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An ex-soldier recounts war from the villains’ perspective.
BANGKOK, Thailand — Burma’s military has been so vile for so long that most outside observers seldom bother with ambiguity.
In the telling of Burma’s nearly 60-years-running civil war, the military plays the ruthless villain. The pro-democracy resistance, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, plays the victim, as do armed ethnic tribes. Their roles are cast in iron.
Myo Myint, however, is harder to cast. At 48, the soldier-turned-democracy agitator has played for both sides. His experience fighting at times for the tormentor, and at times for the tormented, is the subject of a new HBO documentary “Burma Soldier.”
As a young man, Myo Myint belonged to a unit that, among other atrocities, enslaved, raped and killed a female villager in the span of 24 hours. In the process of disavowing the army, however, he felt its cruelty full bore. It took from him two limbs and 15 years, his prison sentence for protesting military rule.
Narrated by actor Colin Farrell, “Burma Soldier” traces Myo Myint’s life through his army days to his political awakening and to his late-life move to suburban Indiana.
In pushing the viewer to sympathize with a former soldier, it tries to blur Burma’s seldom-challenged good-vs.-evil narrative.
“Broadly speaking, the army is a monolithic, baby-eating, monstrous group that we spend a lot of time reviling instead of trying to understand,” said Nic Dunlop, a Bangkok-based photographer who directed the film with two others, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern.
“The Burmese army did not descend from another planet,” Dunlop said. “That very black-and-white depiction of Burma’s problems has become a simplistic narrative. And it leaves little room for any type of understanding.”
Understanding Myo Myint requires rewinding the clock to 1980. He was 17 and his father, a non-commissioned officer, had just died. The family was broke and living in an army-controlled neighborhood, where soldiering was the only known path to cash and respect.
“I was brought up to be a soldier,” Myo Myint said. “People with high school degrees couldn’t even find jobs. What hope did I have?”
Trained as an explosives engineer, Myo Myint was soon laying mines, clearing mine fields and mapping out mine-free paths through the jungle. He was dispatched to a province rife with armed ethnic separatists, the Kachin, who control distant hinterlands near the Chinese border. The tribe is among six major ethnic armies still fighting state occupation.
Myo Myint was indoctrinated to believe that even unarmed minority villagers are “insurgents, bad people ... and you can do whatever you want to people like that,” he explained in the film.
He once witnessed a comrade jamming a blade into a villager’s cheek during an interrogation. The pain jolted the man’s mouth agape. “Part of me didn’t want to watch, but I was curious,” he said. “My curiosity won out.”
One day, weary of hauling heavy 75mm artillery shells, Myo Myint’s unit made porters of 40 frightened female villagers. The women lugged artillery until nightfall. Once the unit made camp, Myo Myint’s platoon officer selected his favorite woman from the group, raped her at gunpoint and let his subordinates do the same.
When morning came, the soldiers led the woman into the jungle and executed her. “There were three gunshots,” Myo Myint said. “They returned. And there were only 39 women left.”
In Myo Myint’s tearful retelling of these acts, he is always a witness and never a participant. “The front lines changed my attitude,” he said on the phone. “As a soldier, I had to obey the commands from above. But as a human being, I had the right not to follow some commands.”
Throughout his talks with Myo Myint, Dunlop said, the ex-infantryman consistently stated that he never took part in atrocities against villagers. “Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps it isn’t,” he said. “When your comrades are committing atrocities, and you’re in that environment, well, it’s easy to judge from the outside.”