Two women—Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (affectionately known as The Lady) and filmmaker/social activist Anjelica Huston under the sensitive direction of Neil Hollander have combined their collective experience and agendas to produce an insightful, somewhat inciteful look into present-day Burma—Myanmar since 1989.
Both of their voices—the former political prisoner is the steady, calm voice of reason “[the streams of dictatorship, democracy and ethnic groups] need to build upon the spirit of true union,” the latter utilizes a particularly understated tone of condemnation when speaking of the ruling junta whose generals hold onto to faux power using military might to quash all rebels or critics even as they keep their treasury full by selling off the country’s resources to the highest bidder: notably the War-Lord-protected opium in the Golden Triangle—stand in stark contrast to the documented atrocities as the ruling men systemically kill, maim or purposely rape those not welcome on this bleak voyage to total international isolation and lavish wealth for a few (think North Korea with cash).
Viewers may well be surprised to learn that the conflict with the Karen (centred on and around both sides of the Myanmar/Thailand border) at 60 years plus is the longest running civil war in modern times. Skirmishes are the rule. Whole villages are threatened (“Eat your last meal; Death is coming”) then burned to the ground. Slow moving inhabitants are killed or raped (government soldiers who are HIV+ are actively encouraged by their commanders to unload their especially lethal liquid bullets, ensuring the double whammy of tribal ostracization and a long, painful death). Similarly at the border with Bangladesh, the Rohingya and Rakhine tribes are the targets. In both cases, thousands upon thousands leave their homeland only to rot in poverty in refugee camps. Sadly—trying to get on with their lives after escaping all manner of violence—lack of work, food or dignity in the barb-wire enclosures (along with escape vehicles: alcohol and drugs) fuel the seeds of discontent. In particular, these hopeless young men begin fighting amongst themselves or eagerly accept recruitment into the rebel armies and head back to fight for freedom against a military machine that shows no signs of weakening.
Not content to kill each other face-to-face, the villages, countryside and jungles are infested with IEDs. Given the lifelong misery that lies ahead, many of those who survive might well wish they hadn’t. The region’s mighty elephants also lose lives and limbs: the segment on Thailand’s elephant hospital gives witness to that horrific brand of sudden carnage. Cinematographer Phelps Harmon—as he does throughout the film—largely lets those awful images speak for themselves.
When the victims get their turn on camera, the hollow looks on their hardly “normal” faces and gruesome recollections (hiding contraband peanuts in one’s own “defecation” to avoid discovery by the guards), there is no doubt as to the veracity of the government-inflicted tortures they endured. With his father and brother shot before his very eyes, another very young survivor stoically explains how he is now the man of the house to his mother and three younger siblings—none of whom will ever know a carefree childhood.
With such a repressive state and the virtual outlaw of journalists (a few still do their best to get Myanmar’s tragic story out to the rest of the world—cross-reference below) it’s not surprising that the generals and their families are seen in their opulent regalia and party frocks, but never heard.
Suu Kyi offers a modicum of hope in the final frames: “We should all work [towards reunification].” Yet with her slight British accent, the ear is reminded of history past. The country’s present turmoil appears to have flowed continuously since independence from Britain in 1948. Sadly, pathetically, understandably, all of the tactics and much of the weaponry that keeps the unflinching junta ruling to this day have been learned at the knee of freedom-loving countries and models of democracy. Who, then, can throw the first stone? JWR