ko ko thett is the co-editor of Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring, a new collection of “witness essays and poems from Burma/Myanmar 1988-2021.”
“Everyone in Paraguay has the same fingerprints. There are crimes but people chosen at random are punished for them. Everyone is liable for everything.”
While I was researching my first novel, I came across a passage in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor that I’ve never quite been able to shake. In it, he describes Haile Selassie’s attempts to modernize Ethiopia in the years immediately preceding the fall of his government. In the more distant and isolated provinces of the empire, there was, according to one of Kapuscinski’s informants, an antique ritual called labasha that took the place of a criminal justice system. It worked this way: a community is confronted with a crime—a theft, for example—and instead of making any attempt to discover who is responsible, the people of the village select a child, usually a boy, and stupefy him with a potent herbal tea. Under the herb’s hallucinogenic effects, the drunken child stumbles about, and eventually, based on signifiers only the boy in his altered state can know—the color of a woman’s dress, a man’s posture, or the geometric pattern of his shirt—he identifies the culprit. No further proof of guilt is necessary. This person, whoever they are, is then punished according to whatever crime they have now been convicted of.
In the case of theft, his or her hands are amputated.
Naturally, this strikes those of modern sensibilities as particularly cruel, as deplorable and essentially unjust. And it is all those things—to punish people at random for crimes they may not have committed certainly offends our notions of right and wrong. We like believe that power is not arbitrary, and indeed, in the best of times, under the best circumstances, it may not be. But as this passage lingered, and eventually insinuated itself into the novel I was writing, I decided it would be a mistake to think of labasha as foreign or strange. If anything, it is simply a corrupt version of something we see all too often: in many ways, in many states, punishment is random. And the more complex and troubled the political situation, the more random it becomes.
At the time I came across labasha, I was well-versed in the routine horrors of a state that had lost control of itself. The novel I was writing dealt specifically with the civil war and its aftermath in Peru, the country where I was born. In response to the violent attacks of the Shining Path, a Maoist insurgency, the Peruvian state launched a campaign of wanton violence upon the poor, indigenous, rural majority—the same people who were most victimized by the Shining Path in the first place. Thousands were imprisoned without trial, or tortured, and of course, thousands more were disappeared, never to be heard from again. In writing the novel, I alternately immersed myself in this shameful history, recoiled from it, and tried above all to understand how a society could sanction this arbitrary implementation of power, and then, at the first convenient opportunity, forget that it had done so.
The refrain one hears most often from certain sectors of a besieged society is that the political reality demands compromise: we shoulder barter away our freedoms in exchange for the promise of security. How many societies have made these bargains? It is hardly exotic. And so: when suspects are selected for questioning and punishment based on outward signifiers—their age, their ethnic group, their country of origin, their religion, their occupation—rather than complicity with any crime, this, too, is labasha.
Growing up in the United States, Peru seemed like a rumor, or a dream, and my family’s periodic trips back home only served to accentuate the strangeness of the place. If the US was solid, Peru was still under construction, a place where rules were more obscure, where power felt no need to mask its essentially arbitrary nature. Bribes occurred in broad daylight. Politicians routinely performed gestures of corruption so baroque one could only marvel at them. The war, as it progressed, only deepened the psychological distance between Peru and the tidy American suburb where I was being raised. The fighting began in 1980, the year we moved to the United States, at a moment when Peru was emerging from more than a decade of military rule, when the re-establishment of democracy was a legitimate cause for optimism, but then the Shining Path launched its violent campaign, and the state went along with this ruinous dance for more than a decade. The bloated rich, in their fear, sought to insulate themselves from the chaos with more money. The craven politicians, ethically rudderless, leaned on their worst instincts to patch the holes in the sinking ship of state. The conflict wore on, and far beyond whatever military victories or reversals may have occurred, or the shifting lines demarcating territory under nominal control of either the state or the insurgency, the two antagonists were most successful when it came to the dirty business of degrading and eventually destroying the concept of justice. Or whatever remained of it. It was invoked too many times to rationalize barbaric acts of violence from either side. Justice—is there any idea more complicated or nebulous?— in war time was stripped of its complexity, whittled down to something simple, crude. It became swift, expedient, aggressive and without nuance. A car bomb, a missing activist, a murdered judge, a blackout. People punished at random for the crime of living. Because it is true: war, in the end, makes everyone liable for everything.
