SUBJECTS — World/Myanmar;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Human Rights; Grieving; Rebellion;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Caring.
AGE: MPAA Rating — R for the depiction of violent political repression;
Drama; 1995; 100 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
This film was inspired by the sad and continuing history of political repression in Myanmar (formerly Burma). It tells the fictional story of Dr. Laura Bowman, an American who travels to Myanmar as a tourist, seeking to forget a tragedy at home. Confronted with the searing brutality of the ruling military dictatorship, she is transformed by the suffering of the Burmese people and the inspiring leadership of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi. To this day, Aung San Suu Kyi and the movement she heads seek democracy and a government that recognizes basic human rights.
“Beyond Rangoon” allows the viewer to experience a conflict that is unknown to most of the world. Because the Myanmar military has imposed a virtual news blackout on the country, few images of its brutal repression have reached the international media. Having an outsider “witness” the atrocities helps non-Burmese relate to this far away conflict. But this film is not solely devoted to human rights abuses in Myanmar. It also shows how a person can overcome a devastating tragedy and become involved in life again.
Myanmar, the former British colony of Burma, is located in Southeast Asia, between India, China, and Thailand. In 1989, the government changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar because only 65% of the country’s people are Burmese.
Burma won its independence in 1948. In 1962, after several decades of parliamentary democracy (opposed by communist and separatist insurgencies) General Ne Win engineered a military coup. He installed himself as the head of a single-party socialist state. Opposition parties and an independent press were banned. Over the next three decades, General Ne Win’s policy of state control and a single-crop export (rice) dismantled the country’s economy which had once been considered one of the strongest in Asia.
By 1987, the United Nations had placed the Myanmar economy in the “least developed” category. Between 1987 and 1988, poor harvests produced rice shortages and led to political turmoil. Widespread demonstrations and rioting ensued when the government withdrew approximately 80 percent of the currency from the economy without compensation. On August 8, 1988, thousands of citizens marched in Rangoon for democracy, human rights, and an end to the state stranglehold of the economy. Similar demonstrations and strikes were held throughout the country. The police and military responded by killing three thousand protesters in a six-week period and arresting thousands more. A State Law and Order Restoration Council was given control of the country.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of a popular general who led the Burmese resistance to Japanese aggression during the Second World War. He was assassinated in 1947 when Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old. Educated in India while her mother served as ambassador from Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi became inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. She continued her education in England and then served at the United Nations under Secretary General U Thant. The brutal repression of mass uprisings against the military dictatorship elicited Aung San Suu Kyi’s first political act, a call for multiparty elections. She defied the military’s ban on freedom of assembly by conducting a countrywide campaign for democracy and human rights. (One scene in the film recalls a 1989 incident in which Suu Kyi courageously walked toward a line of soldiers who had their rifles pointed towards her.) Despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, her National League for Democracy swept the 1990 elections, garnering 82% of the vote. The military government, however, annulled the election results. For her efforts to produce a peaceful change in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, still under house arrest, was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. The military government kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest until 1995.
Even then, Aung San Suu Kyi’s attempts to organize a political opposition and travel about the countryside were restricted by the military government. In September 2000 Aung San Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest for her political activities and was only released on May 6, 2002. The United Nations has been brokering reconciliation talks between the democracy movement and the military government. This is an ongoing story with new developments virtually every month.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
The movie notes that the oppression by the Chinese government at Tiananmen Square was televised for the world to see. Due to the media blackout imposed by the Burmese military, only a few photos of the repression in Myanmar have reached the Western media. Do you think the situation in Myanmar would change if the media had dramatic pictures of the repression?
The power of public opinion and the press is immense. It is, for example, a central part of the tactic of non-violent civil disobedience. See Learning Guide to “Gandhi” Communist China learned of the great power, even for a country with a controlled press, of photographs of protests during the Tiananmen Square incident. The Burmese military learned the lesson as well and prohibits photographs of protests from leaving the country.
