Theater of Cruelty

Aung San Suu Kyi's growth and international fall

On The Inside of a Military Dictatorship
Regissør: Karen Stokkendal Poulsen
(Danmark, Frankrike)

MYANMAR / To describe Myanmar as a military dictatorship in 2019 is as provocative as to claim that the emperor goes without clothes.


It's like in the fairy tale – the princess who would inherit the kingdom is hindered by the evil stepfather. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the liberation hero Aung San, was denied government power by the same military that his father established for 25 years. The film On The Inside of a Military Dictatorship begins as a fairy tale by HC Andersen: «It started with a woman and the military […]. One day they said they would relinquish power and establish a real democracy. The plan was enshrined in the Holy Book: The Constitution. " This is how the documentary starts, and this is how the saga of the reform process began. For it will soon turn out that the fairy tale was a fictional dream. For some, it was a nightmare.

The film provides a unique insight into Myanmar's reform process from 2011 to 2016, through interviews with some of the protagonists behind the changes, from a time when they shone most strongly. Old generals were seen as reformers, and the Western embassies really believed that reforms were the military's exit strategy. That the generals realized that they had run a resource-rich country in the ditch, and needed outside help to build a real democracy. This was again interpreted as an admission, and a covert regret for decades of murder, rape, imprisonment and looting. Several Western countries, with Norway at the forefront, believed in the narrative to the extent that they ended up cracking down on the reform process's critics, who were first labeled as hard-liners og spoilers, and where organizations that saw the glass as half empty and not half full, no longer received the same support.

It was a short-term strategy. For after August 25, 2017, the military showed its true face to an entire world through massive military actions by Rohingya Muslims. More than 700 were forced to flee. Many of the Western leaders who were strongest in the faith in the military chose to place the responsibility on Aung San Suu Kyi, while the army chief Min Aung Hlaing undoubtedly had the military, legal and real responsibility. The film makes an important contribution to understanding what really happened.

Winged head of state

The title Pthe inside of a military dictatorship is either misleading or provocative. Misleading because the film moves far outside the military's inner life. Neither the army commander nor the "old man", dictator Than Shwe, is involved in the film. No one in military service is interviewed. We're not on the inside. It must mean that the director with the title refers to Myanmar as a military dictatorship. It is a strong provocation and contrast to the rosy lenses the reform process was seen through.

In the middle of this military defense establishment, Aung San Suu Kyi stands as a winged head of state.

The film correctly explains that the Constitution guarantees the military full control over security policy, and that the military is above the democratically elected government. In addition, the three important ministries, as a fifth columnist in government, control, while constitutional amendments require 75 percent of the vote in a national assembly where the military itself has 25 percent of representatives. The military sees it as their task to defend the constitution they themselves designed, by all means.

In the middle of this military defense establishment, Aung San Suu Kyi stands as a winged head of state, which the world once viewed as an angel. Maybe she's the one inside. The question is whether Myanmar is a democracy, a dictatorship or a hybrid? The most correct may be half dictatorship, half democracy, semi-totalitarian rule (or "democratic dictatorship" as some call it), but it's as if the director wants to shout "look, they don't have clothes", and in some ways it's liberating . Perhaps more interesting political analyzes would be given if one acknowledged that the most important political decisions on war, peace, minorities, state building, democracy and such are controlled by the military.

Democracy was a means, not a goal

The film is divided into ten sections, which include Thein Sein's reign, the power struggle within the military party, the dictator Than Shwe's role, the Rohingya crisis and the political assassination of the eminent lawyer and NLD adviser U Ko Ni (who was Muslim). See interview MODERN TIMES February 2017).

On The Inside of a Military Dictatorship Director Karen Stokkendal Poulsen

It is striking how honest the pro-military is when talking about the motive for the reforms. The release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, was a means of removing financial sanctions. The aim was to increase Western investment, bring about economic growth and weaken China's influence. Democracy was undoubtedly a means, not a goal. The former generals, unsolicited, say that the killing of thousands of civilians following the demonstrations on August 8, 1988 was necessary, and believe that it was the NLD party, led by Suu Kyi, that created instability and had to be turned down. They said exactly the same thing 20 years ago.

Aung San Suu Kyi's growth and international fall is a key element of history. In her first response in the film, probably from before the 1990 election, she says she wants the military to stand together, but withdraws from politics. She has worked for the same goal for 30 years without success. Maybe it's an impossible task, and maybe the dream of reconciliation with her military is Achilles' heel. She chose to sit quietly in the boat when the assaults on the Rohingya were at its most intense, so as not to worsen the relationship with the military. She reliably relied on the military vice president's money laundering report on the crimes of the military. She has given some speeches, reminding her more of a stern and emotional caller than a head of state who wants reconciliation. She emphasized that the Rohingya lobby manufactures news and fake images (which is correct, and described in a UN report), but which is distasteful when an entire nation is on the run.

Rakhine crisis

The film gets the mood change after NLD wins the election. On Election Day, Suu Kyi told happy voters not to celebrate, not to provoke the military. A few months later, U Ko Ni was killed at the international airport. Then came the Rakhine crisis, and hopelessness spread. It is almost touching as the Burmese spokesman begins to cry in the UN during its attempt to respond to the massive criticism. His suffering, of course, is nothing compared to the Rohingya Muslims, but it is impossible not to sympathize with him. It is as if he realizes he has lost before he opens his mouth.

Several western countries, with Norway at the forefront, believed in the story.

The triumph of the 2015 election, when Suu Kyi proclaimed that she was "over the president," was quickly muted after Rakhine, with the director saying something like this: "It turned out that the army chief was over them all, and looked at the crisis as an opportunity to to deprive her of power. ” The film has been accused of being too kind to Aung San Suu Kyi, while it really does nothing but say something about who's in charge of what. And as the narrator says (freely from memory): "Maybe she wasn't the hero we thought she was, but she's also not the evil head of state she's now referred to as. Maybe you end up resembling what you have spent your life fighting. ” The director traveled to Myanmar in 2013 to screen a film at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, and took an interest in the reforms. The director behind the festival, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, is now in jail, charged with defamation against the military.

The battle for the throne in Myanmar

The film's story is largely based on "talking heads", but the uniqueness of the film is the quality of the heads. President Thein Sein and his key ministers, such as Aung Min, who negotiated peace, and Soe Thane, who signed international trade agreements faster than "his own shadow" and were the super seller of the reform message, yet not the type to buy used cars. Besides, Aung San Suu Kyi, the always witty NLD strategist Win Htein and a number of others. It is a cast that is respected.

It is an elegant move to film the interview items before they speak, in what seems like a private moment. It's been done before, but it works. The film is, in excess, massively silenced. The narrative voice is on the verge of being hungry, but can be defended in that it illuminates an adventure, and that the big words seem like a good emergency solution for most of the film being recorded before the crisis in Rakhine state – which can also explain and defend the absence of the Rohingya voices.

There is an ongoing battle for the throne in Myanmar that will surely continue after the film's end point, and the military is more likely to draw the longest straw than it was a few years ago. For those who want to understand the political power struggle in Myanmar, is On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship a good starting point.
Aagre chairs the Burma Committee in Oslo.

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