Home > Features > Burma Soldier
Fort Wayne resident and activist Myo Myint Cho is the subject of a new HBO documentary
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Among Burmese, the year 1988 holds special significance.
The nation had been under the heel of an oppressive military dictatorship since 1962, and in those 26 years had endured brutal civil wars, a crumbling economy, violent ethnic conflict, and horrific political oppression under General Ne Win.
But in 1988, General Ne Win drastically devalued the currency of the already impoverished country, stating that any monies divisible by the number nine were invalid. The reason for this bizarre and arbitrary decision — he was following the advice of an astrologer.
All over the country, huge numbers of protestors took to the streets in what became known as the 8888 Uprising. Many people were killed or arrested by government forces during the demonstrations.
Among the thousands of people arrested was Myo Myint Cho. He was tortured and sentenced to 15 years in prison; his excessive punishment was due in part to his telling the judge, “I don’t believe in the military regime.”
Myo Myint Cho now lives in Fort Wayne with his younger sister (also arrested in 1988, though not convicted) and her husband (another former political prisoner jailed for 11 years) where he continues to work for freedom and democracy in Burma.
He’s the subject of Burma Soldier, a new HBO documentary by award-winning filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern (The Trials of Darryl Hunt; The Devil Came On Horseback) and Nic Dunlop, that debuts on HBO May 18.
On May 17, the day before its debut on HBO2, there will be a screening of Burma Soldier at the Allen County Public Library Theater, followed by a discussion. My Myint Cho and filmmaker Annie Sundberg will participate in the discussion afterwards.
Myo Myint Cho was well aware of the evils of Burma’s military dictatorship long before he was imprisoned — he had personally born witness to them as a young soldier in the Burmese army.
He joined the army in part to simply earn a living. Burma was (and still is) very poor, and Myo Myint Cho couldn’t find a job. He did not have a university education — he was only 17 — and saw the military as a way to earn money. But also, as a young man, he saw the military as an honorable profession. “I was born in military culture,” he says. “My father was a former military man. I thought all the soldiers were very smart. They are protecting the people and the sovereignty of the state and the property of people. I think ‘as a military man, I’ll be caring for my people and country.’ But I was totally wrong.”
Indeed, as detailed in Burma Soldier, what he saw in the military was horrific. Along with many fellow soldiers who were as young as he was (25% of them under age 16), Myo Myint Cho underwent training that systematically normalized killing and torture to suppress insurgency. Burma was in the throes of civil war, and the military was brutal towards anyone suspected of being its enemy. Soldiers used locals to sweep for mines; young women, many from ethnic minorities, were raped and murdered. In the film, Myo Myint Cho says that for the soldiers, such abuse “…is just as normal as eating and drinking.”
Myo Myint Cho lost an arm, a leg, and several fingers in a mortar attack when he was 24. Already shaken by what he had seen as a soldier, Myo Myint Cho’s beliefs started changing further while he was recovering and undergoing treatment in the hospital. He began reading some of the books that had been banned by the government.
“Inside Burma, all of the media is controlled by the military government,” he says. “Before anything is published, it must be read by the government censorship board. So they read carefully between the lines. Sometimes, they cut out a paragraph; sometime they disallow the entire thing. So there are a lot of government-banned books in Burma. If you buy or sell or read these books, you are arrested and sent to prison. But there are a lot of people, active in politics, who have a lot of these government-banned books. I had contacts with them, and they were able to get them to me.”
Myo Myint Cho eventually left the army, but only a few years later he was arrested during the 1988 crackdown and sent to prison for 15 years.
When he got out, at age 41, he was constantly watched by the government. He made the decision to flee to Thailand, where he hoped to reestablish communication with family members.
“It’s more than 700 miles from Rangoon to the border of Thailand,” Myo Myint Cho says. “There are a lot of military check points where they ask for your civilian identification card. When I was arrested, they took all my documentation, and did not issue me another I.D. when I got out of prison. But I retained my military registration card. At every check point they asked for my civilian I.D., I showed them my military I.D., so they let me through. They thought I was another solider.”
