Military’s Broadcast of Graphic Film Depicting 1988 ‘Anarchy’ Draws Fire

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 19 September 2018

YANGON—The Myanmar military’s broadcast of a gruesome film depicting scenes of graphic violence that occurred during the nationwide pro-democracy movement in 1988 has been criticized as an attempt to legitimize the coup it staged three decades ago—and even as a threat of another takeover.

Military-owned TV channel Myawaddy repeatedly aired the 41-minute video on Tuesday, which marked the 30th anniversary of the military takeover. The coup would be followed in the decades to come by indiscriminate bloody crackdowns by the military on pro-democracy activists.

The film focuses on incidents of violence, chaos and mass looting that occurred in August and September 1988. During this period leading up to the coup, the government was unable to effectively maintain law and order in the wake of nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations, known as the ’88 Uprising, which brought the country to a standstill.

The video’s most graphic sequence shows the public killings of several people accused of being government spies or counterrevolutionaries. According to a document that has gone viral online, then Military Intelligence chief Colonel Khin Nyunt ordered all spy units and informers to take any steps necessary at the time to sow confusion among the public in order to carry out acts of counter-violence. The order warns officials to take great care to keep the mission secret while carrying it out. (In his biography published 27 years after the coup, the ex-spy chief made no mention of the order.)

In one scene, a man is stabbed to death and beheaded. The perpetrator holds the victim’s head aloft for enraged onlookers to see.

A narrator explains that the film is a compilation of clips taken from footage aired on international media at the time. It was first aired by the state-owned Burma Broadcasting Service (now MRTV) soon after the coup.

Referring to the military takeover, a narrator says toward the end of the film, “The military, which always takes seriously the safety and interests of the state and the people, intervened because the rule of law and governing mechanism of the country were in total ruins, while the country’s independence and sovereignty were under threat.”

In what was possibly intended as a justification for re-broadcasting the film 30 years later, the narrator at one point urged the people of Myanmar to adopt a national outlook so as “not to repeat the kind of terrible and bitter experience that happened 30 years ago”. In the introduction to the film, the narrator describes the ’88 Uprising as “the [nation’s] worst and most brutal mass disturbance”.

Observers at home and abroad uniformly agree that the uprising toppled the regime of dictator Ne Win and paved the way for the political reform that Myanmar is experiencing today.

Regarding the graphic content, another narrator warns that “the faint-hearted and children are advised not to keep watching when the warning of graphic images appears.”

On Facebook, Myanmar netizens questioned the military’s motive for re-airing the film in 2018, 30 years after the coup, and with the country now governed by a democratically elected civilian government.

Many pointed out that the military has a long history of claiming it had no choice but to seize power in 1988 as the situation had gotten out of control. They said the military had compiled the worst examples of violence to create the film in order to legitimize its takeover.

Some interpreted the broadcast as a threat from the military, which is now facing international pressure over its actions against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, while its relationship with the National League for Democracy-led government in areas like constitutional amendment and the peace process are reportedly poor. Amid other problems like rising nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and skyrocketing commodity prices, some fear the military is poised to make a return if there are any signs of social or political unrest.

Documentary filmmaker Shin Daewe said to The Irrawaddy, “I just see it as a threat, playing on people’s concerns while trying to persuade others that the military can do good things for the country when the government fails.”

To promote better civilian-military relations, Yangon-based political commentator Yan Myo Thein told The Irrawaddy, the military leaders should view the ’88 Uprising as a turning point in Myanmar’s modern history, rather than portraying it as a descent into anarchy in order to legitimize its coup.

He pointed out that for the sake of national reconciliation Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had remained silent on the 2003 attack—allegedly sponsored by the then military government—by armed thugs on a convoy she was traveling in.

“But the military aired the film [on the anniversary of the coup]. It does more harm than good for the democratic transition,” Yan Myo Thein said.