The Karen (pronounced KaRen) people are one of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities composing about seven percent of the population. They are diverse culturally, with religious beliefs ranging from animism, Buddhism, to Christianity (predominantly Baptist). Most live in the Kayin State in southeastern Myanmar near the Thailand border where the geography is mountainous jungle. They have together with other minorities (Shan, Mon, Chin, Rohinga, Kachin) been waging a civil war against the majority Burmans whose military government has tried to wipe them out since the country’s independence in 1948.
Charmaine Craig’s family biographical novel Miss Burma traces the history of her family in the Karen revolution against Aung San and then Ne Win; the former being the assassinated nationalist Burman father of Aung San Suu Ki and the latter the Burman military dictator.
Miss Burma is the child of a Jewish father of Indian origin in the service of the Queen and a Karen mother. Out of love, her father adopts the Karen cause with dire consequences to him and his family. Louisa, the daughter, is of striking beauty, and in the service of her father becomes a beauty queen pawn between the military dictator and their families incarceration. As common in families racked by war, infidelities are common and both Louisa and her mother Khin develop both love and political relationships.
The novel begins with a quote from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which the novel mirrors in the context of Burma.
“Look at the history of Burma. We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren’t colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made peace with the king and we handed him back his province and left our allies to be crucified and sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we’d stay. But we were liberals and we didn’t want a bad conscience.”
As a historical novel it educates the Western reader about a less known conflict, but it is not graphic. Familial relationships tend to predominate, although they have a historical context. It is a decent story, with the prose serving the purpose of story telling.
The Graham Greene quote continues to resonate with me as reinforced by this story and many later historical adventures which have left permanent scars on those who have assisted the greater powers with variable goals.