11 Minutes To Read

The Red Right Hand of Burmese Military Cinematic Propaganda

11 Minutes To Read
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  • David Scott Mathieson asks, if this is the quality of military propaganda, how could they have stayed in power for so long?

    A Red Blanket, Directed by Tin Aung Soe (Pan Myo Taw), 2hrs 40mins, 2023.

    It’s one of those clichés of the Burmese military that it is a ‘state within a state’, but viewing this year’s central pro-Sit-Tat feature film, it’s also a mental state within a mental state, one in which reality rarely intrudes. The 2023 film A Red Blanket (Saung Nilay Tahtae) was released to commemorate the 78th Armed Forces Day of the Myanmar military on March 27, airing on Myawaddy TV just days before the grand parade in Naypyidaw. Part 1 and Part 2 of the film are available for viewing on YouTube. I don’t recommend it highly, but it provides some imperfect illumination into Burmese military propaganda and self-deception.

    The film is set in Kachin State, on operations with troops of the Burma army, or Sit-Tat, Northern Command. We see the very odd-looking young lieutenant Zaw Ye Htet leading his soldiers on patrol in the hills. Spotting a squad of Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers he takes off in hot pursuit. He kills three of the Kachin soldiers and captures their assault rifles. But he is admonished by his intensely thoughtful platoon corporal, an ethnic Karen called Saw Berry (his soldiers call him ‘Strawberry’, what fun they have on operations!). “You are too audaciously brave. Being audacious and courage are different from dare-devil…enemies in this region are cruel and very cunning.” Saw Berry becomes overly protective, to the point of stalking, his young officer.

    This is where we first encounter the film’s villain, the KIA officer Brang Seng. Now Brang Seng is clearly bad news. He wears fingerless gloves. He speaks in the third person. His wife Seng Ja berates him for being a deadbeat dad. He pledges bloody revenge for the three KIA soldiers Zaw Ye Htet audaciously killed (and the three guns lost too). It is thus unfortunate that he bears a striking resemblance to U Lwin Ko Latt, the National Unity Government (NUG) Minister for Home Affairs and Immigration. The similarities don’t stop there, as we are witness to Brang Seng’s brutal battlefield behavior.

    Zaw Ye Htet is his mother’s favored son – her “nest-egg”, she calls him – and urges him not to be too audacious on operations so he can care for her in her dotage. It turns out Zaw Ye Htet has an older brother who is also an infantry officer. The brother, who is never actually named that I could tell, despite repeated viewings, gives the favored younger son a watch (this will become a dramatic device).

    Back in Kachin State, Zaw Ye Htet’s unit is ambushed by Brang Seng’s Kachin soldiers. Corporal Saw Berry rescues the lieutenant when he is shot in the leg. Saw Berry is shot in the shoulder, and needs to stash his commanding officer in a bush to rally their troops for a rescue mission. But Zaw Ye Htet breaks cover, and stumbles away by himself. At some point it occurs to him to use his first aid kit to put a bandage on his leg and drink some water. But he is discovered by a Kachin teenager called La Seng, who immediately hands him over to Brang Seng and his men.

    The KIA officer begins a sadistic interrogation. He cuts off one of Zaw Ye Htet’s ears, without a Stealers Wheel soundtrack to lighten the moment, before stabbing him to death and ordering his men to dump the corpse in the river. He purloins the dead Zaw Ye Htet’s watch once gifted by his unnamed brother. Brang Seng gives the watch to La Seng, who happens to be his younger brother, while their father Brang Tu, often referred to as A Wa, looks on in horror from up the hill (strangely enough, he’s always lurking behind a tree watching events from afar).

    But the truly angry character is Corporal Saw Berry, who cradles his dead lieutenant’s body by the riverbank and swears revenge on the Kachin. Zaw Ye Htet’s mother is heartbroken, but tells her eldest, lesser loved, son “don’t fight to take revenge.” Cut back to Kachin State and Captain Older Brother is now serving in a special commando unit of the 88 Light Infantry Division (LID), tasked with patrolling villages where there are numerous mines supposedly planted by civilians. In a major plot twist, his subordinate is none other than recently promoted Sergeant Saw Berry! The virtuous professional officer bestowed with maternally instructed restraint is paired with the agent of vicious vengeance.

