At What Cost?
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For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question

Living with the crazy, fearless young men who risk life and limb to document Burma's genocide.

"I don't know them," he said finally.

This conclusion struck me as pretty foregone, since he'd never lived in Burma. "Did you think you would?"

He looked at me, realizing his mistake. "I don't know," he said softly. We made Htan Dah his own profile, and he stayed logged in long after I'd gone to bed.

At dinner the next day, Htan Dah, Htoo Moo, and another refugee, Ta Mla, spent a fair amount of time watching me and muttering to each other in Karen.

"Something on your mind, tiger?" I asked Htan Dah.

"We are talking about your girlfriend," he said.

Yeah, I'd thought that conversation had ended a little too easily. "All right. You can talk about it with me."

"Do you ever have boyfriend?"

"Yes. I've had boyfriends and girlfriends."

This produced a moment of confused silence, which I filled with a lame description of the sexuality continuum, along with an explanation of the somewhat loose sexual mores of modern American gals like myself. Htan Dah responded by telling me that they had heard of gay people, since a visitor to the house had informed them of their existence—last year.

"Last year!" I hollered.

"Yes!" he yelled back. "In Karen culture, we do not have."

"There's never been a gay person in a Karen village in the history of Karen society." All three men shook their heads. "Come on."

"If there was a gay person, they would leave," Htan Dah said. "It is not our culture."

"Let's just say there was a gay person," I said. "Couldn't they stay in the village?"

"No," Htan Dah said. "I would not allow gay people in my village."

"Are you kidding me?!"

Htan Dah held my gaze, though his seemed more uncertain the longer it went on.

"Are you going to make me leave?"

"No! For you, in your culture, it is okay," he said. "You are not Karen. But in our culture, it does not belong." Htoo Moo and Ta Mla were nodding, and I scowled at them.

"You're a refugee," I said. "And it sucks. It's ruining your life. But you would force another villager to become a refugee because they were gay?"

Nobody said no. I turned on Htan Dah; I was maddest at him, and he was probably the only one who could follow my fast, heated English. "If there was peace in Burma and you lived in a village and there was a gay Karen person," I asked again, "you would want to make that person another Karen refugee by making them leave?"

That, or my anger, shut him up. "I am interested in your ideas," he said, evenly, after a minute. "I think it is important to keep an open mind."

I shut up, too, and focused on eating rice for a few awkward moments.

"So," I said eventually. "Do you guys have sex?"

Htoo Moo and Ta Mla shook their heads while Htan Dah said, "Sometimes."

"Ever?" I asked Htoo Moo.

"No," he said.

"Why not?"

"Because, I am not married."

"What about you?" I asked Htan Dah.

"Yes," he said, nodding hard once. "I am married."

"You're married?"

Htan Dah laughed. "Yes! I am married."

"I didn't know that. Where is your wife?"

"She is in camp. With my kid."

"You have a kid?"

Other things I didn't know: that everyone currently in the house—save The Blay and Htan Dah, who were married, apparently—was a virgin. This extended even to kissing. They hailed from the parts of Burma that had been heavily influenced by Christian missionaries, and premarital sex was taboo. Htoo Moo volunteered that he wasn't actively looking for a girlfriend, and that he wouldn't know what do with her even if he found one.

Htan Dah told me I had to show them MySpace again. We crowded around a computer, our cheeks flushed with satiety and humidity and new camaraderie. Htoo Moo interjected burning questions about American life as they came to him.

"Do you eat rice in America?"

"Yes. Usually I eat brown rice."

"Brown rice?"

"It's rice with the hull still on it. Do you know what I'm talking about?"

"No. I don't believe that...Have you ever eat tiger?"

"Eaten tiger. No."

"Have you ever eat...monkey?

"'Have you ever eaten monkey,' you mean. No."

"Are there black lady in America?"

"Ladies. Yes..."

"What language do they speak?" Htan Dah chimed in.

"English."

"Really?"

I gaped at him, disbelieving, but before I could formulate a response, Htoo Moo said, "In America, you have cream to grow hair." He ran his hand over his baby-smooth jawline.

"Yeah. I think that's true. I think it's generally for people who are bald, though."

"Do you have that?"

"Hair-growing cream? Oh, yeah. I use it on my ass."

The sarcasm seemed to translate, since they laughed for minutes.

We made Ta Mla a MySpace profile, and he and Htan Dah started giving the other guys tutorials as they wandered in. My work here was done.

A few days earlier, when I'd asked my students what they did for fun, I'd had to explain the concept of "fun" for about five minutes before anyone could answer me, and then the answers were "Nothing," "Nothing," "Watch TV," and three "Talk"s. By the time I went upstairs, every computer screen was lit, the guys scrolling through the faces of Burma, a window into a world they considered home but where some had never been and probably none would ever live again.

 

HTAN DAH DILIGENTLY kept me company during meals. "You are so slow," he said one morning, watching me chew every bit of rice into oblivion. "Why don't you eat fast?"

"Why should I?" I asked. "I'm not in a hurry."

"But what if you are under attack, or have to run away?"

I scoffed at him. "I'm from Ohio."

"Yes, but I am refugee! We are taught to eat fast."

Be that as it may, we were in peacetime Thailand, so this attack seemed like an incredibly hypothetical scenario, and even though Htan Dah had mentioned something about refugee camps getting burned down on the very first day of class, I'd kind of dismissed it.

So boy did I feel like an asshole when he turned in an essay with this intro the next day:

Having been fallen a sleep at midnight, my parents, sister, aunt and I heard the children's screaming and the voice of the shelling mortars simultaneously came about, and suddenly jumped through the ladder from the top to the bottom of the house to get away from the attacking troops' ammunitions without grabbing any facility.

For a while, Htan Dah's family and all those other asylum-seekers in Thailand were safe, relative to the Karen still in Burma. If they ventured out of the squalid camps, they were subject to harassment and arrest from one of the world's most corrupt police forces, but at least Burmese soldiers were less likely to march into a sovereign country to attack them.

What the Burmese army could do, though, was help a rival Karen faction to do so. They called themselves the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, or DKBA. There had been discontent within the Christian-led KNU for years, complaints of abuses of power, religious discrimination, and grueling jungle-warfare conditions. In 1994, by which point there were 80,000 Karen living in the Thai camps, a government-allied monk persuaded several hundred Buddhist KNU soldiers to defect. The junta was only too happy to support their cause—which included attacking refugee camps filled with Christian Karen.

The huts at Htan Dah's settlement of Huay Kaloke were cloaked in thick, warm Thai darkness as DKBA soldiers moved in on the 7,000 refugees living there in January 1997. Residents generally went to bed early; there was no electricity, and flammable materials cost money nobody had. But Htan Dah's mother sometimes hired herself out as a laborer, plowing fields for about a dollar a day. That was far less than what the legal Thai workers alongside her made, but she needed money to buy nails—her scavenged-bamboo-and-thatch hut wasn't going to hold itself together—and candles, since she wasn't wild about her kids using homemade lamps, essentially tin cans filled with gasoline.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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