JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Kyaw Thwi explains his time in the KNLA to his son, adopted daughter and former lover.

Su Thwi meets KNLA soldiers for the first time and decides to join them.

Su Thwi and Eh Hser develop a romantic relations. Su Thwi tells Eh Hser that he's tired of fighting.

Su Thwi is confronted by KNLA commanders about his intention to defect.

Su Thwi explains his reasons for defection to Eh Hser.

Su Thwi leaves the KNLA area with villagers to join the DKBA. Eh Hser decides to follow Su Thwi.

Su Thwi's group defecting to the DKBA.

Eh Hser's father, a KNLA commander, is told that Eh Hser has gone with Su Thwi and orders his troops to attack after Eh Hser refuses to come back.

Casualties from Su Thwi's group after the KNLA attack. Eh Hser is killed in mortar fire.

A women is killed in the fighting, leaving her daughter an orphan. Su Thwi adopts the child.

Pu Shu overhears Su Thwi's intention to marry Kyaw Thwi Paing to his adopted daughter.

Pu Shu runs towards a car, climbs in, drives off, crashes and dies.

 

The story starts with Su Thwi traveling in the jungle, heartbroken and confused after learning that Paw Hee was forced into an arranged marriage. On the way back to his village, he came across a group of KNU soldiers. He started chatting with them and then requested to join, more out of despair for Paw Hee than a commitment to nationalist ideology. In this way, Mr. Nation’s Blood is similar to a number of KNU soldiers I know, who fight without a strong ideological position.

In the next scene, there is a dramatic montage of gunfire. It is not clear which soldiers belong to the KNU and which belong to the Burmese government. Some shots are darkened with black borders, presumably intended to evoke the horror of war without clearly taking sides. By showing ambiguous battle scenes like this, the filmmaker avoids both confrontation with the Burmese military government and demonizing KNU soldiers. If they clearly showed fighting between the KNU and Burmese military in a way that was sympathetic to KNU soldiers, it could endanger their relationship with the Burmese government. By not taking the Burmese government’s side, it could even be interpreted as a subtle attack on the Burmese dictatorship.

The next scene shows Su Thwi injured in a KNU field hospital being treated by Eh Hser (Sweet Love), a sexy, passionate and militant KNU medic, S’gaw Karen speaking, who becomes his new love interest.

We learn that after seven years of working with the KNU, Su Thwi is fed up with war and the daily poverty he encounters amongst Karen villagers in eastern Burma He struggles with his desire of wanting to help people and to keep fighting for some sort of liberation, while seeing the futility of his involvement with the KNU. He first expresses this in a scene where Su Thwi is sitting beside a well washing his face. The camera frames him, foregrounding a landscape of banana trees in an overgrown garden. One of his comrades walks into view and sits on the edge of the well. The camera zooms in on both men:

Su Thwi’s comrade: I have an important message to tell you.
Mr. Nation’s Blood dries his face with a towel and then turns to his friend:
Su Thwi: Tell me what you’re going to say.
Comrade: I heard that a faction of KNU Brigade 7 went back to Done Yaung (an area near the state capital, Pa’an).
Su Thwi: What do you think of what’s happening?
Comrade: I don’t know. Even if I have an opinion, I don’t dare say it.
Su Thwi: If you don’t dare to say it, listen to me.
Mr. Nation’s Blood looks away, in a contemplative stare into the horizon. The camera zooms in, framing his face.
Su Thwi: I’m tired of fighting. If the war goes on like this forever, it would be like we are fighting against our own blood and gouging out our own eyes. Let me tell you something.
Mr. Nation’s Blood leans in to whisper something indistinguishable into his comrade’s ear.

This powerful scene sets out Su Thwi’s desire to also desert from the KNU. It emphasizes his noble intentions—that he would leave the KNU as a sacrifice for the “nation’s” suffering and that he is brave enough to make his intentions known. It also brings up a motif running through the film about blood and sacrifice, which is also a key feature of Karen (and other) ethno-nationalisms.  Blood and sacrifice is again evoked in an emotional scene when Mr. Nation’s Blood confronts his military superiors with his intention to leave.