2. According to the professor (U Aung Ko), the Burmese are “too polite to resist.” Mahatma Gandhi was polite as well, but he found a way to galvanize India and force the end of British Imperial rule. See Learning Guide to “Gandhi“. What was Gandhi’s method of fighting oppression? Would that work against a ruthless military government that has imposed a news blackout?
3. Discuss the differences in the situation facing Gandhi in India from 1915 to 1948 and the dissidents in Myanmar from the 1960s to the end of the 20th century.
4. In the early 1960s, Burma was a democracy. The country produced a UN Secretary-General (U Thant) who was committed to human rights. Do you think this means that Myanmar has the chance to escape its authoritarian legacy? Have other Asian countries been able to do so?
5. A pro-democracy demonstrator tells Laura Bowman that the military government rules by fear, but is itself afraid of Aung San Suu Kyi. How does this explain Aung San Suu Kyi’s electoral success?
6. A Burmese émigré has reported that not all Burmese support Aung San Suu Kyi because they feel that she abandoned her family to pursue a political career, and family is very important to the Burmese. Are such charges fair?
7. At the beginning of the movie, a British tourist complains that “when we ran this country, everything worked.” What is the colonial legacy that countries like Myanmar face? Can the government legitimately blame its problems on “colonial bad habits”?
8. The professor, U Aung Ko, pays bribes to soldiers at military checkpoints. Is this a case of law and order breakdown, or does it show military impunity?
9. In the marketplace, Laura Bowman buys a singing bird and then sets it free. The bird then promptly returns to its cage. What role does this scene play in the story?
10. U Aung Ko claims that men and women are equal, but then says that a woman can only be a Buddha if she is reincarnated as a man. Have such attitudes (in Myanmar and elsewhere) been used to deny women a greater political role? What is the connection between the doctrines of the world’s major religious and gender roles?
See also, the Human Rights and Rebellion sections below.
1. How did her experiences in Myanmar help Dr. Bowman work through her grief and construct a new life? What does this movie say to people whose lives are shattered by the loss of loved ones? For a real-life example of people reaching out after a tragedy, learn about the family of Amy Biehl, an American woman who was murdered in South Africa. See Learning Guide to “Cry, the Beloved Country“.
2. What do you think would have happened to Dr. Bowman if she had left Myanmar with the tour group? Would she have been able to work through her grief and construct a new life?
3. Can nonviolent protest work as well for the pro-democracy forces against the Myanmar military government as it did for the Indians against the British Empire? Would a different strategy be needed? How do the circumstances differ?
4. When student demonstrators attempted to kill soldiers in the escape attempt, the professor rebukes them, claiming “you can fight without hate.” Is this possible? Is such a concept naïve?
5. One of the student demonstrators claimed that soldiers killed his brother. Should he be entitled to revenge?
See discussion of revenge in the Learning Guide to “Hamlet“.
6. In the movie, one of the escapees contends that the government enlists illiterates from the countryside into the army to kill students, claiming that the students are communists. What role does illiteracy and a lack of education play in human rights abuses? Are such abuses limited to countries with an uneducated populace?
No. For example, one can look at the experiences of Russia, Germany, Chile, Argentina, and Italy.
7. During the demonstrations, the military regime vowed to restore order “at any cost.” What is order worth?
8. Notice that the foreign tour guide for Laura’s group is aware of Myanmar’s domestic problems, yet he continues to work in the country. Is he condoning the regime (or even assisting it) by bringing tourists and their money into the country? See the warning at the Lonely Planet Website.
9. A student claims that “(we) won’t be saved by America, but by all Burmese students and professors.” Does this mean that America does not have a role to fulfill in this conflict? Are students and professors enough to produce change?
10. Several states, including Massachusetts, have placed sanctions on the Myanmar government. Find out if our national government has imposed sanctions on Myanmar. If so, do you think they are enough? Or, do you think that we should use in a policy of constructive engagement similar to our policy regarding mainland China?
11. According to the demonstrators, soldiers are killing them because they feel that the pro-democracy group is communist. Where else in the world has the military made arguments linking democracy with communism? What have the results been?
