Last night, Britain’s Channel 4 broadcasted a new documentary that follows Evan Williams on a rampaging journalistic odyssey to the heart of Burma’s current nightmare. He calls it, “Burma’s Secret War”. Williams sometimes draws on bravely collected evidence from other film-makers. At considerable risk, he also personally films desperate cross-border missions in the Karen State and poses as a tourist in Rangoon and Mandalay. He interviews political dissidents and even makes a furtive driveby of Aung San Suu Kyi’s University Avenue residence.
Wherever he goes, he has the video to prove it. This is popular documentary journalism at its best. It is compulsory viewing.
For many New Mandala readers the content and style of Williams’ film will not come as any surprise. Here I will provide an overview of the material in “Burma’s Secret War” and also provide some concluding comments that place this film in a broader context. I should note that my comments are based on only one viewing of the documentary.
It is a documentary in three parts.
The first, and most dramatic, follows Williams as he accompanies a well-armed Free Burma Ranger medical mission behind Burmese army lines. They are tasked with providing humanitarian support, and rudimentary medical care, to the thousands of internally displaced people who are a soft target for the Burmese military’s on-going campaign of terror. For anybody unfamiliar with the terrain, or the lack of infrastructure in the Karen State, Williams’ talk of trekking for a month may come as something of a shock. Watching the Free Burma Ranger mission snake its way across the Karen State, the amount of walking involved is impressive – they literally walk for weeks. The convoy always looks to be moving at a good pace too.
This part of the documentary includes slices of life captured by Free Burma Ranger videographers on other missions and includes dramatic footage of an amputation and a jungle birth. These are not for the squeamish. After providing help in one desperate area, the medical team quickly leaves and Williams tells the camera, in a very matter of fact way, that the villagers asked them to leave. There is a Burmese military camp nearby and Williams is told that, because “foreigners” had visited, “once we leave they [the villagers] may be subject to recriminations”.
At one stage, the Free Burma Ranger patrol comes across a different group of Karen villagers fleeing a significant Burmese government offensive. Williams reflects that, “These people have been walking for a week”. What is striking about the footage that follows this statement is the number of children, many barely primary school age, who are trooping along behind their parents. No doubt they are weary from the long walk. Williams never has to say it out loud but it is clear that these kids should be in school. Away from the drama of covert medical missions it is this vision of ordinary life that probably leaves the deepest impression.
The second part of the documentary follows Williams, and his anonymous companion, as they travel to central Burma posing as tourists. Having previously been blacklisted and banned from visiting Burma, Williams “sneaks” back in. He does not provide any details of how he arranged this but, as many New Mandala readers know, being blacklisted for a period of time does not always mean a permanent bar on entry to the country. Military dictatorships have oversights too. Williams and companion visit Rangoon and Mandalay, and other well-touristed areas in between. In Rangoon they apparently stay at the Savoy Hotel which, Williams reminds us, is not far from where Aung San Suu Kyi is kept under house arrest.
In Rangoon, Williams tells the camera that “I have to assume my room is bugged” and then gives his take on events from the balcony of his room. Not unlike many other travellers to Burma, he continuously found it difficult to get around or get access to people and places. After making four unsuccessful approaches, he finally finds a taxi-driver willing to take him to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. They are warned by the driver to not use their cameras but Williams’ companion still surreptitiously films from the backseat. Their rare footage is compelling for many reasons.
He follows this up with interviews with dissidents and the widow of a murdered political prisoner. In some cases, he goes to great lengths to hide their identities, and I expect, has actually fudged some of the details of their lives to shield them from potential recriminations. This is only fair. In one scene, where the camera only focuses on the shirts and hands of former political prisoners, he has even gone so far as to blur the interviewee’s watch and ring. Such easily identified personal items could be a tell-tale sign for any Burmese junta officials watching the film who may be keen to get back at Williams’ contacts.
Perhaps the most poignant moments in this documentary come from the interview with U Sein Win, a frail and outspoken National League for Democracy leader. He says that “to see foreigner and to talk freely with foreigner…is very difficult”. U Sein Win anticipates arrest and expects that when he is arrested he will not leave prison alive. Such is the “hate” of the military government and its henchmen. U Sein Win also points to the impossibility of holding the Burmese people captive year after year. He foreshadows a time when there is a backlash, and when blood must be spilled.
Soon after these interviews, Williams abruptly departs Burma. He says that the Burmese Special Branch is tracking his movements and intimidating his contacts. He is forced to leave quickly. It is awkward end to this most fascinating section of the film.
In the third, and least satisfactory, part of the documentary, Williams attempts to build a case against the investment, trade and tourism activities that prop up the junta. He includes film of the Unocal and Total pipelines in southern Burma, and shows secret interviews filmed with the slave labourers who have built them. One woman says:
If we could kill them we would. We have been feeling pain and we want to return it [the pain] to them.
This section of the program is, I guess, aimed squarely at the British public. It particularly targets the involvement of Bermuda as a tax haven to shield investments in Burma. I do hope that important people were watching.
That egregious violations of human rights do happen under the auspices of foreign funded projects in Burma is almost beyond doubt. There are now years worth of information and evidence. This brutal system largely continues. That the world has turned its back on Burma for so long, with so little to show for it, suggests that a very different approach is now needed.
Early on, Williams calls Burma “the last true military dictatorship”. Unfortunately, since Williams made his documentary things have changed. Recent events in Thailand, demonstrate that in Southeast Asia Burma is now in good company. Thais may not like to hear it – but many have cheered on their military dictatorship. What would be worse would be to see a contest for the title of last true military dictatorship.
In Burma, the dictatorship – while brutally effective at maintaining its rule – has done an abysmal job of managing the country and its resources. Some of the least recognised human rights violations in Burma, and the ones that impact everybody, are those that target the economy and restrict its vitality. The grinding poverty and the chastening stagnation of initiative and creativity are just another black mark against a regime that is shameless in its abuse of its own people.
As Williams concludes, the government has no external enemies but still maintains one of the largest armies in the region. Today, its army is used almost solely to subjugate its own people.
Williams’ covert documentary demonstrates, once again, that Burma’s paranoid and reclusive military junta cannot be understood through just waiting for news to filter out. Some information must be tracked down, the hard way. Sometimes risks are involved. Under some circumstances, those risks can be worth taking. Films like this can help to ensure that this secret war, with its secret victims and secret perpetrators, will see the light of day.