In the last few years, as I have wandered from the United States to Latin America and back again, I’ve seen the ways the two places I call home colliding, becoming more and more like versions of each other. This, perhaps, is what the optimists among us call globalization: Peruvian children with Anglicized names, shopping—or aspiring to shop—as Americans do, exchanging YouTube videos with their peers from cities all over the world. The possibility of instantaneous, unmediated information exchange—peer to peer to peer—is nothing less than breathtaking, and even the most jaded Luddite must recognize that something extraordinary is taking place, something we never before could have predicted.
I’m not able to say, unequivocally, whether this is good or bad. Others have, and others will, and for now, I can only say that I’m both troubled and intrigued by it, that find myself unable to denounce it completely as I am a child of it. And yet, there is one way in which the United States—the country that adopted me as much as I adopted it—now resembles Peru, and I wouldn’t have guess this was coming. A war like the one that marked the 1980s in Peru has come to the United States, and as a consequence, those things that I once thought of as solid have come to seem as obscure, as under construction, as they were in the Peru I recall from my childhood. There are multiple struggles underway now in the psyche of the United States, and the most important of all, I feel, is for the integrity of our justice system. I worry, now more than ever, that the so-called war on terrorism will be the death knell of what was an already beleaguered and flawed arrangement of statutes and punishments and enforcement. Though we may have grand traditions of law and democracy and human rights, without diligent maintenance they are simply dusty old mementos we keep around to make us feel good in difficult times. Totems to another era. And in this one? Make no mistake: there are those out there arguing for—and persuading many—of the necessity and desirability of American labasha.
I left Paros not certain I felt more or less optimistic about the state of the world, or the ability of human beings to be kind or fair to one another. Over the course of the four days there, I heard and discussed various cases of man’s cruelty to man, one and then another withering example of a world full of beleaguered, weary, and dispossessed people. If you’re waiting for justice, it’s like my mother used to say: mejor esperas sentado. Don’t wait standing up. Go ahead and get comfortable, because you’ll be waiting a long, long time. And still, when I recall those discussions on Paros, I find that one emotion was evoked again and again—outrage. With so much injustice in the world, where does all this outrage come from? If we can look back at history, at any stretch of recorded time, and we can find egregious examples of cruelty and callousness, enough so that one might reasonably conclude that this is simply the way the world is. But outrage is, in some ways, related to surprise. Outrage is more than just our ethics being prodded: outrage exists when something defies convention. Ordinary cruelty becomes outrageous at the point at which we are shocked by it—but given that this bloody history is endless and repetitive and cyclical; that heinous crimes are eclipsed by even greater crimes; that a people can have their land taken from them, and then are condemned to wandering for a generation, or two or three; that they themselves took that land from some other people back in the pre-history that no one is ever quite able to forget; that this has been going on forever and will continue for the foreseeable future—given all this, why is it that we are still able to manufacture outrage? Shouldn’t we be used to it all by now? Inured to it? Why are we still moved by these stories, and is there a point after which we will no longer be able to process another sad story?
If there’s any reason for hope, it’s the continued existence of this specific type of anger. This outrage is all we have left. At times, I feel very tired walking through this world, and then something hits me, and I feel it again, like emerging from a dream. Or a nightmare. Yes, these things happen all the time. Yes, they are ordinary, even mundane. Yes, we have lived in societies for thousands of years, and no, there is no real reason to believe in progress. But still, we are able to summon outrage, to say this is wrong, to clench our fists, and weep on behalf of others, and when we lose that, if we lose that, we will have lost everything.
Dear God, if You exist: please don’t let that happen.