‘There are so many serving soldiers who secretly support the opposition.'
It is the most vilified army in Southeast Asia, known for crushing pro-democracy demonstrations in Myanmar and for its brutal suppression of ethnic groups seeking self-rule in the region's longest-running civil war.
The 4,00,000-strong army in the former Burma is remarkable for its cohesion, cemented by a system of rewards and punishments, and military analysts have found little sign of dissent in its ranks.
But in its lower levels, at least, it is made up of men who come from a society that widely fears and distrusts the military and who join for the steady employment and status it offers, according to Myo Myint, 48, a former soldier who joined the democratic opposition led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Mr. Myo Myint is the central figure in a new documentary called “Burma Soldier,” a film that traces his life from the battlefield, where he lost a leg and an arm, to his 15 years in prison after joining the opposition and then his departure through a Thai refugee camp to the United States in 2008.
“While the top ranks control and repress people, most soldiers are like me. They join the military because they need to earn money for their daily survival,” he said in a telephone interview from Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S., where he lives now.
In addition, he said, “There are so many soldiers serving in the military who secretly support the opposition but cannot expose their feelings. They will be sent to prison and a very heavy imprisonment.”
He added: “I hope that after watching the film, some soldiers will think about their actions and their treatment of civilians, whether it is good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.”
Images taken by dissidents
In quiet and measured tones in the film, broken at one point by tears, Mr. Myo Myint describes his journey, with interviews in the refugee camp interspersed with rare and sometimes horrifying footage of military manoeuvres and attacks on ethnic minority villages. The film's director, Nic Dunlop, an Irish writer and photographer, said the extraordinary images were taken at great risk by dissident groups.
Mr. Dunlop said he was attempting to deliver this message through what he called “reverse pirating.”
The film will be released next year on HBO, he said, but he and his producers have already made a Burmese-language version of the film and have begun smuggling it into Myanmar on DVDs and on the Internet.
“We are encouraging Burmese to make as many copies as they can and give people inside a chance to hear an alternative history, and hear it from a man who was part of the military,” Mr. Dunlop said.
“There's an irony in this,” he said, referring to an earlier documentary, “Burma VJ.” “They were struggling to get information and images out, with a great deal of difficulty and an enormous amount of risk.”
That documentary, by Anders Ostergaard, told the story of the Buddhist monk-led uprising in September 2007 and the military's harsh response, in part through the work of video journalists on the scene.
“What we are doing is the absolute reverse,” Mr. Dunlop said. “We are trying to get the film into the country illegally by pirating our own film in Burmese.”
Mr. Dunlop is sending a message, to audiences both inside and outside Myanmar, that was also at the heart of his book “The Lost Executioner” (Bloomsbury 2005), about the Khmer Rouge prison chief in Cambodia, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch.
Mr. Dunlop was working as a photographer in 1999, when he discovered Duch in a remote area of Cambodia, a discovery that led to the first of the Khmer Rouge trials and the conviction of Duch last year. Duch was sentenced to 19 years in prison. Four other defendants are facing trial this year.
“I wanted to know what it was that had turned a seemingly ordinary man from one of the poorer parts of Cambodia into one of the worst mass murderers of the twentieth century,” Mr. Dunlop wrote in the prologue to his book.
Myanmar presents a similar challenge, he said. “One of the problems of Burma is that it reads better as a story when you have forces of evil pitted against the forces of good, symbolised by Aung San Suu Kyi,” Mr. Dunlop said.
“I think it's not enough to condemn people or regimes but we have to look past that,” he said. “The world is not divided into good and evil, with us or against us, black and white, but is much more nuanced. If we stop looking at the world in this polarised way, we stand a greater chance of trying to prevent these crimes.”
In the cases of both the Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s, and the army of Myanmar, he said, “It's crucial to look at the world of the perpetrators, to contextualise the evidence and the people rather than seeing them as monsters, but see them as human beings, and that we are all capable of doing these kinds of things in given circumstances.” For example, as Mr. Myo Myint said in the interview, the soldiers who shot down civilians in pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 and 2007 in Myanmar were drawn from distant battlefields where they had been fighting separatist ethnic armies.
“The soldiers are uneducated and don't understand politics,” he said. “They are told that everyone who supports the demonstrations and opposes the government are enemies of the people and we have the right to kill these people.”
For them, the killings are not only justified but necessary, he said. “It is our duty.”— © New York Times News Service