    The commando patrol captures La Seng and subjects him to a beating, suspecting him of planting landmines. Saw Berry wants to cut him up and shoot him. The virtuous captain, heeding his mother’s calming advice, refuses to allow this, so the hysterical sergeant fires off a clip of his machine gun in anger. But La Seng is set free. After an exciting battle scene between the Sit-Tat and KIA, one Kachin soldier is captured. The captain begins his nighttime interrogation by pulling out his pistol and telling the trussed-up Kachin soldier, “Now, let’s have a placid chat without disputing (sic).”

    Meanwhile, trouble is brewing at the Brang Seng household. The KIA officer informs his younger brother that he must got to school. To Myitkyina? “No. To Laiza. There…you have to learn everything about revolution!” Dramatic facial reactions, booming diegetic music. Brang Seng has another encounter with his father who lectures him to stop forcible child soldier recruitment, and Seng Ja gives him grief about ignoring his young offspring again. It’s a tense scene. After the obligatorily ominous tauk khauk deh (a pronounced cluck of the tongue, a Myanmar cultural signal that ire has been raised) the ear slicer storms off. There is some premonition that he’s going to do worse stuff. A showdown looms.

    A military doctor, Captain Aye Naing, joins the Sit-Tat commando unit. This unleashes an avalanche of ‘bro’ (a ko ye) calling: all of the officers in the film call each other bro, there is a lot of bromancing in the script. The Sit-Tat call off an ambush on a church wedding they know Brang Seng will be attending, after pleading from A Wa. Then the real conversion to the Sit Tat starts, as the doctor saves Brang Seng’s sick son. The boy recovers and asks where his saviors came from (in Jingpaw). “From far-away region where Burmese majority lives” his mother answers. “It’ll be OK if they come to us frequently.” An astonishingly unoriginal savior trope. Yet La Seng and his fiancé Bawk Mai have a similar self-discovery, when they wonder, “(s)hould people hate each other due to different race and religion?” The young Kachin is disillusioned with Brang Seng’s abusive behavior and the KIA, having his mind opened not just by his church, but the compassion of Captain Older Brother as well. After all, as Bawk Mai argues, in historically distorted fashion, didn’t the Kachin and the Burmese band together to fight the British during colonial times? Well, no, they didn’t.

    The KIA increasingly lose ground and civilian respect, as the Sit-Tat professionally fight the enemy away from villages. Captain Older Brother engages A Wa with deference. Brang Seng is badly wounded in an ambush, and is forced to take shelter at his parent’s home. The Burmese commando unit arrives to wish the family Merry Christmas, and the bro doctor treats an unconscious Brang Seng. Eventually Saw Berry wonders who the wounded man is. Extreme tension ensues, with Saw Berry exhorting his superior to allow him to extrajudicially execute the brutal Brang Seng. The captain defuses the situation by telling the Kachin family and his men that he is Zaw Ye Htet’s biological brother. A great outpouring of emotion results. La Seng tries to hand back the corpse stripped watch, but the virtuous captain refuses and tells the Kachin youth, “La Seng, you are my little brother now.”

    Then Brang Seng, churlish to he who saved his life, calls in an ambush on the Burmese troops just before his radio dies. His family turns on him, and seemingly the entire Kachin revolution, and in a suspiciously rapid realization of his ingratitude, Brang Seng runs to warn the Burmese column, but dramatically collapses on the way. It all leads to the dramatic dénouement, where the red blanket that A Wa is often seen wearing as a poncho comes to play its pivotal role, as Brang Seng grabs it upon leaving his village.

    For all the foreigners obsessed at Burmese armed conflict body counts, there will be satisfying satiation at the blood bath of the film’s conclusion. Director Tin Aung Soe is obviously a fan of Sam Peckinpah. All the Sit-Tat characters are violently killed in the KIA ambush; the compassionate captain, the noble doctor, and the insane Sergeant Saw Berry and the rest of the foot soldiers, slaughtered in gruesome slow motion.

    Or are they?

