Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Burmese Looking Glass

A Human Rights Adventure and a Jungle Revolution

by Edith Mirante

“Edith Mirante is like Edgar Snow reincarnated as a biker chick with a taste for Dewar’s cut with bear’s blood. Burmese Looking Glass is a contribution to the literature of human rights and to the literature of high adventure.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date April 01, 1994
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3570-4
  • Dimensions 6.13" x 9.25"
  • US List Price $12.00

About The Book

The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Burma’s imprisoned opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, focused world attention on a land in chains. Burma, a Southeast Asian nation the size of France, has been isolated by decades of brutal dictatorship. Few outsiders penetrate Burma’s remote mountains, where rebels, opium warlords, and jade smugglers hold sway. Edith Mirante, an American artist, knows Burma’s frontier war zone and has put her life on the line for its endangered people.

Mirante, who has been called “one of the great adventurers of our time,” first crossed illegally from Thailand into Burma in 1983. There she discovered the hidden conflict that has despoiled the country since the close of World War II. She met commandos and refugees and became a “connoisseur of corruption,” learning firsthand the machinations of Golden Triangle narcotics trafficking. Horrified by the damage wrought on the rain forest and its inhabitants, she lobbied successfully against U.S. government donation of Agent Orange chemicals to the dictatorship.

Mirante was the first Westerner to march with the rebels from fabled Three Pagodas Pass to the Andaman Sea; she taught karate to women soldiers, was ritually tattooed by a Shan “spirit doctor,” and was deported from Thailand in 1988. She remains committed to bringing the true story of Burma to the attention of the world.

As captivating as the most thrilling novel, Burmese Looking Glass tells the story of tribal peoples who are ravaged by malaria and weakened by poverty yet are unforgettably brave; their will remains indomitable as they fight for peace and ethnic integrity. With deep passion, dark wit, and an artist’s eye, Mirante reveals the beauty of this mysterious land that is both lyrical dream and unspeakable nightmare.


“Edith Mirante is like Edgar Snow reincarnated as a biker chick with a taste for Dewar’s cut with bear’s blood. Burmese Looking Glass is a contribution to the literature of human rights and to the literature of high adventure.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Burmese Looking Glass] reads like a thriller and serves as an excellent introduction to a little-known conflict.” —Far Eastern Economic Review

“A fascinating, stylishly written book.” —Asiaweek

“A fascinating and moving journey.” —Gerald Posner, author of Case Closed

“If you ever wondered what Marco Polo would do in the 20th century, if you have ever dreamed of cutting the ropes that hold down the balloon of adventure, Edith Mirante’s stories will speak to you. . . . Despite the essential romanticism of her life and her vision, Ms. Mirante for the most part avoids overly romanticizing her subject. Her writing is clear, cool and occasionally poetic. The warts are all intact whether her subject is alcoholic generals, Thai police or expatriate artists. . . . In the end, it is perhaps Ms. Mirante’s acceptance of things foreign that brings them home to Western readers. Who can say that the ritual tattoos she got from a tribal spirit leader did not keep her safe from harm?” —Gayle Reaves, The Dallas Morning News

“An American artist-adventurer has written an absorbing book about her experiences living with Shan and Karen rebels in Burma’s remote mountains, where rebels, opium warlords and jade smugglers hold sway. The author founded Project Maje to publicize Burma’s human rights violations.” —Donald Zagoria, Foreign Affairs