12. The Burmese military justifies its repression as being necessary to save the country from communists. Have there been any experiences in the U.S. in which civil rights have been lost to anticommunist crusades?
Yes, but fortunately not to the degree suffered by the people in Myanmar. The Red scares of the 20th century and the Salem Witchcraft trials, are examples. See Learning Guides to the following films: High Noon, The Crucible, and The Grapes of Wrath.
13. Myanmar may not be a formal ally of the United States, but many of its soldiers are armed with American made M-16s. What is the role of United States arms sales in the human rights abuses in Myanmar? What responsibility, if any, does the United States bear for the situation in Myanmar due to its arms sales to the military?
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
1. At the beginning of the film, Dr. Bowman cannot heal the sick or treat the injured. Why is she like this? What is the role of the ethical principle of caring in the changes that occur to her through the course of the film? What would have happened if Dr. Bowman had been a selfish person, unable to take the suffering of others to heart?
2. Can you think of an instance in your own life or that you have heard of where caring for others has helped someone find their way in life?
3. What actions of the former university professor, U Aung Ko, exemplified the ethical value of caring?
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
In addition to websites that may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- Aung San of Burma: A Bibliographic Portrait by His Daughter, by Aung San Suu Kyi, Kiscadale Pub (paperback edition), 1999 (originally published 1984);
- The 1988, Uprising in Burma (Southeast Asia Studies Monograph Series), by Maung Maung and Franklin Mark Osanka, Yale Univ Southeast Asia Studies, 2000;
- “Human Rights and Democratization in Burma and Markup of H. Res. 262,” Joint Hearing Before the Subcommittees on Human Rights and International Organizations and Asian and Pacific Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 102nd Congress, First Session, October 18, 1991;
- The Voice of Hope, by Aung San Suu Kyi, Alan Clements et al, Seven Stories Press, 1997;
- Aung San Suu Kyi, Standing Up for Democracy in Burma (Women Changing the World), by Bettina Ling and Charlotte Bunch, Feminist Press, 1999;
- The Lady: Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate and Burma’s Prisoner, by Barbara Victor, Faber & Faber, 1998;
- Aung San Suu Kyi Fearless Voice of Burma (Newsmakers Biographies Series), by Whitney Stewart, Lerner Publications Company, 1997;
- Aung San Suu Ky and Burma’s Unfinished Renaissance, by Bertil Lintner, White Lotus Co., 1991;
- Aung San Suu Kyi, Towards a New Freedom, by Chin Geok Ang, Prentice Hall, Prisoner for Peace: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy(Champion of Freedom Series), by John
- Parenteau, Morgan Reynolds, 1994;
- Burma and General Ne Win, by Maung Maung, Asia Publishing House;
- Living Silence: Burma Under the Military Rule (Politics in Contemporary Asia) by Christina Fink, Zed Books, 2001;
- Burmese Looking Glass: A Human Rights Adventure and a Jungle Revolution, Edith T. Mirante, Grove Press, 1993;
- Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, by Martin J. Smith, Zed Books, 1999;
- Independence and Democracy in Burma, 1945-1952: The Turbulent Years (Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asia, No. 40), by Balwant Singh, 1994;
- The Burma Road to Capitalism: Economic Growth Versus Democracy, by Mya Maung, Praeger Pub, 1998;
- Burma’s Revolution of the Spirit: The Struggle for Democratic Freedom and Dignity, by Alan Clements (Leslie Kean, Contributor), Aperture, 1994;
- Politics, Personality and Nation Building: Burma’s Search for Identity, by Lucian W. Pye, Elliot’s Books, 1992;
- Suffering in Silence: The Human Rights Nightmare of the Karen People of Burma, Caludio O. Delang (Editor), Upublish.com, 2001;
- Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation, by Josef Silverstein, Cornell Univ Press, 1977.
Acknowledgments: This Learning Guide was written jointly with Dr. John A. Tures, Assistant Professor of Political Science, La Grange College, La Grange, Georgia. Teachwithmovies.org thanks Dr. Tures for his invaluable contribution to this Learning Guide.
Last updated December 9, 2009.