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Ex-soldier shines light on hidden Myanmar war

April 26, 2011

Myo Myint
Former Burmese soldier turned pro-democracy activist Myo Myint gestures as he speaks at the US State Department in Washington on April 25, 2011. - Photo by AFP

WASHINGTON: As protests engulfed Myanmar in 1988, Myo Myint faced a stark decision. A soldier missing an arm and a leg, he believed he could persuade the army to show mercy if he spoke out. Or he could be shot.

Lifting himself by his crutches, Myo Myint took to the podium outside the military base. He wasn't shot and he won over soldiers who demonstrated in uniform. But soon he was tracked down and sentenced to 15 dire years in prison.

Now, however, Myo Myint has an audience as never before. A documentary on his life – including on his fateful choice to dissent – will air next month on US cable channel HBO and is being distributed clandestinely in Myanmar.

“Burma Soldier,” using the earlier name for Myanmar, features smuggled footage as it traces Myo Myint from the front lines of the ethnic war to the confines of prison to his new life as a refugee in the United States.

In an unusual step, the State Department held a public screening of “Burma Soldier.” Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia who has spearheaded an engagement drive with Myanmar, called the film “torturous.” “It's one of the most powerful things I have ever seen,” Campbell said Monday. “But at the same time it's incredibly inspirational.”

Myo Myint was born in 1963, a year after the military seized power in the ethnically diverse former British colony. In the film, he said that he grew up wanting to be treated as a soldier but observed in hindsight, “I didn't know the difference between people acting out of respect and acting out of fear.”

At age 17, he was already serving as an army “engineer,” which meant laying and clearing land mines. He recalled that the army would burn down homes at will, forcing villagers from ethnic minority groups to haul heavy equipment and to build roads.

In one graphic account, Myo Myint remembered how soldiers seized a young minority woman and raped her throughout the night. Later, he heard several shots and there was no further sign of her among the slave laborers.

After he was hit by a mortar that nearly cost him his life, Myo Myint was transferred to a hospital in the largest city Yangon and discovered the texts of Buddhism and other religions. With his pension money, he bought banned books on history and politics.

Vowing “I will fight for peace,” the soldier sought out Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy campaigner icon who later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

After his arrest in 1989, Myo Myint said he was forced into a hood stained by someone else's blood and was tortured with water. He said he was not allowed to read or write for 10 of his 15 years in prison, although guards occasionally smuggled him pens or books.

After his release, Myo Myint fled across the border to Mae Sot, Thailand, and in 2008 flew to Fort Wayne in the Midwestern state of Indiana, a US hub for refugees from Myanmar.

Attending the State Department screening of his film, Myo Myint pleaded for international pressure to free more than 2,000 political prisoners still in Myanmar and to stop Thailand from closing refugee camps.

“As a former refugee and a former political prisoner, I would like to request you to do whatever you can for the refugees along the Thai-Burma border,” he said.

Thailand recently said it would send more than 100,000 refugees back to Myanmar, saying that they had become a burden and pointing to the military's recent handover to a new post-election government. Critics say that Myanmar's changes have been purely cosmetic.

Journalist Nic Dunlop started work on “Burma Soldier” after meeting Myo Myint in Thailand. The film was produced by Julie LeBrocquy, a former bond trader who now focuses on making movies on otherwise overlooked subjects.

LeBrocquy said the film was also released in Myanmar through its network of unofficial distributors and bootleggers and that it “seems to be a blockbuster there in a Burmese way.” “I hope that this film has given a way for his voice not just to be heard in the West but to be heard in Burma, which is where it really matters,” she said. – AFP