“A hip and lively narrative of human-rights activism in Burma. . . . Her eye for setting a scene and her gift for evoking rebels, brigands, hippies, and sinister security forces pull the reader into a Terry and the Pirates world where those who tread quickly get ‘burnt out by wars, companion fatigue, survivor guilt, hepatitis.’ A dramatic but caring book in which Mirante’s blithe tone doesn’t disguise her earnest concern for the worsening conditions faced by the Burmese hill tribes.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Human rights concerns don’t automatically suggest art and adventure, yet artist Mirante draws sustenance from this heady blend. A week’s tour in the exotic natural and cultural world of Burma captivated her, but she settled for painting in neighboring Thailand, avoiding the political restrictions of dictator Ne Win. She was so close to the border, however, that her curiosity, appreciation of tribal art, and high-risk style drew her into a concern about the attacks and political maneuvers against the hill tribes. Mastery of Asian politics, languages, and self-defense eventually pushed her painting aside, and she assumed the role of liaison between the scattered rebel forces, with access to generals, forbidden territories, and drug traffickers. In one border crossing she marched with rebel troops delivering arms while she collected evidence on illegal use of U.S.-supplied defoliant 2,4-D, maintaining pressure on Washington until the chemical was banned. Danger, however, doesn’t dim her images—of personalities, land, dress, and temples. The artist’s eye remains open, adding another dimension to concern for others.” —Booklist


That night we stayed in an unusual house, two stories enclosed by woven bamboo walls. The other houses in the countryside were built high on stilts with an open space underneath rather than a ground floor. A Shan sayah, a spirit doctor, lived in the two-story house, which was near a stream. The closest village was thirty minutes away, but its Shan residents often traveled to the sayah‘s house for potions, charms, tattoos, and exorcisms. The sayah had a servant who cleaned and cooked, a young Shan boy about fifteen years old, from inside Burma’s Shan State. The boy hopped around on one leg, the other having been amputated just above the knee. He cooked fish caught in the stream with greens gathered in the forest. When he had served dinner to the sayah, Nang Lao, and me, he settled down on a low bench in the corner to eat his own meal.

“This is not good for the boy, this hopping all the time,” Nang Lao commented. “He needs a what-do-you-call-it leg.”

“An artificial leg,” I ventured.

“Yes, that. A new leg that they make in Bangkok. Tatmadaw got him in Burma.” The Tatmadaw was the Burmese government’s army. They were a well-disciplined force, totally indoctrinated for absolute loyalty to the regime. Their abuses of human rights in the war zone were neither random nor sporadic; they were carefully planned elements of Ne Win’s counterinsurgency. Civilian populations were to be systematically terrorized into giving up all support for any insurgent groups. If that meant burning every last ethnic minority village out of Burma’s frontier areas and scorching the remaining earth, well, the Tatmadaw was more than willing to do so. Its tactics were consistent, and much closer to the American frontier edict, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” than to any semblance of winning hearts and minds.

In his youth, Ne Win had been trained by Japanese fascists prior to their invasion of Burma, and his army behaved like the Japanese occupation forces, like packs of samurai gone berserk, demanding absolute obedience with automatic rifles. One of the Tatmadaw’s favorite tactics was to capture ethnic minority villagers like the Shans or hill tribes people and make them carry heavy loads of ammunition and other army supplies through the mountainous war zone.

“What happened to the boy?” I asked.

“Tatmadaw made him their porter-slave. They do it all the time to any man, woman, boy. They take them to carry their heavy things to the fighting. No good. Tatmadaw gives this boy no food them. He drinks some water, but bad water. Many porters are carrying the ammunitions for Tatmadaw. This boy got sick, like the running stomach. He cannot go along. Fell down. Burma soldier kicks him. ‘Get up, lazy Shan.’ Fell down again. ‘Dirty Shan, you don’t want to walk, okay you don’t walk then!’ So the soldiers kick his leg again and again with the army boots until it breaks like a stick, one, two, three places.” The boy was watching us from his bench, quietly pushing morsels of rice and fish into his mouth. “They leave him in the forest like that. Running stomach all over the leg breaks, with the bones showing, too. He is like a dead boy, then. But some hill tribe hunters, they find him, cut off the bad leg, give him their own rice and tea. No doctor is there, nobody knows the Shan language, so they brought the boy here to our sayah.”

I looked over at the boy. He smiled and got up and hopped to a shelf to get the teapot for our after-dinner tea.