Mythmaking in the New Myanmar

The film was supposed to win Aung San Suu Kyi’s father a place among the 20th century’s great leaders. Instead, it’s a reminder that the country’s story is still being written.

A supporter of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi holds a portrait of her father and independence hero General Aung San ahead of her arrival at the Bangkok National Verification Centre in Samut Sakhon on the outskirts of Bangkok on May 31, 2012.    Suu Kyi is on her first trip abroad in 24 years by telling an ecstatic crowd of Myanmar migrants in Thailand she would do all she could to help them.  AFP PHOTO/Christophe ARCHAMBAULT        (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/GettyImages)
A supporter of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi holds a portrait of her father and independence hero General Aung San ahead of her arrival at the Bangkok National Verification Centre in Samut Sakhon on the outskirts of Bangkok on May 31, 2012. Suu Kyi is on her first trip abroad in 24 years by telling an ecstatic crowd of Myanmar migrants in Thailand she would do all she could to help them. AFP PHOTO/Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/GettyImages)

YANGON, Myanmar — In late December 2013, shortly before the Christmas holiday, Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi made time in her busy schedule, in between meetings with foreign dignitaries and visiting heads of state, to sit down at her lakeside home in Yangon with an obscure Canadian film producer. Niv Fichman — whose recent production credits include the 2011 exploitation film Hobo With a Shotgun — had come to Myanmar on a mission: to help salvage an ambitious biopic about Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, the independence hero Aung San.

The movie was supposed to be Myanmar’s Gandhi or Che: a film with international appeal that could win Aung San a place in the pantheon of the great anti-colonial leaders of the 20th century. But just over a year out from the scheduled release date — Feb. 13, 2015, or what would have been Aung San’s 100th birthday — production was horribly off track. The filmmakers were struggling for money; the script was unworkable; and the number of people involved in the movie had ballooned.

Fichman had a number of recommendations at the ready: The script lacked humanity, he said — it still needed a personal struggle that would draw viewers into the story. Rather than focus on a list of Aung San’s accomplishments, he suggested drawing on the unlikely friendship between Aung San and a Japanese colonel, Suzuki Keiji, who’d advocated for Burmese independence, to provide a more intimate narrative within the historical drama that could help humanize the independence leader.

Fichman laid out some broad ideas in his meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, then, at her invitation, took his notes to the film’s overseeing committee. The meeting was tense. Fichman went through his critiques: The film needed character development, he said; the sprawling story line needed more focus. The group initially appeared receptive, he said. But a few days later, he received a message: The committee appreciated his views, it said, but would not be taking them into consideration. Fichman departed Yangon. The next February, the committee announced it would miss the release date, citing script troubles and financial difficulties. Even Aung San Suu Kyi’s seemingly inexhaustible reserves of goodwill abroad have not been enough to attract the type of financial support originally anticipated — $20 million to $25 million, which included budgets for filming on location in London and Japan. Today, almost two years later, the only piece of the film to have emerged after approximately 10 years in the works is a low-production-value, 12-minute trailer in Burmese posted to YouTube in February, though production continues to crawl along.

The decade-long struggle to make a movie about Myanmar’s national icon began when it was still a country ruled by a junta and was delayed by natural disasters, political unrest, and repression. But filmmakers in Myanmar today — a still-fragile country hunting for shared traditions and common symbols — are now running into what may be an even bigger obstacle. Despite their new freedom, those involved are struggling to reconcile Aung San the man with the hero various stakeholders who’ve co-opted his image — the military, the government, and his daughter — want and need him to be. The saga has become a lesson in the perils of national mythmaking in the new Myanmar.

* * *

The life of Aung San seemed to have all the trappings of a great film.

Born Htein Lin in a small town in what was then a province of British India, Aung San was the youngest of six children. Despite a humble upbringing, he showed academic promise from a young age, according to his daughter, and in 1933 he enrolled in Rangoon University where he quickly established himself as an influential student leader with a strong anti-colonial streak.

As editor of Rangoon University Student Union’s Oway magazine, he ran a nationalist, bitingly anti-British article titled “Hell Hound at Large” under an anonymous byline in 1936. When university officials demanded Aung San reveal the author, he refused and was threatened with expulsion. Students went on strike for months in protest, a show of support that helped bolster Aung San’s standing as a student leader.

Aung San had planned to continue to pursue a degree in law after completing his studies but abandoned his plans in 1938 in order to commit fully to politics. In 1940, a year after he helped found the Communist Party of Burma, he traveled secretly to China, seeking assistance in his fight for independence from the British. But it was the Japanese, not the Chinese, who would eventually aid Aung San in his campaign against Burma’s colonizers. In March 1942, Rangoon, the then-capital, fell to the Japanese, dealing a blow to the British empire. It was during this time that Aung San developed his unlikely friendship with Suzuki, the Japanese colonel and intelligence officer. The relationship “should have been fraught with problems, but the emotional connection is unexpected,” Fichman said. “And that always makes for a great movie.”

