a 32 percent chance they’ll be devastatingly malnourished if they’re still alive. What’s more, you and 50 million countrymen are trapped inside your 268,000-square-mile Orwellian nightmare with some 350,000 soldiers. They can snatch people—maybe your kid—off the street and make them join the army. They can grab you as you’re going out to buy eggs and make you work construction on a new government building or road—long, hard hours under the grueling sun for days or weeks without pay—during which you’ll have to scavenge for food. You’ll do all this at gunpoint, and any break will be rewarded with a pistol-whipping. Your life is roughly equivalent to a modern-day Burmese person’s.”

Go read the rest of the story, preferably by buying a copy of the non-profit magazine. Great journalism needs financial support.

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