    Spoiler alert. The slain Sit-Tat all resume life in an ingenious reversal of fortune twist, complete with the requisite tape rewind sound effect. The fallen Brang Seng rallies, running to warn the column walking into the KIA trap. He waves the red blanket from atop a hill, but not being seen by the soldiers he hurls the blanket into the air and it floats resolutely forward, like Aladdin’s magic flying carpet, to drape itself over a tree trunk. Captain Older Brother sees this for the warning it is, and the soldiers turn away from the KIA kill zone for the happy ending where they all live, knowing that Kachin civilians are on their side. Brang Seng and his reconciled family play with some balloons.

    So in some strange rendition of a morality play, a war criminal saves the bigger war criminals through an epiphany of fundamental Sit Tat virtue? For Brang Seng it is conversion from a life of atrocity and insurgency, and recognizing how the Burmese army are good for the Kachin people. For Sergeant Saw Berry, it is transformation from a thirst for divine retribution to a form of conflict sensitivity where the Kachin are no longer the enemy. For Captain Older Brother it is a mixture of professional conduct and his mother’s sage advice. This is a long winded description to come to an obvious conclusion: the film is utter codswallop. If this is the quality of military propaganda, how could they have stayed in power for so long?

    Key features of many Myanmar films are present: the overly dramatic screenwriting which ensures wooden acting, the inappropriately inserted soaring music which makes no sense as it muffles dialogue, the widely uneven sound quality, and makeup effects seemingly designed to look obviously inept and smudgy. A Wa’s frosted hair makes him look like a crusty German glam rocker in a Hamburg dive bar, not a Kachin senior citizen. The Burmese allegories are often mystifying, but then it could simply be bad scriptwriting. The standard Burmese propaganda Socratic dialogue method makes for some hilariously labored scenes, especially as the captain sprouts his insincere clichés to Saw Berry. It’s like the untalented amateur theatrical troupe of the Defence Services Academy (DSA) went on tour.

    It’s not the first time that propaganda films have sought broader respectability. Ever since the post-1988 military regimes, starting with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), feature films were produced to laud the sacrifice of the military to hold the post-1989 Union of Myanmar together through struggle against multiple ethnic or drug gang insurgencies.

    As Bo Bo observes in the essay “Raising Xenophobic Socialism against a Communist Threat”, and as the scholar Mary Callahan describes in Making Enemies, early on the Myanmar military pursued propaganda, first through the pages of the Myawaddy magazine and progressively through other mediums such as film, as much directed at ‘internal’ xenophobia as ‘external’ xenophobia. That is to say, much of Myanmar military propaganda is about propagating the image of the noble soldier keeping the Union together and ‘saving’ the exotic ‘ethnic’ people: Kachin ‘belles’ feature heavily on the covers of Myawaddy and Oway (Forward). My favorite cover has always been a chorus line of Kachin women in Jingpaw traditional dress with the Karen State Zweygabin Mountain as the backdrop: fusion ethnicity.

    The intellectual Ye Hein Aung has recently examined the role of Burmese films in military propaganda in the report Are you talking seriously or just paying lip service? Studies on the view of Civil War and Genocide in Burma, from the Burma Civil War Museum. He analyzes numerous films, such as Union Oath (Pyi Htaung Su Thitsar), as well as directors and performers such as the actress Soe Myat Nandar. Ye Hein Aung casts the Burmese film industry in a poor light, especially given that many post-coup have supported the SAC, and the astonishing reality that a production such as The Red Blanket could be made after so much violence in the country. As Ye Hein Aung writes of the film industry’s collaboration, “(s)ome took part because they worry about the pressure by the (Burma) army and some took part because they expected favors from the (Burmese) army…(t)he possibility of winning an academy award…is a big incentive. In some situations, the people who took part in those movies took part in it because they firmly believed the political and historical views created one-sidedly by the Myanmar army and successive governments.”

    In 2018, Our Beloved, a typically stirring portrayal of an army unit battling a drug dealing militia warlord, was a vehicle for, as The Economist put it, “war-film clichés—comradeship between privates and fatherly officers, lamentation for fallen comrades.” In The Red Blanket there are certainly these trends, between the fatherly Sergeant Saw Berry and the younger officer brothers, both of whom he protects and loves. And yet what appears to be attempts to humanize the Burmese army and justify their mission is a miserable failure. Sadism saturates every scene portraying the Sit-Tat.