The broader Burma-Japan alliance was an uneasy one from the start, however. The Japanese revealed themselves to be a brutal occupying force, and in 1945, Aung San reformed an alliance with the British and led the Burma National Army alongside his former enemies to drive the new imperialists out. Following World War II, Aung San effectively served as the country’s prime minister until July 19, 1947, when, during a meeting of the government’s executive council, gunmen affiliated with former Prime Minister U Saw, a political rival, burst into the room, killing him, along with six of his colleagues, including his brother.

“As the survivors ran out, they left behind a miserable scene that would alter the course of Burma’s history forever: the smell of carbide, blood-stained floors, spent cartridge cases, and the bodies of the father of Burmese independence and some of his closest associates,” historian Michael Charney wrote in his book A History of Modern Burma.

Aung San left behind a 2-year-old daughter who would, with the help of his legacy, be propelled to international fame as the country’s resilient democracy champion some 40 years after his death.

“If it were not for the name she inherited, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had no political experience prior to 1988, would not have been the choice of the people to lead the nationwide democratic movement in 1988,” said Angelene Naw, a professor of history at Judson University in Illinois and the author of Aung San and the Struggle for Burmese Independence.

In Myanmar today, Aung San still looms large in daily life: Many Myanmar citizens know the story of Aung San’s meteoric rise to prominence by heart; statues of him dot the country, and national holidays pay tribute to his accomplishments. But though widely admired within the country, Aung San has been largely relegated to obscurity internationally, eclipsed by Myanmar’s subsequent history of unsavory military dictatorship and his own daughter’s struggles for democracy (which themselves were turned into the 2011 film The Lady, released to middling reviews).

Zarganar, a famed Myanmar comedian and prominent human rights and democracy activist, set out to change this in 2005 when he began drafting a screen play. “There is a movie about Gandhi; there is a movie about Uncle Ho [Chi Minh]. Where is the movie about our leader?” he asked himself.

His plans were disrupted in 2008: Zarganar was imprisoned for three years by the ruling junta for criticizing the government. But when he was released in October 2011, along with hundreds of other political prisoners, prospects for the film were looking up. Myanmar was undergoing a process of reform. It had a new, nominally civilian, government, under a new president, Thein Sein. Aung San Suu Kyi, too, had been released from house arrest and had gotten word of Zarganar’s movie ambitions. She not only wanted the film made — she wanted to personally oversee the project, according to Zarganar.

Producers, historians, directors, and politicians lined up to pledge their support to the film. A release date was set, and work began on what producers hoped would be a fitting tribute to Aung San’s life.

* * *

The process began smoothly enough. There was a nationwide search for the actors who would play Aung San. Rumors swirled in domestic media over who would fill the role as over 400 men submitted applications. The list was then whittled to seven candidates who auditioned in front of Aung San Suu Kyi in July 2012. Two were selected — one to play Aung San as a young man, the other to play him as a statesman. Neither had ever acted before; the board deliberately chose amateurs because they wanted men who embodied the ideals of Aung San, rather than just actors, according to film producer Eve Eve Khine.

There were a few stumbles: After producers found out that Kyauk Khae, the actor who was to play the older Aung San, had two wives, he was dropped from the movie for fear he could sully Aung San’s image. But the remaining actor, Kyaw Kyaw Moe, a professional soccer player who bore a striking resemblance to Aung San as a young man, was making steady progress. He underwent intensive acting classes to get him up to snuff. He studied with a French acting coach and received three months of military training from a retired general so he could play a convincing soldier. The actors, inexperienced as they were, would not be the film’s downfall.

The film committee scrapped Zarganar’s original script, opting instead for a fresh start. It tapped three well-known historians to pen a new version. While Kyaw Kyaw Moe was training, the writers were busy researching and poring over historical documents. The script-writing process was supposed to take four months; it ended up taking over a year. In April 2013, they submitted a sprawling, painfully detailed product to the film’s committee, having tried to balance historical accuracy with a desire to avoid offending all parties. Unfortunately, neither goal was conducive to good storytelling.

“The script writers wrote a very long story,” said Eve Eve Khine. “It was a very heavy script. We couldn’t use this for the film.” A trimmed-down version was hurriedly produced and translated into English, but the finished product still resembled more of a one-sided documentary than a big-screen drama. Fichman’s suggestions for humanizing Aung San through his relationship with Suzuki were rejected. Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, the film’s director, said in an interview that he was seeking a script that would “prioritize heroism.” But in trying to elevate Aung San’s life, the committee wound up with a script that had no drama, no conflict for the main character, Fichman said. “If people want a history, they can read a book,” he said.

As the screenplay stands now, “Aung San is very similar to Superman,” said Zarganar, the comedian. “He is not like a human being.”

