The world’s woes are never far from Seattle. They arrive in human waves, fleeing war, repression, and ethnic cleansing in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Bhutan, and, above all, Burma – the source, in recent years, of the largest shares of refugees coming to both the United States and the Seattle area. Those refugees are nearly invisible in the city itself, however. They do not settle in the pricey neighborhoods where many of us tend to live, nor in the South Seattle districts where previous waves of Southeast Asian and East African refugees settled. They wash up in the even cheaper anonymous beige apartment complexes of cities to the south – Tukwila, whose school district The New York Times declared the most diverse in the United States, and Seatac, Burien, Renton, Federal Way, and, especially, Kent – Seattle’s new Global Belt.
It was there I went a week-and-a-half ago seeking a different perspective on the events that have put a once-hermitic land on the front pages in recent months. In the past two years Burma (or Myanmar, as its military regime renamed it in 1989) has made more progress toward democracy and reconciliation than in all the years since 1962, when the army seized power and undertook what may be the wackiest and saddest program of willful impoverishment and immiseration this side of North Korea.
It all started last year when the junta ceded formal power to a civilian government, albeit one headed by a handpicked ex-general under a constitution passed in a rigged referendum that consigned most parliamentary seats to the military. Thein Sein, new president, then moved swiftly, loosening the chokehold on media and public gatherings, founding a human rights commission releasing hundreds of political prisoners (while still holding hundreds more), and, most important, releasing the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Daw Suu Kyi’s party won the last national election, in 1990, by a landslide, but the regime then abrogated it. She’s spent most of the years since under house arrest, an icon of quiet strength and nonviolent resistance. She and her party then consented to contest a handful of parliamentary seats put up for vote last month – the first free elections since 1990 – and won overwhelmingly again.
Never did a backwater by-election stir such cheers worldwide. Britain suspended sanctions entirely, and the European Union followed last week.The United States has re-established diplomatic relations, lifted many of its sanctions, and sent Hillary Clinton to Yangon, the first secretary of state to visit the country.
But the winds of change have yet to reach Burma’s mountainous backlands and borderlands, home to a kaleidoscope of peoples – well over 100 recognized groups with their own languages or dialects, many lumped into eight recognized “ethnic races” with their own official states. One or another, often more, of those groups have been battling the central government for decades – in one case, the Karens, since independence in 1948: the world’s longest running civil war. They’ve demanded the autonomy they thought they were promised under the federal “Union of Burma,” as the country was originally charted, their share of the timber, mineral, and hydrological wealth on their lands, and, in many cases, freedom from religious persecution. In recent decades they’ve fought to fend off increasingly harsh repression and reprisals, from forced labor and the burning of their villages to rape and execution.
One by one, however, the Myanmar army, one of the world’s largest, has won or wrung ceasefires from them, including even the diehard Karen National Union. President Thein Sein proclaimed that he wanted to reset relations with the minorities and help their youth wield “laptops instead of guns.”
But then, last June, war broke out in Burma’s northern Kachin State, along its porous border with China. The army had broken a 16-year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army, the second-largest and oldest minority force after the Karens. The fighting has since turned savage, with reports of rape, torture, and 75,000 civilians driven from their villages, many across the Chinese border. China, the Myanmar government’s main investor, patron, and arms supplier, stood watchfully by.
There are more than a million Kachins in Burma, but they’re a tiny share of this area’s immigrant population – perhaps 50 adults, plus their children. Seattle is not a prime destination for them, despite its well-developed refugee services; many have moved on from here to their people’s new American heartlands, in Texas and, especially, Omaha, where they hold their national festival each year. The living’s cheaper there and jobs are easier to find in the food processing plants. But Shawng La isn’t interested in going to the dusty flatlands. He says he stays here because the Northwest reminds him of his homeland’s rains, lush forests (teak and other hardwoods instead of cedar and fir), and snow-capped mountains, the last burst of the Himalayas.
I met Shawng La and three of his friends – Lashi Branglar, Lahtaw (he uses just the single name), and Robert Changkhum – in a second-floor walk-up in one of the many motel-style, ’60s-to-’80-vintage apartment complexes on Kent’s East Hill that have made that town a magnet for refugees seeking cheap housing and a toehold in their new American home. I'd reached them through a Burma-born caseworker with many contacts in the various groups. In recent years Burma has been the leading source of refugees coming to the United States and to the Seattle area. But they are relatively invisible here, perhaps because they are so ethnically diverse and because they come from rural cultures and start few restaurants – the most visible signs of immigrant groups. Search for “Burmese restaurants Seattle” and you’ll find Yelp reviews of one in San Francisco and Thai, Vietnamese, and “Asian fusion” eateries here.
Shawng La and his friends are in the prime of life, 29 to 37 years old. They’ve been in the United States, and Kent, one to three years. Under the circumstances their command of English is impressive, but they still labor to express themselves, especially about subjects as complex and nuanced as their homeland’s politics.
Shawng La was the first to come here, in September 2009. He first found janitorial work at Sea-Tac Airport, sometimes sleeping there between shifts. Afterward he worked construction, then went to vocational school, learning furniture-making. “Now I stay home with the children, because my wife has job.” But she is pregnant, and soon it will be time for her to stay home and him to seek work again.
Changkum is a mechanic at an ice-maker manufacturer in Seattle. Lahtaw preps car bodies for painting. Branglar, a truckdriver in Burma, works as a machine operator. “I’m lucky,” he said. “Thanks to World Relief Agency I have a job.” He says he makes just $1,400 a month. He and his wife share a studio apartment. “When we have baby, we will have to get one bedroom.”
We met in Lahtaw’s somewhat larger, simply furnished apartment. A gospel verse, Luke 11:23, adorned one wall, hand-written in the curlicued Burmese script – an alphabet without sharp corners, supposedly designed for inscribing sutras on pattra palm leaves without tearing them. About half the Kachins in Burma are Christians, as are most of those (and the member of the other minorities) coming to this country. From the early 19th century on, American Baptist missionaries brought bibles and literacy to Burma’s so-called “hill tribes”: “My grandfather told me before the missionaries came Kachin people were like Amazon people,” said Shawng La. They were famously fierce and able jungle fighters, terrifying the Japanese when they aided the British and Americans during World War II.
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