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Burma at 70: Why it’s time to end the Myanmar morality play

Guards of honour stand at attention during a flag-raising ceremony to mark Burma’s 65th Independence Day at the People’s Square near Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon on 4 January 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Like 90 percent of countries around the world, every year Burma (now Myanmar) marks the day its corner of the world was supposed to have changed for the better. Here it’s 4 January, when the country gained its independence from Britain. As arbitrary as it can sometimes feel, Independence Day is at least a good opportunity for reflection. Even more so when it’s a nice round number like 2018, which marks exactly 70 years of independence for Myanmar.

Every day, wherever I am, I start my morning by reading at least one article about Myanmar, a country that’s dominated my life for a decade. As I browsed news sites, blog posts, Facebook and Twitter on the 4th, I expected a dozen eloquent elegies to a country whose high hopes have fallen.

I wasn’t disappointed. Nor was I surprised.

For the past six months, the subject of my morning read has been distressingly consistent — the plight of the Muslim-minority Rohingya: unfolding stories of mass killings and gang rapes, and of a fledgling elected government unable, or unwilling, to stop or even acknowledge it. Among the ringing demands for sanctions, for boycotts, for something to be done are the same questions, to which no author can offer an answer: Will those responsible for appalling crimes be held to account? Will the Rohingya be allowed to return home? Can two polarised communities pitted in conflict ever live side by side in peace?

Or will they remain, like so many others around the world: homeless, stateless and fighting for generations to come?

If history is any guide, I’d bet the latter is depressingly likely.

And on days like Independence Day, when eyes turn to the future, history should be our guide. Amid the thousands of words I read, it was the blunt appraisal of Myanmar’s famous historian Thant Myint U that stood out:

“The truth is that Myanmar has been a poor and war-torn country for 70 years.”

The last seven decades have indeed been filled with sadness. Poverty, dictatorship, and civil conflict still raging across the country have left the nation racked by a series of urgent crises, extending well beyond the tragedy of northern Rakhine. But the seven decades that came before weren’t a cake walk either, as the last kings of Burma faced the reality of their diminishing power in a world of European empires and insatiable international greed.

The last decade during which I have lived, explored and studied the history of this country had, however, felt undeniably different. Rising from the bloodstained ashes of the poorly-named Saffron Revolution of 2007, and the almost biblical destruction wreaked by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Myanmar has seemed a country on the mend. Six months ago, someone might have written that while 13 February in Tibet is surely bittersweet, or 18 April in Zimbabwe just marks the day when the iron glove was passed from a foreign-born hand to one locally grown, Myanmar’s Independence Day in 2018 was going to be truly worth celebrating. It would have been the final fairy tale chapter in the great Myanmar morality play — a stage set with heroines and villains, somehow more good, or more evil than the rest of us. With the Rohingya crisis, however, we’ve been denied our fairy tale ending, and international heartbreak has turned, as it inevitably would, to confusion and hatred.

When I first came to Myanmar in 2008, I’d been eager to sit back and enjoy the morality show in all its blacks and whites. But inevitably, in all my years living and working here, I’ve only ever met people in the most beguiling shades of grey. People who for their entire lives have been forced to make the murky choices that come with life under a regime that was at best incompetent and corrupt. People who today are battling with how to solve wicked problems with limited resources, or to remake old certainties in a world blown open by the winds of rapid change.

I’ll admit, I have met almost-angels on my travels, but not where I’d expected.

Like the legions of talented young Myanmar professionals who refuse the lure of far better pay and conditions with Western firms, and commit themselves to invisible but important work in the national interest — work for which they will never be credited.

I’ve also met people close to demons, but not where I’d predicted.

Like the decorated foreign correspondent who had parachuted in to cover Myanmar’s first credible election in November 2015, but instead got riotously drunk, hurled racist and sexist slurs at passers-by, and cursed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for daring not to grant him an interview. (Many of The Lady’s decisions have been criticised of late — that one, however, I couldn’t fault.)

“Myanmar may well become a peaceful, prosperous democracy,” continued Thant Myint U, “but future success will depend at least in part on how well people understand their complex and often tragic history and its connections to the history of the world.”

It’s something all of us who are reflecting on the state of Myanmar at 70 would do well to remember. For all our fine words and good intentions, the solutions to Myanmar’s problems have and always will lie with the people of Myanmar themselves. They will be the ones responsible for cleaning up the mess when the world moves on to the next man-made tragedy — and it will — and we must do our best to support them in that. But how can we?

Well for a start, for this Independence Day, what those of us outside can do is not keep the morality play alive for another decade. While not giving up hope for better, we must recognise that Myanmar is in equal parts as complex, tragic, dangerous, dysfunctional and wonderful as every other place across the world, and that our solutions and support should be grounded accordingly.

At the very least, if we can’t kick the habit, perhaps we can sit up and notice when the play we’re watching is devoid of any actors from Myanmar at all. Like when famous faces from miles away bemoan that their Oriental angel is now a demon, while ignoring that she was never either, and she was certainly never theirs. Or when we egg on Twitter storms of indignation, conducted in a foreign language, where the masonry of moral certitude collides with the boulders of bigotry, until everyone is showered in grit.

From my years making films in this part of the world, I’ve learned that allowing the people of Myanmar to speak for themselves, and to themselves, is pretty much the one useful thing I can do; showing their hues of grey in technicolour is the only constructive part I can play in building that common understanding that Thant Myint U describes. And that’s why, despite the dire news I read most mornings, I’m going to keep on doing it in 2018. Because the bleaker the outlook, the more vital those voices and those images become.

When I asked one of those voices — Taw Phaya, grandson of the last king of Burma — what message he had for the British (the nation that kidnapped his grandfather, imprisoned his family, and occupied his country) he paused for a moment, then said:

“I wish them luck, that’s all.”

So, at the start of your 71st year, I wish the same to the people of Myanmar, of all races and religions. At the risk of buying another ticket to that damn morality play, you deserve it.

Alex Bescoby is an award-winning filmmaker, and cofounder of independent documentary-house Grammar Productions. He’s been working, living and studying in Myanmar since 2008, and is particularly passionate about the shared history of Myanmar and his native Britain. His recent feature documentary, We Were Kings – telling the story of Burma’s lost royal family – received the largest funding award in UK documentary and recently premiered in Myanmar  He’s now working with Grammar on new documentary projects with a history angle in Myanmar, including Forgotten Allies (due for release in November 2018), which explores the legacy of World War II in Myanmar.

This piece was originally published by Tea Circle.