* * *

The military junta that ruled Myanmar from 1962 until 2011 has long had a tricky relationship with the country’s founding father.

Under the rule of Ne Win, the military leader who led the country from 1962 to 1988 and who had trained alongside Aung San with the Japanese, the junta staked its legitimacy on serving as the guardians of the martyred Aung San’s legacy, promoting him as not only the founder of independent Burma, but also of the modern army. Aung San’s picture and excerpts of his speeches hung in government offices. His image was printed on the country’s currency.

But the glorification of Aung San started to fall out of favor in 1988, when his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, returned from abroad and suddenly emerged as a pro-democracy leader, said Naw, who served stints as a professor at Rangoon University in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The government began curtailing the use of his image and speeches; public mentions of Aung San by government figures dwindled; and currency imprinted with Aung San’s face was gradually replaced.

Today, however, Aung San is experiencing something of a revival: As the new government has relaxed its restrictions on freedom of expression, images of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father have once again begun to appear in public. Sidewalk vendors in Yangon hawk T-shirts and tote bags bearing their faces. A local tattoo shop owner in Yangon said recently that Aung San’s image has become one of his most popular requests. Old currency notes bearing his youthful image are found in souvenir shops across the city.

The Tatmadaw — the official name for the country’s armed forces — has also begun using Aung San again to promote its image as protector of the country and the force safeguarding Myanmar’s nascent transition to democracy. Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the Tatmadaw’s military chief, called for the military to be guided by Aung San’s principles — that is, putting the will of the people before the military’s desires — in comments published in state-controlled media earlier this year.

The military isn’t the only force in Myanmar with a stake in Aung San’s public image. Aung San Suu Kyi, too, has sought to capitalize on the legacy of her father since emerging as the face of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement in 1988. She has championed her father’s unwavering support of the nation over his own personal gain, not unlike herself (Aung San Suu Kyi did not leave Myanmar for 24 years despite an ailing husband and two children in the United Kingdom). She has compared her father to Gandhi in her writing.

With a general election looming on Nov. 8, Aung San Suu Kyi has used her father’s image to press the ruling government and military for further democratic change. She has invoked her father in her attempts to change the country’s military-drafted constitution ahead of the election, saying that the controversial document — which bars her from holding the president’s office because she has foreign relatives and reserves seats in parliament for the military — is not what he would have imagined for the country. In February, on what would have been her father’s 100th birthday, Aung San Suu Kyi lead a rally of thousands of supporters in her father’s hometown, calling on those gathered to build a “real democratic nation” to honor his legacy. At recent campaign events for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which have drawn tens of thousands, massive portraits of Aung San hung behind the stage as she spoke and supporters wore headbands bearing both her image and that of her father.

Aung San’s image at home has been elevated to that of a Nat — a spirit that is traditionally worshiped in Myanmar alongside the Buddhist faith, said Maung Bo Bo, a doctoral student at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies who is researching press, army, and state relations in Myanmar. Many Nats were pure souls who also met tragic deaths in their own creation myths, Bo Bo said; Aung San’s martyr status came about because he died before he had a chance to be tarnished. He had a “dramatic end,” Bo Bo said, and prior to that “he didn’t have any corruption, any bad marks.” In times of political difficulty, strife, and dissatisfaction with the government, many people in Myanmar have looked back to Aung San and found comfort in his tragic but unblemished legacy.

* * *

In December 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi took the unusual step of creating an executive board for the movie, composed of dozens of producers, directors, and historians — something of a who’s who in the Myanmar film industry — in order to accommodate the number of individuals who wanted to take part in honoring Aung San though film. But the members struggled to balance their full-time jobs and other commitments with the filmmaking process. The number of people involved led to a decision-making process that was unwieldy; major decisions ultimately even required the approval of Aung San Suu Kyi, a process that was cumbersome and slow. “The committee was designed for failure,” Fichman said.

And now, after three years, international interest has dwindled. The filmmakers have turned to fundraising within the country, staging a charity concert in mid-February after the trailer was released. Local celebrities donated just over $74,000 in late March, and other donations from private donors have trickled in but not enough to meet the original, ambitious budget. The film’s director said that the committee is exploring the idea of appealing to the deep pockets of the country’s crony businessmen. But these are men who profited from close ties with the military government, making it a potentially controversial decision for filmmakers seeking to portray Aung San as a hardworking statesman incorruptibly dedicated to his people.

Perhaps even worse for the film’s fate: Aung San Suu Kyi and other committee members seem to have lost interest. Aung San Suu Kyi is in the final push of a cross-country campaign before the Nov. 8 election, touted by the government as the first free and fair elections in Myanmar in 25 years. The film, according to those involved, now appears to be near the bottom of her list of priorities

Zarganar now believes a lower budget and domestic-focused production might be the only way forward. Bigger ambitions, he feels, could kill it altogether. And he is adamant the film has to be made.

“Aung San is the god of our country.”


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