Lifting the veil on Burma's military

My first introduction to Burma’s crisis came when I sought refuge at the Jesuits in Bangkok. I was just starting out as a young photographer and had little money. The Jesuits kindly offered me a place to stay and it was there that I befriended Burmese students who had fled the Burma army crackdown of 1988. I remember thinking that, had I been born in Burma, I may well have been among them because we were the same generation. But the reasons for our respective exiles couldn’t have been more different; mine was voluntary – theirs was forced.

All I knew about Burma was that it was ruled by a military dictatorship that crushed all dissent and waged a war against ethnic minorities. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under her first term of house arrest, had just been awarded the Nobel peace prize for her principled stand against the military regime. When I visited the Thai-Burmese border I listened to the impassioned arguments of Western activists. Many believed that, with the right pressure, the regime would collapse and Aung San Suu Kyi would take her rightful position as leader.

For the next 16 years I worked on my own photographic book about Burma’s dictatorship. I spent much time with the victims of the regime but, I wondered, how was it possible that such a reviled regime could hold onto power for so long? The regime had been vilified to such an extent that there was little room for understanding. It was as though they had descended from another planet. But what did we know of the military? The men that made up this monolithic army became the object of my interest.

The Amish writer Gene Knudsen Hoffman once wrote that, “an enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.” Six years ago, I was introduced to Myo Myint on the Thai-Burma border. Myo Myint had grown up in a military family in Rangoon, joined the Tatmadaw (Burma armed forces) at the age of 17 and served as a soldier on the frontline of the civil war. He had been terribly injured in battle and, after his discharge, took it upon himself to challenge received truths of the military. He educated himself about Burma’s history and became politically engaged, paying a heavy price for his activism.

The oppression in central Burma and the civil war were usually reported as separate and unconnected issues. The truth is that the civil war runs central to Burma’s problems. As a former soldier and activist, I realised Myo Myint’s story had the potential to address both the civil war and the quest for democratic and human rights within a single narrative, and from someone who had experienced it first hand. And it was from that meeting that the idea for the film Burma Soldier was born.

There has never been a film that looks at the Burmese army. What makes Burma Soldier unique is that it looks at the crisis from a totally new perspective. With directors Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern and producer Julie LeBrocquy we wanted to make a film that would take the audience on a journey where we actually learn something new, not just about Burma, but about ourselves.

Perpetrators are always them and never us. We wanted to transcend that idea and enable people to reflect on what we might do were we to find ourselves in the place of a Burmese soldier. Can we say, with any certainty, how we would act if we were faced with atrocities committed by our comrades? By encouraging audiences to consider this, we hope that the film will stimulate debate and open new avenues for change both inside and outside the country.

So few people in places like Burma have access to their own histories. This is why a Burmese version was made and why we are encouraging people to copy it and pass it along; what Julie LeBrocquy calls “reverse pirating”. The response has been extraordinary. Since it was posted on 24 March, there have been more than 27,700 plays on the internet. Activists in Rangoon have downloaded the film, burnt DVDs and left them on tables in internet cafés in Rangoon for people to take.

If, as historian Thant Myint U wrote, “the answer [to Burma’s crisis] lies in part in seeing Burma differently”, it is our hope that Burma Soldier is seen as a constructive addition to the debate.

Burma Soldier will be aired on HBO2 in the US on 18 May at 8pm. To view the Burmese version of Burma Soldier click here.

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