A mission to Burma 

Edith Mirante returns from a rathole

In 1975, when I first met Edith Mirante, she was a painter, a newly minted Sarah Lawrence graduate come West to California for adventure. She’d been raised in a household of intellectual eccentrics in New Jersey who gave her the confidence to blaze her own trail and the curiosity to follow a naturally adventurous spirit that manifested early. Contrary to art world dictates of the day, which pretty much dismissed any work that wasn’t minimalist abstraction, Mirante painted people and landscapes.

In the early ’80s, Mirante began to seriously engage in exotic travel, trekking to the world’s more remote places—there was a trip across Siberia, and a foray deep into the New Guinea jungle in search of the feared Kamea, a cannibal tribe she’d read about as a child. She finally zeroed in on some of the more remote Asian outposts as a good source of interesting landscapes to paint and unusual characters to hang out with.

It was around then that Mirante traveled to Burma (called Myanmar by the military junta) for the first time. Burma hadn’t seen many western visitors since the end of WWII, and Mirante fell in love with the tribal people populating the hill country there. Her letters described traveling for days through thick, inhospitable jungle to places unvisited by outsiders for decades.

That first visit was the beginning of a two-decades-long (and still going strong) commitment to the Burmese people. The more time Mirante spent in Burma/Myanmar, the more acutely aware she became of the gross violations of human rights being perpetrated on the people by the military government in power. Mirante began documenting the abuses she’d witnessed, interviewing victims of the junta’s brutality and reporting to the outside world through Project Maje, an organization she formed for precisely that purpose. Mirante was one of the first activists to alert the outside world to the fact that something was rotten in Myanmar.

Determined to bear witness, Mirante wrote a book about what she’d seen in Burma. Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure and A Jungle Revolution, published by Grove Press in 1993, documented her own evolution from rock ’n’ roll girl to human rights activist and led the reader through the complexities of the Burmese situation. In the process, she caught the attention and earned the animosity of Myanmar’s military rulers.

Because of her outspokenness on behalf of the Burmese people, she was thrown out of Thailand twice, finally being jailed there. But Mirante has a sense of humor that rarely deserts her and must help her keep her balance—I still have a postcard she sent me from jail in Thailand. It carries nothing more than the main refrain of a wry Warren Zevon song. The postcard read: “send lawyers, guns and money…”

Although Mirante is banned by the SLORC (the Myanmar military junta) government from ever entering Burma again, that doesn’t stop her from continuing to make surreptitious forays to the Burmese border. She simply approaches it from different directions in order to continue to document the government’s crimes. One of these back-door entries took her to Bangladesh, where she found herself caught up in one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century—a typhoon and tsunami that killed 139,000 people.

Mirante’s most recent book, Down the Rat Hole: Adventures Underground on Burma’s Frontiers, begins in 1990 with the author at home in New Jersey, working at a huge New York City-based insurance company as a temp, after she has been declared persona non grata in Thailand and Myanmar. She continues to investigate, document and speak out, widening the scope of her work to include the public shaming of U.S.-based companies like Unocal, which partnered with the junta and used Burmese slave labor to build an oil pipeline through the country.

Mirante knows how to entertain and at the same time educate audiences. She has contributed commentary to BBC World Service, lectured for Amnesty International and Greenpeace, and testified against the military regime in Myanmar/Burma before the United States Congress. And she’s vowed to continue speaking on behalf of the Burmese people until the military government is dismantled.

Edith Mirante reads from Down The Rat Hole: Adventures Underground on Burma’s Frontiers, Wednesday, Sept. 13, at Shakespeare & Co. 7 PM.


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