Mr. Nation’s Blood is called in to see his KNLA commander who had already heard that he intends to leave. The commander is in a simple wooden hut, with a dirt floor. The scene evinces nationalist iconography—the commander is wearing a T-Shirt emblazoned with a picture of KNU founder Saw Ba U Gyi, with a Karen flag in the background. The first of Saw Ba U Gyi’s four “guiding principles” for Karen struggle is “surrender is out of the question.” On the side of the wall, there is a calendar bearing the face of former KNU President Bo Mya. Su Thwi walks in and salutes his commander. The camera pans around to frame the two men. The commander orders Su Thwi to sit and starts lecturing him about his traitorous intentions and questioning his plan. Su Thwi thoughtfully responds:

Su Thwi: Because of war and fighting, our people’s blood is flowing and their flesh is covering the ground so I want to stop fighting.
Commander: You are a soldier. You’re fed up with the war? I’ve been fighting for 40 years and I’ll never give up until I reach my goal and destination.
Su Thwi: I have a different idea. I want to give my blood and flesh to a different cause. I want to go back into town for the sake of the re-emergence of Karen literature and culture. I also want to help villagers to have peace and stability in their lives and to be able to live peacefully in their home without having to move all the time. I really want to give myself and help them with my own hands.
The KNU Commander looks defeated: OK. For the sake of Karen literature and culture and Karen people, if you want to go, I won’t stop you. You can go.
The commander turns away from Su Thwi. The camera zooms in on the commander’s face as he shouts, “Go!’

This key scene is an acknowledgement of a certain degree of understanding and cooperation that exists between the two armed groups. I was surprised to see such a humane representation of the KNU. I have heard stories of deserters being killed on both sides and they could have easily made the story more conflictual. Instead the film shows the very real human relationships and difficult personal and political loyalties within the civil war. Scenes like this, which I think echo the complex realities of the conflict, make the propaganda message of the film more convincing. Despite occasional tough rhetoric and combat, members of Karen armed factions have had a fair degree of local autonomy and political, personal and economic ties continue, independent of attempts at centralized control.

Further dialogue around the politics of accommodation with the Burmese states takes place the night before Mr. Nation’s Blood defects. He explains his plans to Eh Hser, in a dramatic scene. It's nighttime and we can hear frog and insect sounds. Mr. Nation’s Blood sits on a hammock cleaning his pistol and a dim light shines on his body. Eh Hser walks into the scene looking upset. Su Thwi looks very happy to see Eh Hser and he pulls up a chair for her. The two sit in silence for a few seconds.

Eh Hser (with a breaking voice): Can’t you change your plans?
Su Thwi: I can’t. I’m really determined to go back and build up my village and town, and to help develop Karen literature and culture. I want to help the young generation get an education. You are also an educated person so you can help young people more than me by teaching and sharing your skills if you join us.
Eh Hser: How can I go with you? I still need to look after my people in exile and those who are in the jungle. And I have to think for my father as well [who is their army commander]. I’m a strong revolutionary. Won’t you change your mind and stay with us?
Su Thwi: I can’t change my mind at all because we can’t stop things that are going to happen. The only thing is that we have to follow fate like you follow a river. If you try to resist, you’ll drown.
Eh Hser: OK now you’re fed up and you’ve lost your faith and patience with us and you’ve lost your love for the KNU so we’ve become enemies.
Su Thwi: Does that mean that because I can’t be faithful to the KNU anymore, you’ll have to kill me as your enemy? If you’re going to do that, kill me with my own weapon. If you want to shoot me, shoot straight at the blood and sweat that I’ve devoted to the Karen struggle.
Su Thwi takes hold of Eh Hser’s hand and places his gun in it while gazing into her eyes. Eh Hser turns her face away from him, towards the camera, and closes her eyes. There is an expression of devastation on her face. After a few seconds of silence, Eh Hser cocks the gun and aims it directly at Su Thwi with both her hands. The camera switches to a new shot focusing directly into the barrel of the gun, with Eh Hser’s hands and face in the background. The camera moves back so both are in view.
Eh Hser: You don’t have love for us anymore. You broke your promise. Now you’re following a terrible path.

The camera turns back to the gun barrel and we see that Eh Hser’s hands are shaking. Suddenly, Eh Hser raises the gun and fires a shot into the sky. The camera pans down as she lowers her arms, revealing her eyes full of tears. Eh Hser slowly places the gun on the table and walks away. After a sleepless night, Eh Hser decides to leave and join Su Thwi. They flee the next day with their arms and a group of civilians, now under fire from their former KNU comrades.

A number of scenes provide moral authority to the DKBA, perhaps some of the key intended messages. During the KNLA attack, a young girl is orphaned so Su Thwi adopts her.  This is, perhaps, a metaphor for the way DKBA claim to take care of Karen people orphaned by the KNU. He comes back to his hometown in eastern Burma and begins work in township administration and security as part of the DKBA.

