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Book commentary: “Burma Rifles”

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How a war story for teenage boys evokes a fake Myanmar monk’s righteous disregard for human decency



A Myanmar friend recently handed me a tattered paperback copy of Burma Rifles (1960) by American author Frank Bonham, a World War II novel aimed at adolescent boys.

The cover of the book features a comic-book drawing of four grim-faced GIs emerging from the jungle and overrunning an enemy machine gun nest. A dead Japanese soldier is visible in the lower right-hand corner.  

Judging the book by its cover, I was expecting a story about gung-ho John Wayne types defending truth, justice and the American way from hordes of shrieking, subhuman “Jap” invaders.

Instead, the narrative was much more interesting: It delved into the irrational panic, ignorance and racism underlying the US government’s wartime internment of Japanese Americans, including many who were US citizens.

The main character is Jerry Harada, a Nisei (second generation Japanese American) whose California-based family faces harassment from hillbilly American “patriots” in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Eventually, institutionalized xenophobia prevails, and the family is sent to a “relocation camp” to live out the war behind barbed wire and sentry towers.

Jerry soon finds a way out of the camp by joining the US Army to work as an interpreter in an intelligence unit; he ends up being sent to fight in Myanmar’s Kachin State with Merrill’s Marauders, at which point the book takes a turn toward the overtly martial.  

Adolescent target audience aside, the novel should hold some minor attraction for anyone interested in the history of World War II in Myanmar – described, from the perspective of the foreign soldiers, as the “land of pagodas, mud and malaria” – but there is another way in which Burma Rifles resonates with modern-day Myanmar: hysteria over immigration and certain minority populations.

After the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, paranoid stories spread around the United States about Japanese Americans hiding guns under their houses, sending coded signals to enemy submarines and plotting other fifth column activities to help Japan take over the American homeland – tall tales that fomented hatred and provided an excuse to herd Japanese Americans into internment camps.

Seventy years later, when violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2012, similar unfounded rumors were spread by people who had no interest in finding a humanitarian solution to the conflict. Many of these stories were targeted, in particular, at a group of stateless Muslims who have generally been refused access to citizenship in Myanmar – they’re referred to as “Rohingya” by those who view them as a distinct ethnic group and as “Bengalis” by those who prefer to see them through the crude lens of immigration.  

According to one particularly ludicrous but persistent tale, the international nongovernmental organization Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) was secretly supplying guns to Muslims so they could rise up against the Buddhists and take over the country.

Burma Rifles presents a character named Shafer, a bigoted, fear-mongering fascist who incites his fellow hillbillies into a violent, paranoid frenzy, resulting in physical assaults against the Haradas and other Japanese-American families.

While reading these passages, I couldn’t help thinking that Myanmar has been cursed with its own version of Shafer: His name is U Wirathu, a faux-Buddhist monk whose angry, unenlightened rhetoric has, since the first wave of Rakhine State violence in 2012, helped whip up anti-Muslim sentiment among his followers and has certainly contributed to further outbreaks of religious bloodshed around the country.

The Shafer character in Burma Rifles is based on the real-life reaction of bigoted white farmers in California during World War II: Resenting the presence of Asians in their communities, they used the war as an excuse to bay like rabid hounds for the relocation of immigrants from their homes to distant internment camps.

In the future, films will be made and books will be written based on the violent incidents that have occurred recently in Myanmar. In these works there will be “good guys,” among them the real Buddhists who continued to promote peace and loving-kindness in the midst of the anti-Muslim pogroms.

There will also be the Shafer-like “bad guys,” righteous in their disregard for human decency (to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens). They will be modeled after U Wirathu and his followers, and they will be shown, quite accurately, as ugly, pernicious, regrettable blips that sought to impede the country’s progress toward enlightened democracy.