It was the cooking pot that gave Guy Horton pause. It was upside- down on the ground in the devastated village, and its bottom had been smashed in.
Horton, a university lecturer in English literature, reinvented himself in his forties as a one-man research programme into what the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw as it is known, was doing to the Burmese people.
In 2000 he undertook a four-month journey through the eastern marches of Burma, heartland of the Karen, the Shan and the Karenni ethnic groups. It was hair-raisingly dangerous: the strongholds of the ethnic groups have all been destroyed, their populations forced into the jungle or across the border into Thailand. The soldiers of the Tatmadaw can turn up anywhere at any time and their treatment of those they consider their enemies is brutal. One village survivor recounts how four villagers blamed by the army for aiding insurgents were buried in the earth up to their necks, then soldiers smashed their heads with shovels until they died.
On his first day in the Karen region, Horton himself managed to scramble into a hut just as a party of soldiers approached. He heard them fixing their bayonets outside " 'a terrible noise'. Somehow they passed his hut by.
What Horton was filming and documenting was the bitter outcome of the 50-year war being waged between the modern forces of the Tatmadaw and the rag-tag insurgent armies grouped around the border " an unequal war of attrition which year by year the army of the lowland Burmans, who rule the country through the military junta and who constitute about 60 per cent of the population, was slowly winning.
But that cooking pot made him stop and think. Why destroy a cooking pot, so thoroughly and methodically that it could not be used again? 'Why do something so arbitrary and ludicrous?' he said. He looked around the village of bamboo huts that the army had razed. He saw other mundane implements given the same treatment as the pot: looms and rice pounders smashed, for example. The domestic animals, all slaughtered. On all sides, the things that make village life possible had been rendered useless.
'I thought, these people are not intended to live,' he said. Once the army had departed, the villagers who had fled from them into the jungle might creep back and rebuild their flimsy huts. But what would they eat? If they found something to eat, how would they cook it, lacking pots?
Taking in the scene, the word 'genocide' came to his mind.
As defined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by the United Nations, genocide is any attempt, whether successful or not, 'to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group'.
Horton looked around and asked himself, is this what is happening here? Is the Burmese junta seeking a final solution to the problem of its troublesome minorities?
A rumpled, shambling man of 53, Guy Horton's obsession with Burma came about by accident. He was born in India, in Nainital in the foothills of the Himalayas where his parents were working, and lived there until he was seven. In England, like many born and partly raised in the subcontinent, he always felt something of an outsider. Burma is not India, but there is a lot in common. 'When I first got to Burma,' he said, 'I felt as if I had come home.'
In Oxford in the mid-1990s, where he was lecturing, Burma and its unending tragedy hit him with a special force, for reasons he finds hard to articulate. He proposed to the city that they make Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma's opposition, who has been under house arrest for years, an honorary citizen. Suu Kyi's husband, Michael Aris, an expert in Tibet at Oxford, got in touch to thank him. They found that they had been at school together. 'Michael asked me to become a friend of the family, and I became …