HHow does a civil war occur? How do businessmen, office workers and students turn into peaceful protesters, then rioters, then enemies of the state and internal exiles before finally becoming armed resisters?
While we were preoccupied with Covid and the horrors of Ukraine, this process unfolded in Myanmar, a country that briefly opened the door to partial democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi before a military junta slammed it shut . To see it documented in this film is heartbreaking and eye-opening.
We start in February 2021. The country is on the streets protesting the military coup staged earlier this month by Min Aung Hlaing, the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces. Suddenly, there’s a moment that eerily mirrors the scene in The Handmaid’s Tale season one when protesters realize, in frozen, disbelieving horror, that live ammunition is coming and people are being killed.
Similar moments – when a state crosses the line and uses deadly force against its civilians – have happened throughout history, but now those moments are being captured on phones and streamed live on Facebook. Even in repressive societies, the word is spreading. Soon the protesters are heading for the hills.
What really surprises in this documentary is the access to the people – the painfully young and idealistic people – at the heart of this crisis. Once in the jungle, the protesters join the guerrilla armies, which have been fighting the military for decades, and reconfigure themselves into the People’s Defense Force (PDF). It becomes clear that the members of the PDF are, essentially, children. They train in groups with cut-out wooden guns because they only have one real gun between them. They engage in unimpressive calisthenics in jungle clearings. The idea of them engaging in combat with trained soldiers is horrifying. But that only underscores their bravery – they must know how figuratively and literally outmatched they are.
The intimacy achieved by the director, Katie Arnold, and her team provides astonishing insight into how autocracy, by definition, radicalizes its opponents. If a government kills a peaceful protest, it creates violent resistance. People have no choice. Simply by disagreeing, they become targets; enemies of the state.
Meanwhile, the crimes of the junta worsen. A demonstration is attacked by a soldier in a car, who runs over and kills five demonstrators. In footage that is chillingly reminiscent of scenes in Ukraine, civilians are annihilated as they attempt to flee villages under attack from the air. There is a hideous incident in which 31 resisters are apparently burned alive. Autopsies conclude that the victims were linked, to rule out any possibility of escape. There are small retaliatory attacks involving improvised explosive devices, while arms factories are springing up in rural areas to arm the resistance.
Where is the UN in all this? It’s complicated – but it shouldn’t be. “These are war crimes,” says Tom Andrews, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. “These are innocent people who are victims of attacks, torture, injuries. And the UN Security Council even refused to accept a resolution to stop these attacks. The political will does not exist. These are strong words. There is also a strong suggestion that Russia and China – Myanmar’s allies – are conspiring to prevent action.
This is, of course, an obscenity. It also highlights the power and value of courageous and relentless investigative journalism. You could say that films like this are all the people of Myanmar have. There is an interview with an army general in which he condemns the idea of the army targeting civilians as “fake news”. There is an evil banality to the sentence at this point; the carelessness with which any actor in bad faith can use it makes it grotesque and pathetic. But at least he had to say it.
At this point, the documentary becomes more than a television program; it becomes evidence. Because the film footage shows that the army Is target civilians. The testimonies of army defectors also say so. This is not just a list of atrocities, to be mourned and then forgotten; it is the construction of a dossier. That’s what makes it such valuable journalism – it will be part of the future prosecution case in a war crimes trial, at a time when the UN decides it wants to.
Watching this unfold, it’s hard not to contemplate the decision to privatize Channel 4, the only UK mainstream broadcaster still attempting to do such journalism. In 2011, the channel’s documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields did something similar – the film won a Royal Television Society award and, more importantly, screened in the European Parliament. It made a difference.
Myanmar: The Forgotten Revolution could achieve something similar. Channel 4 is the home of It’s a Sin and Derry Girls, and it’s wonderful. But it’s also the channel that tells stories few will see, but millions will know. It is certainly worth preserving.