Love in an uncomfortable climate


A Bangkok-based documentary maker zooms in on the reality of the human rights situation in Myanmar

US director Jeanne Hallacy’s documentary “This Kind of Love” is a showcase of how bad politics and bad military together make up a recipe for the persecution of those who dare to dissent.

Even as the 45-documentary screens today at the third Human Rights Human Dignity Festival in Yangon, Myanmar continues its programme of sweeping reforms.

To foreign observers and international leaders, that sounds like a success story. Hallacy isn’t quite so convinced. Myanmar, she says, still has a long way to go in terms of human rights.

“I’m being practical in observing objectively what the facts are on the ground. Do I recognise that there’s been political progress? Absolutely. The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the release of prominent political prisoners, and the opening up of the press and press freedom: these are extremely important benchmarks of Myanmar’s opening up, and I recognise that.

“However, in terms of human rights, I think there’s a tremendous amount of work that has to be done. There are human rights abuses happening now. The applause for Myanmar stems from the fact that the world loves a success story. President Obama loves a success story, and so does Hillary Clinton. But the reality is that sometimes transitions are made not necessarily because of democratic idealism but for business reasons,” she says in an exclusive interview with XP at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

The documentary explores Myanmar’s political transition through the life of human rights educator and activist Aung Myo Min, one of the leaders of the 1988 student protest movement. The film follows him on his return to his homeland after 24 years of exile in Thailand. He now heads the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma based in Chiang Mai while also spearheading an LGBT rights campaign called Equality Myanmar, the first of its kind in his homeland.

Hallacy has lived in Thailand since 1992, and first met Myo Min in 1994 on the border with Myanmar. She met him again by coincidence in 2013 in Bangkok, just as Myo Min was about to return to Myanmar for the first time in 24 years.

“We were just catching up over a coffee. Then the whole world was celebrating the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar was in transition. So the Myanmar government was reaching out to well-known dissidents like him in exile and inviting them to come back home, to be part of this political transition.

“A few had accepted the invitation. Some of the high-profile dissidents had yet to decide whether or not to return. The day I met him in MBK, I floated the idea: ‘how about I follow you when you go home’,” she says.

She adds that she picked Myo Min as the subject for the film because of his inspiring life. She admires his kind heart, his ability to reach out to everybody and his gift for engaging people to create change.

“Myo Min has the voice and credibility to push Myanmar’s potential. He can keep pushing and knocking on the door, saying, ‘look at this, change the law, and make it real. Don’t just give lip service to the change,” she says.

Although filming only started in 2013, “This Kind of Love” flashes back to several events in Myo Min’s life. In 1988, he was one of student leaders wanted by the authorities. Along with his fellow students, he fled to the jungle on the Thailand-Myanmar border where he joined ethnic insurgents fighting the Myanmar military.

Hallacy says that in 1988, Myo Min was still a student at Rangoon University, aspiring to an academic career as a lecturer in English literature. Before the student uprising that year, he was a bookworm and only remotely interested in political activity. He loved George Bernard Shaw and other classic writers.

That changed when one of his student friends was shot dead by the police in what became known as the “White Bridge Incident”. Sad and angry about the injustice that existed in Myanmar society, he became a leader and a speaker at political rallies.

“That incident started with a brawl among students in a teashop near the university. One student had an altercation with the authorities and was shot dead. That student was Myo Min’s friend. That killing sparked the uprising. That’s how it all began,” she explains.

In the days that followed, an estimated 200 students were shot, beaten to death and drowned by the anti-riot forces on Prome Road at Inya Lake Embankment (near Rangoon University). A former officer close to Ne Win later claimed that the dead numbered 283.

Like other students, Myo Min was an idealistic student, a city boy who had never been in the jungle before and had no idea about armed conflict between ethnic groups and the Burmese junta. He was more of a classical dancer than a gun-toting fighter. He was also gay, which was totally unacceptable in the 1980s and 1990s.

“In the jungle, they learned how to defend themselves and were trained by these armies. Soon he fell in love with a Karen platoon leader. That young man had never had a relationship with anyone, girl or boy. In the army, their relationship was considered inappropriate because the Karen were very conservative and traditional. So the young man came under a lot of pressure. To prove that he was still a great solider, his boyfriend volunteered to go on a secret reconnaissance mission behind the enemy’s line to get information about the movements of the Burmese troops and report back on their position.

“Unfortunately, he was captured by the Burmese troops and tortured to death. The news left Myo Min devastated. So he left the jungle to find his own path to continue his commitment to fighting for democracy,” she says.

In Thailand, he was offered a scholarship to pursue an MA in international public affairs at Columbia University. While there, he decided to start a non-governmental organisation. On his return, he formed the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma. The NGO runs workshops on human rights education, hoping to stop all sorts of child trafficking. As a classical dancer, Myo Min uses traditional theatre as a vehicle for promoting human rights issues.

Hallacy reckons today’s screening of the film might touch a raw nerve, but she wants to stick to her goal: to inform people and emotionally move them to realise that the human rights situation in Myanmar is still not one that is just and free.

“Despite the political transition, human rights abuses continue and, in some areas, they have worsened since the country has been applauded by the international community. The message of the film is that if you say you believe in human rights, if you stand for justice and truth, you must stand for all. You don’t exclude some groups because they are Muslim or because of their sexual preference,” she says.