Early on, a couple of men from the Telakhon religious sect report that their bronze drum had been stolen. The men ask Su Thwi for help as the drum is culturally and politically significant. Bronze drums are a key symbol of the Karen ethno-nation, appearing on the Karen flag used by both the KNU and DKBA. Su Thwi takes the request very seriously and organizes a group of soldiers to get the drum back. The Telakhon are seen by many as authentically “Karen,” and defending their traditions would be an act of national assertion.  The Telakhon leader petitions Su Thwi:  

“We civilians rely on you. You are like our sons and nephews and we want to request that you work for your own people and protect and help them.”

Coming from the religious leader this exchange gives the DKBA characters a moral power to govern.

Su Thwi and his party then heroically set up a roadblock and successfully intercept a gang of drug dealers who had stolen the drum—a victory for Karen culture and an example of the role of DKBA safeguarding the Karen “nation” and the needs of citizens. The entire staging also posits a strong contrast:  The Telakhon are depicted as primitive and helpless, not even knowing how to open a gate or sit on a chair while the DKBA officials are modern, in neat uniforms with cigarettes and canned drinks. Telakhon occupy an ambivalent position within Karen culture and politics. “Telakhon as primitive” is a common narrative amongst Christian Karen, although they are often also discussed as preservers of Karen culture. Politically, there has been conflict and tension between Telakhon villagers and the KNLA. One of my uncles, a KNLA soldier, was killed by a group of Telakhon, supposedly in cooperation with Burmese troops. I have a number of Telakhon relatives on my mother’s side, so she found the killing of her brother particularly treacherous. My mother went to see her Telakhon cousins, arguing that they do not have the intellectual capacity to differentiate their brothers from their enemies. My mother saw the killing of her brother as a sign of primitiveness, as the perpetrators could be easily lured by the Burmese “enemy.”

I found it disconcerting to see DKBA soldiers shown as supporters and protectors of villagers—given many media and human rights reports produced within the Burmese diaspora portray the DKBA as villains, consistent with my first frightening experience of them. However, I have come to realize that the DKBA are also a product of historical circumstances. I used to see the conflict in black and white terms where KNU were good and DKBA were evil. But when I look deeper, the reality is complex. I used to think that the DKBA leaders were simply motivated by profit but, while that is certainly partly the case, the DKBA was also able to gain some autonomy and promote Pwo Karen language and Buddhism, which has been neglected under the KNU.

The film is surprising in that it does not portray the KNU in black and white terms as an evil other—the KNU is part of Su Thwi and those left behind were his friends. His KNU superiors explained their position in a reasonable way. They also want peace and they don’t believe that returning to the town and making a deal with the Burmese government is the right approach. It is interesting to see that the DKBA are not presenting a simplistically ideological view of the KNU as “bad” and of themselves as “good.” If the KNU were to be depicted as evil, they wouldn’t have let Su Thwi leave in the first place since they had plenty of time to attempt to arrest and/or execute him. This more balanced representation of the KNLA makes the propagandistic message of the film far more effective.

Back in the present time, Su Thwi visits his (other) former lover to meet his son again. He brings his daughter and tries to arrange for them to marry, not knowing that Kyaw Thwi Paing is committed to Pu Shu. Pu Shu, looking for her lover, overhears the marriage talk, and thinking that Kyaw Thwi Paing is unfaithful, runs away. She sees a car, climbs inside and tries to drive away, but tragically drives into a tree and kills herself. This ties the fate of Kyaw Thwi Paing with his father, Su Thwi—both fall in love and that love ends in tragedy. Romantic tragedy, creates sympathy for both men.

Despite being a propaganda film, Blood’s Oath is a surprisingly thoughtful attempt at providing DKBA’s side of the Karen civil war. DKBA’s role as co-producer is clearly stated in bold text in the credits so there is no attempt to hide their involvement in the film. Predictably, the DKBA do not show any of their many faults: corruption, taxation, human rights abuses and their role in supporting Burmese army offensives against the KNU. But beyond the propaganda, it is a sensitive attempt to justify a politics of accommodation between Karen insurgents and the Burmese state—something the ability to produce the film is itself a product of. While elements of the DKBA continue to engage in war, through the ceasefire they have been able to establish limited enclosures of relative peace in areas under their control. As the political narrative in Burma is rapidly changing through democratization, the use of propaganda in film will likely loosen, as warring parties reconcile. This will open up new spaces for producers like the Thamanya Happy and Beautiful Literature Group that will hopefully involve new and creative forms of film experimentation and cinematic projects of reconciliation.

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