Studio 9 Films gains access to a fighting force looking to overthrow the military regime in Myanmar
Pictured above: Pro-democracy protestors from the mainland receiving military training from ethnic insurgents at a Kachin training camp.
Producer Tom Sheahan, in association with Studio 9 Films, writes about his experience of working with local crews at an ethnic armed military training camp in the remote jungles of Myanmar. Before the coup in February 2021, Tom had already been working with local filmmakers who were documenting the environmental destruction of a unique forest habitat. But when the army took over 6 months ago, it was time to cover a very different story…
When I first arrived in Burma (as Myanmar was then officially known) back in 1990, the military junta had just overturned the results of an election, they had recently massacred pro-democracy demonstrators and thousands of young people, mostly students, from the Burman majority had fled to the jungles to join ethnic nationality insurgents in their fight against the regime.
The parallels with spring 2021 are uncanny. (For those with even longer memories, this is a dynamic familiar from the first military coup of Burma’s modern history two decades earlier in 1962).
In Manerplaw, the headquarters of the Karen National Union where I had come to work as a teacher full of naïve optimism, revolution was in the air. Hundreds of young men and women had arrived over the previous two years following a brutal crackdown on their movement in 1988. The All Burma Students Democratic Front as they were known had formed an alliance with a dozen or so ethnic armed organisations and were fighting vigorously in the jungles against the Tatmadaw – the Burmese army. The month I arrived a group of exiled politicians formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Myanmar and lobbied internationally for support in overthrowing the military regime and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest.
The sequence of events was almost identical to those that followed the coup in February 2021. But there are important differences too – not just the name of the country. It is of little consolation that this time the army has killed 800 protestors – not over three thousand as they did in 1988. The timeline of protests and crackdown has been hugely accelerated, mainly because the internet has utterly transformed the flow of information. And this time there was hanging over Myanmar the shadow of the Rohingya genocide. But most significantly as it turned out this coup has coincided with a pandemic. In the end this will be the most decisive difference of all when it comes to hideous, tragic and avoidable loss of life. The collapse of the already fragile health service following the military take over, the crackdown on the medical profession by a military so paranoid they would rather watch their population die in thousands than allow dissident doctors freedom to treat them, the failure of the economy and the stifling of information have conspired to amplify the effects of the pandemic.
When news of an impending coup emerged in late January, I was already working remotely in my spare time with a very talented group of local filmmakers in eastern Myanmar to help them document environmental destruction in a unique forest habitat by military backed agribusinesses. They were perfectly placed to document the coup and its aftermath in a way no international journalist could. Alongside the regime’s crackdown on the media, and the general inaccessibility of these remote jungle areas there was now the additional difficulty of covid travel restrictions. Anyway, it was high time local voices were heard telling their own stories.
By now protests were erupting throughout the country. The crackdown was in full force in the cities with hundreds already dead and thousands more arrested. Just like 1988, politicians were fleeing to neighbouring India and Thailand and activists were starting to arrive in insurgent controlled border regions looking to join the armed resistance. Unlike the 88 generation, these young people had experienced a decade of quasi democratic, semi-civilian rule. They had smart phones and social media. They’d seen some opening of the once closed economy and benefited from a vigorous and questioning media. And the brutality of the crackdown had convinced them the military should no longer have any part in governing the country.
I contacted Fiona Lloyd Davies at Studio 9 Films to see if she could use her broadcast contacts to help local filmmakers to document the aftermath of the coup.When Fiona received the email - she thought there must be a mistake. It was almost identical to one I had sent her ten years previously which had suggested we work with local filmmakers to cover the elections. She assumed it must have been an old email that had accidentally wound up at the top of her inbox. But not for long - because this time the story was different. The idea that civilians pro-democracy activists from central Myanmar and ethnic nationality insurgents from the borders areas could form an alliance would be a game changer. Together we reached out to Al Jazeera and decided to make a film that would focus on a group of trainees in a Kachin training camp. Could they be the new fighting force to take on the military regime?
Tom Sheahan, 2nd August 2021 People and Power | Myanmar: An Uneasy Alliance | Now available to watch online on Al Jazeera English: https://www.aljazeera.com/program/people-power/2021/7/31/myanmar-an-uneasy-alliance