A new documentary reveals quiet dissent within the junta’s prized military forces.
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.”