Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

I was once a pacifist.

When I was in high school I seriously considered becoming a Quaker or Mennonite because I read that those Christian denominations have a history and tradition of pacifism. One small glitch was that there weren’t too many Quakers or Mennonites in San Angelo (West Texas) to encourage me in my (pacifist) pilgrimage.

When I became an adult, I put away childish things, and yes, I realize how patronizing that statement sounds. I know that Christian pacifism, practiced as a life decision and a way of life, would be incredibly challenging and difficult. And war is certainly not the final answer to much of anything. But in this world I believe that self-defense and even violence are sometimes necessary evils.

All that introduction is to say that Mitali Perkins’ new book, Bamboo People, made me think again about these issues, and I love books that make me think. Bamboo People is set in modern-day Burma where the Burmese government is carrying on a vendetta against the tribal peoples of southern Burma, specifically in this novel, the Karen people, or Karenni. (Actually, according to Wikipedia, it’s a little complicated. The Karenni are a subgroup of the Karen or maybe a distinct but related group.)

In 2004, the BBC, citing aid agencies, estimates that up to 200,000 Karen have been driven from their homes during decades of war, with 160,000 more refugees from Burma, mostly Karen, living in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. Reports as recently as February, 2010, state that the Burmese army continues to burn Karen villages, displacing thousands of people.
Many, including some Karen, accuse the military government of Burma of ethnic cleansing. The U.S. State Department has also cited the Burmese government for suppression of religious freedom. This is a source of particular trouble to the Karen, as between thirty and forty percent of them are Christians and thus, among the Burmese, a religious minority. ~Wikipedia

Chiko is a Burmese city boy, educated by his doctor father who is now in prison for using his medical skills to help a leader of the resistance movement. Chiko feels as if he is in prison, too, since he cannot read English books in public or even leave the house for fear of being drafted into the military or imprisoned for some imagined or real infraction of the law.

Tu Reh lives in a Karenni refugee camp just across the Thai border from his ancestral home. The Burmese soldiers burned his village, and now Tu Reh longs for an opportunity to take revenge.

When these two young men meet, Chiko, an unwilling draftee into the Burmese army, and Tu Reh, accompanying his father on a mission of mercy, their decisions will mean life or death, possibly for many people. Is it possible to defend the helpless and also show mercy to one’s enemies? Although it’s not over-emphasized in the book, Tu Reh’s family are obviously Christians, and a lot of the tension in the story has to do with the application of Christian concepts of justice, mercy, hospitality, and healing in a difficult and complex situation. If not pacifism or revenge, then what? How do we balance and make the right decisions?

The key scene in the novel is at the end of chapter three. Tu Reh has become responsible for a wounded Burmese soldier, Chiko. Tu Reh’s father tells him, “I won’t command you, my son. A Karenni man must decide for himself. Leave him for the animals. End his life now. Or carry him to the healer. It’s your choice.” Then a little later in chapter four, Tu Reh’s father tells him, “One decision leads to another, my son. God will show you the way.”

Profound, good stuff.

You can read more about the Christian (mostly Baptist) history and the persecution of the Karen people in this 2004 article from Christianity Today.

And here is the most recent news article I found about the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni. The news is not good.

And you can read more about Karenni refugee resettlement in the U.S. and how you can help here.

6 thoughts on “Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

  1. Thank you for bringing this up. My reading had been bringing the issue and ethics of war to my mind already, and now with the anniversary this month of the Hiroshima bombing, there is a lot of discussion around the Net. I’m grateful for your viewpoint and the book tip.

  2. r


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