(Book Review) – There are a growing number of books about the Karen struggle in eastern Burma, but with the exception of The Long Patrol by Mike Tucker this is probably the worst. The book was published by Maverick House in 2011 and sells for US$ 17.25.
The book is full of inaccuracies. They start even before opening the book, stating on the back cover that the Karen are fighting for independence. In fact they haven’t been since 1976, when they adopted a policy to be part of a Federal Burma.
The first line of the book is misleading, saying that in 1949 the Karen first declared to the world that they would defend themselves and their cultural identity. But the Karen had been working to defend their culture and identity for decades, and created their first main organization with this goal as far back as 1881. 1949 is when armed struggle began, not when their struggle began.
Inaccuracies, or information presented in such a sloppy way as to be misleading to the general reader, then follow every few pages for the rest of the book. There are too many to list.
They include easily avoidable mistakes such as getting the names of people wrong, the names of organizations wrong, even using two names for the same organization, and getting general history wrong.
For example, Pedersen quotes the wife of Karen National Union General-Secretary Padoh Mahn Sha (Padoh is spelt with an H, not spelt Pado, as in the book) about his assassination, even though she died from heart disease years before the assassination.
The idea of allowing the Karen to tell their own story through interviews is a good one, but in fact a significant proportion of interviews are with foreigners talking about themselves and why they help the Karen, not with Karen people themselves. There is no questioning of the motives and background of some of those helping the Karen.
Those who are interviewed are quoted verbatim with no challenging questions, balance or context. Their comments and opinions are left as fact, when the slightest amount of fact checking would reveal that those interviewed naturally make the odd mistake, or slant things. The lack of any rigour in checking facts or providing relevant information to inform the reader when people have made mistakes or pushed their own agenda, means the reader will not get an accurate picture of what has, and still is, happening to the Karen. Statements, such as May Oo being expelled from the KNU because older leaders didn’t want young educated people are simply taken at face value. No effort is made to find the real reasons given by the KNU, which are well known.
On other occasions, by the author’s own admission, conversations were with friends, and those taking part were drinking, and drunken boasts are again left as fact, with no effort to ensure accuracy.
An entire chapter is given over to an excerpt from General Saw Bo Mya’s book, Memories on my true past experiences which I wish to disclose. Again no context is given of why Bo Mya wrote the book, that it was partly in response to criticism he faced following the fall of the KNU headquarters at Manerplaw.
The book is generally messy to read, jumping around issue to issue, and through different points in history. It doesn’t flow well. Important issues are often dealt with in a superficial way.
At the end of the book one is left with the impression that the author had a drawer full of old notebooks of interviews that had built up over the past decade, and he decided to throw them together and call it a book. Decade old interviews are used legitimately to provide some historical context, but also lazily to deal with issues that are still relevant, and readers would have been better served by more recent interviews. The failure to engage in anything but the most superficial research undermines the book fatally. You simply can’t trust the information in it.
One positive is that his writing style is engaging and easy to read, which means it didn’t take long to read this book.
Like the first line, the last line of the book is also inaccurate. The author declares that in November 2010, in the days after the Burmese Army attacked Myawaddy in Karen State, “almost all units of the DKBA had sworn to fight alongside the KNLA.” This is a complete fabrication. At this time only Brigade 5 of the DKBA had resisted becoming a Border Guard Force under the control of the Burmese Army. They numbered around 400 soldiers out of more than 4,000.
The pity of it is, Daniel Pedersen is clearly very sympathetic to the Karen struggle and wants this book to help raise awareness about their situation. But by failing on so many levels, this book is likely to do more harm than good.
Mark Farmaner is a director of Burma Campaign UK.