Monday, May 16, 2011

Burma Soldier: Myo Myint’s Story

Myo Myint Cho understands the regime in Burma better than anyone. Enlisting at age seventeen, he served in the army until a mortar robbed him of a leg and most of a hand. Later, he would spend fifteen years as a reluctant “guest” of the state, but lived to tell his story in Burma Soldier (trailer here), co-directed by the battery of Nic Dunlop, Ricki Stern, and Anne Sundberg, which premieres on HBO2 this Wednesday.

Only the military junta and The New York Times refer Burma as “Myanmar.” With Western audiences in mind, the filmmakers provide some brief but helpful context to explain how life got so bad in the resource rich country. In 1962, General Ne Win overthrew the civilian government. His ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) nationalized the economy and began wholesale plundering. That will do it every time.

Soldiers are not well paid in Burma and the work is dangerous, considering Burma has been wracked by civil strife for over sixty years, which the BSPP exacerbated with the racial policies favoring ethnic Burmese. Still, there are not a lot of other options for unemployed young men. For years, Myo Myint served loyally under arms. However, when his injury led to a discharge, the former soldier had time to consider his life and the government for whom he sacrificed so much.

Nobody would blame Myo Myint for wanting to see some generals’ heads roll. However, he became an ardent advocate not just of democracy, but of peace and tolerance for all Burma’s constituent nationalities. Throughout the film, he comes across as a gentle humanist, despite the horrors he witnessed and endured. Indeed, he is quite a shrewd choice on the part of the filmmakers to represent the Burmese democracy movement.

Assembling news footage and clandestine video from variety of sources, the filmmakers convey a vivid, often graphic, sense of just how the regime handles dissent. It is not pretty, but it is instructive. However, some of Dunlop’s still photography also included in the film is aesthetically quite striking.

Though the regime has dropped the BSPP label, its nature has not changed. China also remains an erstwhile ally, making it highly unlikely the current administration will rouse itself to action without considerable prodding from the American people. As a result, Soldier’s upcoming broadcast is quite timely and necessary. Reportedly, filmmaker-sanctioned piracy has already made the banned film a veritable blockbuster in Burma. With Colin Farrell lending some celebrity cachet as narrator, it deserves a sizeable American audience as well. It debuts this Wednesday (5/18) on HBO2.