How does a civil war happen? How do businesspeople, office workers and students morph into peaceful demonstrators, then rioters, then enemies of the state and internal exiles before finally becoming armed resistance fighters?
While we have been preoccupied with Covid and the horrors of Ukraine, this process has been playing out in Myanmar, a country that briefly opened the door to partial democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi before a military junta slammed it shut again. Seeing it documented in this film is heartbreaking and revelatory.
We begin in February 2021. The country is on the streets, protesting against the military coup staged at the beginning of the month by Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces. Suddenly, there is a moment that uncannily mirrors the scene in season one of The Handmaid’s Tale when protesters realise, with frozen, incredulous horror, that live rounds are coming their way and people are being killed.
Similar moments – when a state crosses the line and uses lethal force on its civilians – have occurred throughout history, but now these moments are captured on phones and livestreamed on Facebook. Even in repressive societies, word gets out. Soon, the protesters are heading for the hills.
What truly startles about this documentary is the access to the people – the painfully youthful and idealistic people – at the heart of this crisis. Once in the jungle, the protesters join up with guerrilla armies, who have been fighting the military for decades, and reconfigure themselves as the People’s Defence Force (PDF). It becomes clear that the members of the PDF are, essentially, kids. They train in groups with cut-out wooden guns because they have only one real firearm between them. They engage in unimpressive callisthenics in jungle clearings. The idea of them engaging in combat with trained soldiers is horrifying. But this only emphasises their bravery – they must know how figuratively and literally outgunned they are.
The intimacy achieved by the director, Katie Arnold, and her team provides astonishing insight into how autocracy, by definition, radicalises its opponents. If a government kills peaceful protest, it creates violent resistance. People are left with no choice. Simply by disagreeing, they become targets; enemies of the state.
Meanwhile, the crimes of the junta are deepening. A demonstration is assailed by a soldier in a car, who runs over and kills five protesters. In footage that is chillingly reminiscent of scenes from Ukraine, civilians are obliterated as they attempt to flee from villages attacked from the air. There is a hideous incident in which 31 resistance fighters are seemingly burned alive. Autopsies conclude that the victims were bound, to remove any possibility of escape. There are small retaliatory attacks involving improvised explosive devices, while weapons factories spring up in rural areas to arm the resistance.
Where is the UN in all this? It is complicated – but it shouldn’t be. “These are war crimes,” says Tom Andrews, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar. “These are innocent people being subject to attacks, to torture, to injury. And the UN security council has refused to even entertain a resolution to stop these attacks. The political will does not exist.” These are strong words. There is a strong suggestion, too, that Russia and China – allies of Myanmar – are conspiring to prevent action being taken.
This is, of course, an obscenity. It also makes obvious the power and value of courageous, implacable investigative journalism. You could argue that films such as this are all that the people of Myanmar have. There is an interview with an army general in which he damns the suggestion that the army targets civilians as “fake news”. There is an evil banality to the phrase at this point; the thoughtlessness with which any bad-faith actor can utilise it renders it grotesque and pathetic. But at least he was forced to say it.
At this point, the documentary becomes more than a TV programme; it becomes evidence. Because the footage in the film shows that the military does target civilians. The testimony of defectors from the army says so, too. This isn’t just a list of atrocities, to be mourned and then forgotten; it is the building of a case. That is what makes it such valuable journalism – it will be part of the future prosecution’s case in a war crimes trial, at such a time when the UN decides it has the stomach for it.
Watching this unfold, it is hard not to contemplate the move to privatise Channel 4, the only mainstream UK broadcaster still attempting journalism of this kind. In 2011, the channel’s documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields did something similar – the film won a Royal Television Society award and, more importantly, was screened at the European parliament. It made a difference.
Myanmar: The Forgotten Revolution might achieve something similar. Channel 4 is the home of It’s a Sin and Derry Girls, and that is wonderful. But it is also the channel telling stories that few people will see, but millions will come to know. Surely that is worth preserving.