Nic Dunlop: 'We must understand the junta'

Anglo-Irish photojournalist Nic Dunlop first came to attention in the late 1990s as the man who tracked down Khmer Rouge leader and head of the infamous S-21 torture centre, Comrade Duch, in rural Cambodia. Dunlop’s discovery of Duch eventually led to his conviction on charges of crimes against humanity, becoming the first of Pol Pot’s henchmen to be sentenced. Later, Dunlop turned his attention to Burma, and has spent more than a decade documenting the regime and its atrocities. The recent film, Burma Soldier, co-directed by Dunlop, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, and co-produced by LeBrocquy Fraser Ltd and Break-Thru, tells the story of Myo Myint, a former Burmese army soldier turned pro-democracy activist.

Tell us about how the idea for the film came about

Many years ago I started working on Burma and it was over a period of 10 years taking photographs for what I hoped would be a graphic book about the dictatorship that it occurred to me that we know so little about the military. It was very difficult to get photos of them inside Burma, which only increased my interest. Everyone talks about what’s wrong with Burma, but very few people reflect on what it is that created the Burmese military – it’s as if they arrived from outer space. And if you could peel back the layer of a brutal dictatorship then you’d have an oriental idyll of a Buddhist paradise where people just wanted to go about their lives. It’s that kind of picture-perfect image of Southeast Asia that so many Westerners have. And nobody seemed to be very interested in what created this army of occupation, so during my many travels and interviews with refugees, dissidents, and people inside the country I’d always ask this question and people often didn’t have anything close to an answer.

So I realised what I needed to do was meet former Burmese troops who were willing to talk about why they joined the army, what it was like, what they were taught in training, how they viewed the ethnic minorities and civil war, and so on. And it was during this research that I was at the AAPP [Assistance Association for Political Prisoners] office in Mae Sot and I was introduced by Bo Kyi, the president, to Myo Myint, who was a former political prisoner but who had an extraordinary story to tell: in his previous incarnation he’d been a soldier in the Burmese army and had grown up in a military family in Rangoon, and I found somebody who could explain not only about why people join the military, but could also include the Burmese civil and the quest for democracy in a single story. Very often one of the problems with the coverage of Burma is that there’s a great separation between the civil war, which runs central to the Burmese crisis, and the issue of democratisation, which is symbolised by Aung San Suu Kyi. I wanted to bring the two together in a single story, and Myo Myint’s story is extraordinary for many reasons, but particularly so because you could do that.

Is there a gap in media coverage of Burma – or indeed a misunderstanding of the ‘other side’ – that your film will fill?

That was the intention, but people who watch it can assess for themselves. It’s come to the point now that much of the coverage by outsiders is as much about projection as it is about the real situation. Now, Aung San Suu Kyi pitched against the generals isn’t an incorrect reading; it’s just incredibly simplistic. But being complex doesn’t mean it has to be boring or off-putting, as I think it is for a lot of journalists. So when the Karen walked into Myawaddy recently it was reported by many as though it’s a completely separate sideshow to the crisis, whereas it runs right to the centre of what is wrong with Burma. So Aung San Suu Kyi’s cult-like status in the West is in danger of preventing a more nuanced understanding of the problem. I have high regard for her and her courageous stance, but she isn’t the only figure in Burma. I understand the media well and I understand how people gravitate towards that reading of the crisis, and my point is to get beyond that and start talking about the other parts of this jigsaw puzzle. And the military is so key, yet so unknown, and so I wanted to open up new avenues of debate.

Is the sacrosanct air surrounding Suu Kyi limiting the progress of the pro-democracy movement?

I don’t know if it’s limiting progress but I think it’s got to the point where the fate of one woman is drowning out the fate of millions. And whilst I understand that, and it makes sense on one level, there is an urgency to talk about the civil war. Although there are ceasefires amongst many [armed] groups in Burma and there isn’t same degree of fighting that there was 20 years ago, the tensions still remain – nothing has been resolved and if anything it’s getting slightly worse, and I think that needs to be addressed.

Why is it so important that the wider context of Burma – including what pushes such people to do such things – is understood before we can hope for transition?

It’s important of course that we empathise with the victims of oppression, but it’s just as important, if not more so, that we learn something of the perpetrator and that we recognise that we all have the potential to be both, perhaps even at the same time. The perpetrators are always ‘them’, and never ‘us’, and if we approach these problems with a degree of humility there’s much greater room for understanding and progression. What happens, with the Burmese military particularly, is that they are vilified for what they’ve done, and rightly so, but they are a fact of life. They’re not simply going to go back to the barracks because of the moral condemnation and outrage alone; they have to look at the situation realistically without losing sight of the principles that are embodied by Aung San Suu Kyi’s stance.

So with Myo Myint, he is possibly a perpetrator, but certainly a victim, and I think that that’s a very healthy place for outsiders to realise that the Burmese army is not made up of baby killers, but that they’re ordinary men. How many of us can answer the question with any certainty of how we’d respond if we were in a situation where our lives were under threat every day; where we’d been indoctrinated with the idea that any non-Burman is inferior? I just think it’s important, in fact essential, that we engage with that world view.

Have you ever received criticism for talking about people like Duch, or indeed Myo Myint, with a degree of sympathy?

No. All I can do is just be as honest as I can with the truth of the story as I see it – if you don’t like it, then fine. It’s just like the fact that we may have relatives who are soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, and who knows what they’ve been doing? The victims’ world view is not the dominant, and shouldn’t be the dominant, world view, and as in the case of the court of law, which is a good metaphor, what you’re trying to do is present cases from as many different angles as you can and hopefully get to some sort of truth. But there are no absolutes, and that’s why what I thought was important about the Duch case and with Burma, and any place with a crisis of this magnitude, is that there are many contributing factors that have to be taken into account – we can’t project what we think Burma is or should be about. That’s extremely dangerous; that’s what the regime does, and in the most brutal way.

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