Courtesy of HBO.com
When Burma makes international headlines, it’s usually for the junta’s violent suppression of pro-democracy activists or for Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s ongoing opposition to the regime. “If you look at the popular narrative about Burma, you [hear about] the forces of good against evil,” says Irish writer and photographer Nic Dunlop, who has made reporting trips to the Southeast Asian country since the early 1990s. But behind the stark black-and-white portrayals, Burma’s story—and particularly that of its ruling institution, the Army—is far more convoluted. Now, in Burma Soldier, a new HBO documentary airing in May and June in the U.S. and premiering abroad later this summer, Dunlop and his fellow directors examine the question of what drives an otherwise ordinary person to join up with a brutal institution—and what gives him the courage to risk his life and change course.
Burma Soldier follows the life of Myo Myint, who signed up with the Army as a teenager to pursue a life of upward mobility and prestige. Born into a society where privilege belongs almost exclusively to the Army brass and their loyal allies, Myo Myint saw a military career as the only way to escape a future of grinding poverty. Plus, as a boy he had seen his neighbors in Rangoon greet soldiers with seeming admiration. He was still too young, he says, to understand the difference between true respect and thinly veiled fear.
The Burmese haven’t always been so wary of their military. Nationalist fighters who ousted the British colonial administrators after World War II—and who went on to establish the modern Army—became cultural heroes. But before long, the Army had become embroiled in battles with various ethnic minority groups who thought that their right to self-governance naturally followed the end of British rule. The conflict eroded the new civilian government’s control, giving a clique of hardline generals an opportunity to justify a coup. Repressive law and order became central to the junta’s rule, and generals used the ever-growing military apparatus to silence dissenting voices. A pivotal shift in the Burmese majority’s view of the Army came in 1988, when a popular nonviolent uprising was quelled with gunfire.
The Army had not yet unraveled from an esteemed institution into a dreaded group when Myo Myint chose to become a soldier. His tasks were to lay landmines to blow up ethnic minority forces and try to detect the enemy’s own mines. During those years, which are evoked in the documentary with graphic footage—smuggled out of the country by dissident groups—of military assaults on ethnic minority villages, Myo Myint says commanders “brainwashed” the soldiers into committing gruesome attacks. Homes were burned to the ground; unarmed villagers were used as human shields. The generals told the soldiers “the ethnic armies and the democracy protestors are enemies of the state [and] killing them is your duty,” Myo Myint says by phone from Fort Wayne, Ind., where he sought asylum in 2008. “Some soldiers, in private, oppose the actions they are told to do. But they don’t dare say this.”
Myo Myint’s time in the Army ended abruptly, after mortar fire left him near dead and missing an arm and a leg. To battle depression during his convalescence, he immersed himself in banned texts on religion, history, and politics. His studies convinced him that he needed to speak out about the abuses of his former commanders. In 1988, as nationwide protests broke out against the dictatorship, Myo Myint delivered an impromptu speech that rallied other soldiers to join demonstrators in the streets. As punishment, authorities threw him in jail for 15 years. Upon his release, Myo Myint fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he met Dunlop and sparked the Burma Soldier project.
Myo Myint’s drastic transformation from dutiful soldier to passionate opponent of the Army underlies Dunlop’s belief that evil is an inherently conditional force. It’s a thesis that captured him over a decade ago: in 1999, the director discovered the former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, living anonymously in a remote part of Cambodia. The find propelled the establishment of a tribunal that handed Duch a 30-year prison sentence last year. It was a shocking turn of events that set in motion fundamental questions about human nature in Dunlop’s mind.
“We could all be perpetrators,” Dunlop says. “It’s not just the urge to destroy that motivates people to do this. It’s about conditioning, context, and the [innate] human ability to carry out evil acts.”
But people can also change their actions and refuse to participate, as Myo Myint eventually did. That’s the message the film’s producers want to bring to audiences inside Burma, where the junta prohibits access to any books, movies, or music that might undermine their authority. To thwart the ban, the producers have made a Burmese-language version of the film and encouraged its copyright theft inside Burma. Networks of anonymous activists have sneaked copies of the film into the country to be pirated locally. The impact of this “reverse pirating” campaign, as the filmmakers call it, is still hard to determine. But a recent screening at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok gave Dunlop some vindication. “I was disappointed by the low turnout of Burmese [activists and exiled journalists],” he said, “until I later found out they had already watched it on Vimeo or been given a pirated copy.”
Brady reports from across Asia on diplomacy, human rights, religion, business and environmental issues.