Myo Myint Cho eventually made it to the US and joined his sister and brother-in-law in Fort Wayne. He continues his political activism, and maintains as much contact as possible with friends still in Burma. He says he often uses Facebook to exchange news with friends there — the government maintains a firm grip on internet access, but Myo Myint Cho says that, for whatever reason, they allow Facebook.
It many ways, the struggles in Burma seem to have all the elements to make it a focal point of US concern — citizens living under an oppressive and brutal military dictatorship fighting for democracy, human rights, and freedom. The US government has refused to engage the military government there until just recently, and along with other nations has imposed very strict economic sanctions on the country. Yet Burma doesn’t seem to get as much attention from the US media as some other “hot spots” around the world where similar conflicts are happening. Anyone with a fleeting awareness of current events can tell you a little about what happened in Egypt or Tunisia over the past several months, but knowledge about Burma remains vague.
“Whenever I am invited by universities or schools to speak to students and answer questions, I’m very surprised that many of them have never heard about Burma,” Myo Myint Cho says. “They never heard about Aung San Suu Kyi, they never heard about our struggle for democracy and human rights. Because in Burma, we think the international community knows about us.”
Myo Myint Cho theorizes that one possible reason for this lack of knowledge is a sort of “media bias” that he believes is a hold over from the Cold War years. Many Americans, he points out, know far more about political oppression in places like China, Cuba, and even North Korea because these are communist countries. That’s how the US often sees political oppression, as part of communism. The military regime in Burma was (and still is) fervently anti-communist, Myo Myint Cho says. Considering Burma’s proximity to China and Vietnam, the US may simply have preferred to look the other way when the military coup happened in 1962 in the midst of the Cold War, perhaps hoping for a future ally in the war against communism.
But Myo Myint Cho sees that changing. He says the US government is talking much more about Burma these days, which in turn focuses more media attention on the conditions there.
Also, the US government is trying to deal with the new government in Burma, though he’s quick to point out that there’s nothing much new about the government at all — the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party that won elections in a landslide last year is the same organization as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, which was the party of the military’s State Law and Order Restoration Council. “They put on new clothes, they changed their name,” Myo Myint Cho says. “But the organization is all former military men. It’s not a new government.”
But while the US is trying to “talk” to the Burmese government, targeted economic sanctions against the country are still in place. That strategy has come under some criticism in recent years, with studies suggesting they’ve not had much effect. Yet Myo Myint Cho insists they are still needed. “No one expects only targeted economic sanctions to change our system, but we need sanctions to put pressure on the regime.”
Myo Myint Cho has seen Burma Soldier, and says watching it leaves him with mixed feelings. On one hand, he says, he’s very grateful to be able to talk about the situation in Burma. “I am very far away from my native land, and always I’m thinking ‘what can I do for my people and my country, for their struggle for democracy and human rights?’ Whenever I am asked to talk to people — to the media, to students, to someone from the State Department — I am very happy that I now have the right to talk about my people and my country. So maybe Burma Soldier will draw more attention to that.”
“But at the same time, many of my friends are still there. Many of my friends are still in prison. 65 years with hard labor… The political situation has not changed yet.”
Tuesday, May 17
Allen County Public Library
6:30 PM — screening
7:45 PM — discussion with Myo Myint Cho & filmmaker Annie Sundberg
SEATING IS LIMITED. RESERVATIONS ARE REQUIRED. Call (866) 717-6106 or e-mail homeboxoffice.com/rsvp/burma-_soldier
Burma Soldier debuts Wednesday, MAY 18 (8:00-9:15 p.m. ET/PT) on HBO2. Other HBO2 playdates: May 27 (11:00 a.m.) and 31 (2:15 p.m.)