    The unsettling ear-severing episode feeds the perception of the Kachin as savage and untamed. Kachin soldiers fighting against the Japanese in World War Two would reportedly sever ears to impress the Americans they fought alongside. This evokes colonial-era impressions of the exotic warrior savage. This is mentioned in Lin Poyer’s recent book War at the Margins: Indigenous Experiences in World War II, where “(t)he Kachin practice of cutting off ears of the dead to record the number killed had an added advantage of terrorizing Japanese soldiers.” The Red Blanket also portrays the Kachin as mostly decent Christian folk, but also misguided and needing to be brought to heel to become productive members of the Union. It is these clumsy, racist narratives of the Bama protector that has incensed multiple ethnic communities for decades, and still resonates loudly today.

    The film also completely distorts Kachin culture and language. As one friend wrote in a scathing review of the film on Facebook, “calling each other Awa (A Wa) and Anu (A Nu) is like “fuck you father, fuck you mother.” Cultural appropriation becomes cultural insult. Was this intentional on the part of the filmmakers? Or simply a case of cultural linguistic cluelessness? Quite likely intentionally. So too is the inept use of Christianity as somehow a moderating factor on the simple minded Kachin. No wonder these films and the deeply rooted chauvinism they bear enrage ethnic communities around Burma.

    In some respects, The Red Blanket resembles the moral dilemmas presented in recent American war films such as Lone Survivor and American Sniper. However, in these, American crimes are excused, and even psychopathic mass murderers like Chris Kyle, the sniper of the film, are venerated. There is actually some similarity in the scene where Saw Berry wants to torture and kill La Seng, and the discussion between members of the SEAL team in Lone Survivor after they capture three Afghan civilians and debate killing them. The SEALS release the civilians, just as the Sit-tat do.

    There is a subtle pushback on abiding by international law in many recent American war films. In the earlier briefing scene in Lone Survivor, as the military lawyer gives a presentation on abiding by the laws of armed conflict, one of the assembled SEAL’s is seen shaking his head in obvious frustration that it’s a waste of time. This was the actual Marcus Luttrel, the purported ‘lone survivor’ of Operation Red Wings: the message seems to be ‘showing mercy backfires.’ But in sly fashion, Hollywood often turns atrocity into virtue. In clumsy fashion, so too does Burmese propaganda.

    Maung Maung Ohn, the SAC Minister of Information, this year visited the Myanmar Motion Picture Association to give ‘necessary instructions’ and was reported to have remarked, “the cooperation between the ministry and film industry achieved certain success previously and it should prepare to show the films not only in the country but also at the international film festival and ceremonial occasions and consider how to promote the role of Myanmar films.” It’s not clear for what end he suggests this. Does he honestly consider foreigners would fall for such slapstick when most Burmese don’t? Yet The Red Blanket was chosen to play at the ASEAN/Colombo Film Festival in Sri Lanka in mid-September.

    In March 2013, along the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Mandalay, I encountered a unit of 88 LID troopers in trucks, having disembarked from river ferries after their journey south from operations in Kachin State. They were all lightly wounded in one or another, haggard and dazed, but open to talking until I started asking where specifically they were in Kachin, and their wary sergeant told me move along. Apart from the uniforms, 88 LID patch and Maha Bandoola infantry insignia, they didn’t look much like the pukka Sit-Tat in The Red Blanket.

    But I still wonder if they saw themselves as noble protectors of the union, even if the real war in Kachin State bears little resemblance to the film. Or do they realize cinematic propaganda is constructed for them only, not the general public. How would the soldiers who filmed themselves bragging about decapitating corpses think of military propaganda cinema? And what of the men of the ‘Ogre Column’ operating in Sagaing Region, killing civilians and suspected insurgents, mutilating their bodies, and burning down villages? Would they see themselves in the virtuous character of Captain Older Brother? Or simply dismiss him as a wet blanket?

    David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict, humanitarian and human rights issues in Burma.

    (Threads: dsmathieson, Substack: @burmaconflict)

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