Writer and filmmaker, Robert H. Lieberman, spent two years putting together this documentary about Myanmar (known in the West as Burma). Much of the filming had to be done secretly, because Myanmar has a military government that is highly secretive and suspicious of outsiders. Except for Aung San Suu Kyi, a leading dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, none of the people interviewed in this film are identified, for fear of government reprisals.
Myanmar used to be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia. It is now one of the poorest. Lieberman shows us crumbling buildings in Rangoon, the nation’s capitol. The military seized control of the country in 1962. They have mismanaged the economy ever since. The generals are ultra-nationalists who are deeply suspicious of the outside world. The situation is strikingly similar to that of North Korea, except that there is no cult of personality. Instead, the generals rule as a faceless bureaucracy, remote from the people.
The British invaded Myanmar in the early 19th century, and, after a series of wars, took control of the country in 1885. They ruthlessly exploited the people and their country. When the Japanese invaded during World War II, many Myanmarese welcomed them as liberators. Yet the Japanese occupation turned out to be even more brutal than that of the British, and the Myanmarese turned against them. (The parallels to the history of the US in Iraq and in Afghanistan is striking here.) The country was finally granted independence in 1948. Given the country’s history, the xenophobic views of the military actually make some sense.
The World Health Organization has ranked Myanmar as 190th in the quality of its health care. Most people cannot afford to see a real doctor. Many resort to seeing quacks who have little or no medical training. Education is also out of reach for most people. Many of the people interviewed in this film have had only one or two years of schooling. There are free schools run by Buddhist monks, but their quality of education is uneven. Many of them teach only basic reading and math and Buddhist religious ideas. Those who manage to get a college education often choose to emigrate to other countries, with the result that the country doesn’t benefit from their knowledge.
Child labor is common. We see, for example, a young girl who can’t be more than eight or nine years old carrying a basket full of gravel on her head. It’s not unusual for families to sell their children to work as servants for rich people.
Myanmar is a country with a rich culture and history. The countryside is dotted with beautiful Buddhist temples, some of them more than a thousand years old. The film emphasizes the importance of Buddhism in the nation’s culture. However, it says nothing about the country’s Christian, Muslim, and Hindu minorities. I would have liked to learn something about these groups.
There have been uprisings against the government, most notably the failed “Saffrom Revolution” of 2007. Each time these revolts have been brutally supressed. Lieberman tries to end the film on an optimistic note by saying that the young people in the country seem to feel less bound by the government’s sanctioned conventions. It is also proving increasingly difficult to keep out foreign influences. We see, for example, scenes of Burmese punk rock bands performing. Yet it’s not clear whether this will have any political consequences.
Lieberman repeatedly says that going to Myanmar is like going back in time. Is this really so? Here is a country in which a small number of people control most of the wealth, while most people can’t afford an education or decent health care, and in which the military enjoys unlimited power. Is this not the direction in which our own country is heading? Doesn’t Myanmar perhaps give us a glimpse into our own future?