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.”
Any wrongdoing in the jungle, however large or small in scope, was followed by great suffering.
During a 1984 operation, Myo Myint was ordered to clear a mine field so obliterated by shelling that it scarcely resembled the map in his hands. After wading into the field, a mortar shell explosion detonated one of his mines. The blast flung Myo Myint’s body into the air. He hit the dirt with his left leg and left arm either blown off or barely hanging on.
Myo Myint was discharged several years later. Crippled and living with his mother back in his hometown of Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, he read books compulsively and collected outlawed anti-government literature.
By the time protests erupted in 1988, Myo Myint was a full-fledged dissenter hobbling to rallies on crutches. The ex-soldier began recruiting troops to join the revolution with the blessing of protest icon Suu Kyi.
Myo Myint’s defiance did not go unpunished. He was arrested, interrogated, brutally tortured and, after a sham trial, imprisoned for 15 years.
Today, Myo Myint lives in Fort Wayne, Ind., one of America’s largest Burmese resettlement cities. “Burma Soldier” chronicles his post-prison escape from Burma, his stay at a Thai refugee camp and his eventual relocation to America.
In Indiana, his brother — who evaded capture during crackdowns on protesters — has built a good life in suburbia and climbed the ranks at an auto manufacturing plant. The cameras trail Myo Myint from his dirt-floor refugee hut to the Midwest’s strip-mall landscape.
Myo Myint is now engaged to his resettlement caseworker — they met on his first night in the United States — and teaching English to new arrivals. He gets by on pay from a gig with Radio Free Burma and about $675 per month in federal Supplemental Security Income benefits for the disabled.
Recounting Myo Myint’s story is meant to “inject a little more nuance into the Burma debate,” Dunlop said. The author and photographer, best-known for his coverage of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, said the filmmakers hope to convey that people, not monsters, commit atrocities.
Years ago, after photographing forward-deployed Burmese troops in the hills, Dunlop observed that this reviled army more closely resembled “poor peasants and farmers’ kids. It’s a trite thing to say, but I was struck by how ordinary they were.”
Though Myo Myint shares the directors’ need to expose this lesser-known side of Burma’s war, the film has also awakened memories he’d rather let die.
“After I accepted to be the subject of that film, I had to tell a lot of things,” Myo Myint said. “But actually, I don’t want to re-think them. If possible, I would wipe it from my memory eternally.”
“Burma Soldier” recently premiered on HBO2. Watch the YouTube trailer.