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Burmese Days

A summer among soldiers and refugees forever altered Kellen G. Ressmeyer

Published in 2021 New York Metro Super Lawyers Magazine

It started as an accident. I was 22, graduating from law school, and I had a federal clerkship, which meant I didn’t immediately need to be thinking about private practice. I saw [the summer of 2007] as basically the last time I was going to have three months off without any concerns for the foreseeable future.

I was walking out of the career services office and bumped into someone—she had been one of the practice judges in a Philip C. Jessup moot court competition I had been in—and she asked me what I had planned for the summer. I said, “Well, I think I might go study Arabic at the American University in Egypt.” She said, “Do you speak Arabic?” No. “Do you know anyone in Egypt?” No. “Why don’t you come to Burma with me?” 

She is Karen [pronounced kah-REN], the largest ethnic minority in Burma. Her older brother was part of the student uprising of 1988 and her husband was an officer in the Karen National Liberation Army. She explained they were in need of people with legal backgrounds to teach international law in Burma. The war between the ethnic minorities and the government in Burma is the world’s longest-running civil war, and because of that, there are few formal educational opportunities—the villages in the liberated zones are under constant threat of a militarized attack by the government.  

As I got to know the situation more, I did have moments like, “What have I gotten myself into?” I just was shocked because this has been going on for so long and the situation was so extreme. I mean, I read the news. But I was not aware of what was going on there until I had a reason to look into it.

We flew into Bangkok and took a bus eight hours north, still in Thailand, where we stayed. The first week I spent in one refugee camp, and the second week in a different refugee camp. I taught a one- or two-day seminar on international law through a translator. I think my Asian background—I am a Korean-born adoptee of a career soldier and a registered nurse—did allow me to move more freely in and out of the camps than I might otherwise have been able to. 

Then I went into Burma. It took about three hours. There was a high-level meeting of the ethnic armed group leaders, while I spent the day hanging out with the soldiers, cooking and playing games like soccer. After that, we went down south. I spent 10 days there and did another international law workshop. These are people who feel forgotten and unseen, and that’s probably because they are. There are millions of refugees and displaced persons, and there is what I believe to be active genocide going on. And so even though I was a 22-year-old who had done nothing, I wanted them to feel like there was somebody who was seeing them.

In Burma, if you’re in an area that’s pretty protected, you probably have more permanent-type housing—wooden houses and hardwood floors. In areas where there has been recent activity from the government, they are more or less just bamboo. The roofs are leaves. The area that I stayed for the longest when I went very deep had been attacked by [the government]. You could see the bullet holes in the wall. 

To this day, I don’t know what happened, but I think I might have gotten bitten by a black widow spider or I got an infection. It started out with a little bump and then it just got bigger and bigger and my arm probably swelled up about two times its normal size. Nobody could treat it because nobody knew what it was. And then the top [of the skin] came off. It was all sloughing off. I called my stepfather, who is a doctor, and I explained that I’m losing my arm. An international law professor, who was my faculty sponsor for the trip, was coming in to Burma, and he picked up my prescription for ciprofloxacin, which took care of it, and without which I don’t really know what would have happened. Thank God for modern science.

I went back up north, about two days on foot. We were going deep into Karen State to visit with more people, particularly the internally displaced persons, and to continue teaching our informal law classes. After another day’s walk, there was a larger and more formal presentation led by my faculty adviser, David Williams. He could not travel as freely because he is blond-haired, blue-eyed and very tall. He stayed for about a week and gave a full, formal eight-hours-a-day-with-translation workshop on constitutional law. People came from all over. There were people who walked 100 miles to hear it and ask questions.

After that, we all walked out, back into Thailand, and met in Chiang Mai with David Hamilton, now the Seventh Circuit judge, for the State Constitutional Drafting Conference of 2007. It was held at a hotel, they had a huge conference space, and there were at least 100 attendees. From a 22-year-old recent graduate’s perspective, it was awesome to be sitting on a panel with David Williams, who is this all-star professor, and Judge Hamilton, who was then a district judge for the Southern District of Indiana. We met separately with each of the leaders of the armed organizations or their political counterparts.

There’s a week when you return to the U.S. and everything is fascinating. Soap is fascinating. Water coming out of the faucet is fascinating. A hot shower is initially uncomfortable and then just amazing.

I’ve now been back to Burma 10 or 15 times. The general goal [for the Karen minority] is a federalized union, where they have certain rights that are exclusive to their state. And in 2014, the government did an about-face. They were like, “We’re going to hold these fair elections. We’re going to bring Aung San Suu Kyi out of house arrest.” They had the elections. Aung San Suu Kyi got a position politically. And for five or six years, there was this fig leaf of a peace process that has appeased the world, when in fact war crimes were still going on. 

A few months ago, I read that [Aung] had been imprisoned and they imprisoned everyone around her, and now they are openly doing air strikes in my area, which has historically been the safest area in Karen State. They are openly carpet-bombing it. My friends have been underground for weeks. They’re trying to get IDPs into Thailand and they’re trying to get refugees to where they need to be. 

The Karen people have been on the brink of extinction for more than 25 years. They have persevered nonetheless. One of the reasons strategic dictatorships take out anyone who has a demonstrated ability to think is because they want to wipe out people’s ability to hope. The more you know, the more you read, the more that you have artistic and diverse ideas, then you can think and you can have hope. And so they just try to suffocate that. They have not been able to do that with the Karen people.

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