RANGOON — A new documentary meant to educate the Burmese public about the ongoing conflict in Kokang Special Region premiered Wednesday night on a military-owned television station, offering a thorough, albeit lopsided, introduction to the war that has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced tens of thousands of civilians since early February.
Part one of the government-backed documentary, “Our Lovely Mother’s Land,” opens with a montage of multicultural harmony, dissolving into shots of hillside blasts on forested enemy hideouts. Myawaddy TV will air a new installment every night, but has not yet announced how many parts there will be. Stay tuned.
Kokang Special Region is located in the northern part of Shan State along the border with China. The people of the region are a recognized minority in Burma of Chinese descent. Former members of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), the group splintered in 1989 and formed its own armed faction, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).
Under the leadership of strongman Peng Jiasheng, the group secured a peace deal with the Burmese government, which held until his ouster in 2009. At that time, the Burmese government raided his Laukkai stronghold, seized his army’s weapons and replaced him with a leadership comprising members of the government-backed Border Guard Force (BGF).
Peng spent the years that followed in hiding, presumably just across the Chinese border, virtually unheard of until early February of this year, when his troops reemerged and attempted to reclaim their former headquarters. The ensuing conflict was among the most relentless fighting Burma has seen in decades, even as the government pushed on in its attempt to secure a nationwide peace accord with other ethnic rebels.
The new documentary—available only in Burmese—serves as a public explanation of the war, which since its start has shocked international observers, upset Chinese diplomats with deadly cross-border fire, and devastated communities. The government has admitted to losing some of its soldiers, though independent sources claim the casualties to be much higher.
Despite the fallout, the domestic response to the conflict in Kokang has been surprisingly positive, and the new film is viewed by critics as the latest element in a major government PR campaign depicting the Burmese Armed Forces as heroes storming into troubled territory to restore order.
“Our Tatmadaw [Armed Forces] brought the Kokang Region back to stability during this time, in Laukkai and other related areas,” the narrator announced with confidence. “Ethnic Kokang people are now able to study and receive healthcare, and even restart their businesses.”
The film’s insistence that stability has been restored, however, is somewhat undermined by a recent parliamentary ruling to extend martial law in the area for at least the next three months.
The documentary includes a lengthy segment dedicated to character degradation, explaining the power struggle between Peng and the Yang clan, two brothers who were also powerful within the MNDAA during the ceasefire period. The whole lot was notorious for their involvement in the drug trade, gambling and other illicit forms of finance.
“Our Lovely Mother’s Land” also revisits events leading up to Peng’s banishment in 2009; a succession of captures and weapons seizures were carried out by both sides after government troops discovered in 2008 that Peng was operating his own munitions factory. The exchanges—one of which involved the capture of 37 Burmese police, 14 of whom were killed by MNDAA—eventually culminated in a complete overthrow that brought the region back under the control of the Burmese government.
Part one focused mostly on the events leading up to the conflict, but didn’t show much of the war itself. The government has to date kept a tight lid on information coming from the area, going so far as to issue a media gag order against rebel-affiliated sources. Nonetheless, gruesome and saddening images have trickled out on social media in recent months, showing scenes of deserted streets, burning bodies, piles of munitions. Some civilians have begun to return home, but the situation on the ground is far from clear and reports of clashes still surface every few days.
Haw Shauk Chan, a lawmaker representing Kunlong Township for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), admitted that the area was not completely stable yet as some rebel bases remain hidden in the hills around Laukkai. He nonetheless defended the program as an honest document.
“This is true about what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “I like it.”