Wednesday, 26 May 2010

A History of Betrayal

I did my best while researching The Infiltrator to visit key locales in Chicago, New York, Paris, London, Colchester and Dublin. This led to a strange discovery when I was in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan, New York.

I was curious to take a look at the building at 161 West 4th Street where defectors from the Irish independence movement secretly went to the British government to become paid informers in North America.

The narrow brick townhouse that housed the office of British consul Edward Mortimer Archibald in the 1860s sits in what today is a fairly trendy address, although there's now a sex shop next door.

It's the same address where, almost 50 years ago, a young Bob Dylan lived, before he became famous. Dylan was describing his experiences in this neighbourhood in 1965 when he recorded "Positively 4th Street."

The theme of the song? Betrayal.

The song is about false friends in the artistic community, but Dylan could have been writing about the independence movement, when he wrote:

"You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that's winning."

Peter Edwards, author of The Infiltrator: Henri Le Caron, the British spy inside the Fenian movement

Friday, 21 May 2010

Along the Thai-Burma border there is no justice; there is only money, the military and the oppressed.

For years now I have watched as the Karen civilians of Burma suffer at the hands of that country’s military regime. The Karen people, a Burmese ethnic minority, consist of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. These are people who are just trying to make a go of it, like you and I, and want only to be able to raise their families well.

Conservative estimates put the number of the Karen people in Burma at over seven million. In Karen State they are forced to run for their lives on a daily basis. They often find themselves just over the border in Thailand, homeless and removed from their gardens where they grow their food.

There is little doubt the Burmese military junta wants to eliminate the Karen bloodline, and it is grinding away at it on many fronts. As a Burma Army commander once commented before going into battle, ‘If you want to see the Karen in the future, you’ll have to go to a museum.’

Many of the people who call Karen State home are now displaced, and as you read this, they are looking for somewhere safe to begin building new shelters. Their houses go up fast, particularly if it’s raining, and grow bigger depending on how long they are allowed to stay in one place.

But their homes, their schools, their churches and their poorly-stocked medical clinics all come down quicker than they can ever be built. Burma Army units, or militia troops allied to it, regularly torch whole communities in just minutes.

For all of the talk and endless sparring at international forums, and despite the international community’s collective wringing of hands, the Burmese conflict is not a complicated one and is not the seemingly intractable situation it is made out to be. The country’s ethnic minorities are not savages intent on tearing each other apart should the military regime fall.

Civil war is not the only option.

The military junta holds all the power and oppresses the ethnically-diverse masses, plundering the country’s natural resources and keeping the profits for itself. The junta looks on the people as nothing more than a free labour force born to serve the Burmese master race. It is a feudal system rooted in racism and the generals lord over it. They become filthy rich as the people are forced to push their carts along dusty roads trying to eke out a living.

Education and religions other than Buddhism are viewed as unwanted outside influences and are considered threats to the status quo. Those who dare to challenge the junta are considered enemies of the state. Even the monks, supposedly revered by the generals, are thrown in jail if they step out of line.

In neighbouring Thailand the government builds schools – in Burma the ‘government’ orders schools burned down. In Thailand the Karen language is taught in Karen village schools – in Burma using the language is illegal.

Yet the majority of the Karen people live in Burma. The generals, who have had the run of the country since General Ne Win led a coup in 1962 that toppled the civilian government, insist their army employs a scorched-earth policy against the entire Karen population. They burn the staple food, rice, in the paddies and sow them with landmines instead. Thousands of people in parts of the country are starving and, in recent weeks, have run out of water at the end of a long dry season.

And yet to the outside world, the economic reports which are presented suggest Burma is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In reality, however, the junta has taken South East Asia’s most promising economy and ruined it. Burma is now officially one of the world’s least-developed countries. The world has watched as it regressed from being the world’s largest exporter of rice before military rule in 1962, to a country crippled by decrepit infrastructure and a lawless financial system charted by whim and fancy.

In spite of all this, the privileged world has not lifted a finger to help the stricken country.

The West might bay about China’s growing Burmese investments and influence, but for decades China has been the only country of consequence that has engaged with the pariah state. The rest of the world appears to have stuck its head in the sand. Throughout the decades of indecision and apathy that have dogged Burma, the Karen people have lived their entire lives at war - generations have come and gone.
Now their children are forced to fight on.

No matter how long you study the war here you will ultimately remain an outsider, but sometimes that can be an advantage. In journalism you are often considered an ‘insider’ among the people you travel with, and struggle to maintain your outside perspective, that most noble and reasoned of detachments. But there is no way to argue that what is happening in Burma today is for the best. So you report what is happening, atrocity after atrocity, attack after attack, and hope someone who can make a difference might read your story.

Daniel Pedersen, author of Secret Genocide: The Karen of Burma

Friday, 14 May 2010

Digging into a spy's life

I was more than a year into the research for The Infiltrator, the story of Victorian superspy Henri Le Caron, when I made the bizarre discovery that my central character was, among other things, a body snatcher.

He was also a rather cocky one, once digging up the remains of Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of an American president and father of a future president.

It was also a jolt for me to learn how widespread robbing graves was just less than two centuries ago, and how complicit mainstream authorities were in the practice. Medical schools badly needed bodies for training students, and some students made money as "sack-em-up men," emptying graves at night to provide schools with a steady supply of cadavers.

I enjoyed reading in The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce that a grave was "A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student." Bierce's more serious writing also provided me with excellent descriptions of life for soldiers in the American Civil War, in the operations in which Le Caron was a participant.

As I detoured in my research into a study of bodysnatching, I was surprised to learn that graves have been robbed far longer than they have been respected. On the headstone for William Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon are the words:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones
And curst be he that moves my bones."

Peter Edwards, author of The Infiltrator