JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

A flashback to Pu Shu's house. Pu Shu and Kyaw Thwi become friends.

 

Kyaw Thwi Paing and Pu Shu become lovers.

Kyaw Thwi Paing leaves for work after he makes an oath to Pu Shu to be faithful.

Pu Shu pining for Kyaw Thwi Paing after he moves away.

Two Telakhon men arrive in Hpa-an to ask for help from the DKBA. They nearly get hit by a motorbike because they do not know how to cross the road.

Arriving at Su Thwi's house, one of the Telakhon men sits on the floor, not knowing how to use a chair.

A Telakhon leader explaining about the stolen bronze drum.

Su Thwi receives a letter from his ex-lover, telling him that she has a son.

Su Thwi embraces his estranged son, Kyaw Thwi Paing.

 

Thauk gya paw hee thwi deh thwi (Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower)
drama of insurgency in a Burmese Pwo Karen Film

by Violet Cho

Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower (dir. Thong Eh Poung, 2009)  is a film produced in association with the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a former Burmese ethnic Karen insurgent group allied with the country’s now transformed ruling military dictatorship. In the film, the DKBA are portrayed as people who want to bring development, safety and stability to the Karen public. They are represented as helping to maintain an unspecified idea of Karen culture and traditions. DKBA soldiers symbolize modernity and cosmopolitanism, while at the same time suitably respecting tradition. This is not how I was brought up to view them.

Backdrop of insurgency

Contemporary ethnic conflict in Burma is rooted in colonial history. The British administration used tactics of divide and rule, separating Burman majority areas of central Burma from ethnic minority areas in the periphery, which meant that social and political developments were disjointed, creating significant divisions before independence (Callahan 2009). Ethnic minority groups such as the Karen were given preferential treatment by the British in the armed forces and bureaucracy, creating tension with the majority Burman population. Burma went through a divisive struggle during World War 2, which saw key Burman independence leaders fighting with the Japanese against the British who fought with support from some ethnic minority people including elements of the Karen population. An unstable union was negotiated in order to secure independence, but there was considerable dissent from some ethnic factions, notably Karen, at the way the new state was structured. Independence was granted in 1948, Burma became a new democracy, and the country descended into civil war, involving both communist and ethnic minority insurgencies, with the Karen National Union (KNU) being a major political and military force.


Map showing administrative divisions of Burma (Myanmar). Karen (Kayin) State borders Thailand in the east.


The KNU organized themselves at the vanguard of Karen nationalism and representatives of the Karen people. However, the term “Karen” itself is problematic with numerous contested meanings. It can refer to any of approximately twenty different languages as well as religious groupings and constructed concepts of “nation” and “unity.” Those falling under the term “Karen” are probably the second or third biggest ethnic group in Burma, with substantial numbers in Thailand also although numbers are disputed. The two most-widely spoken Karen languages are S’gaw and Pwo, although these terms also refer to a number of dialects and scripts. Formal Karen politics has traditionally been dominated by S’gaw-speaking Christians, a legacy of British colonialism. This is a key source of internal Karen conflict since Christians possibly only represent around 10-20 percent of the Karen population (South 2010: 65-6).

It is the Christian Karen that are also most commonly represented in the West as the victims in a melodrama where the villain is the idolatrous Burmese army and the hero can be any combination of missionaries, mercenaries, foreign aid groups and KNU forces. Rambo IV is a recent example: Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) and his mercenary colleagues go into Burma to rescue a group of “Western” missionaries held captive by the Burmese army. Karen suffering is a backdrop—a group of Karen are freed from an evil army unit along with the missionary captives but Karen emancipation is just momentary. The missionaries return to the safety of the West while the Karen villagers who survive the slaughter are of course left behind. Andrew Selth calculates the slaughter at 236 dead in the film’s 91 minutes, “justified on the grounds that Burma’s military government has absolutely no redeeming features and its evil servants therefore deserve everything they get from the eponymous hero [Rambo]” (2008: 2). I can’t count how many of these 236 dead might be Karen—many Karen body extras are sacrificed in order to cast Burma’s military as sufficiently evil in the film. The Karen in the film are represented as Christian and moral and no doubt the oppression of the Karen as Christian adds to the typecasting of the military as “evil servants.”  

The KNU, and its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), remained a considerable military and political force until early 1995, when there was a major split. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) emerged from the KNU, striking a “devastating blow” to the Karen cause (Charney 2009: 188). The main language used by the DKBA is Eastern Pwo Karen and, as their name suggests, they are predominantly Buddhist. They attempt to construct an alternative to the S’gaw Christian nationalism propagated by the KNU. They can be better characterized as a fragmented network rather than a unified organization—as they “lack a coherent command and control structure” (South 2010: 66).

After the 1995 split, the DKBA verbally agreed to a ceasefire with Burma’s ruling military dictatorship. The ceasefire was one of a wave of similar agreements the Burmese military negotiated with insurgent groups in the 1990s. The agreements gave insurgent groups some autonomy in areas where they were fighting, the right to hold arms and importantly, the freedom to pursue economic development, trade and the extraction of natural resources, as well as the provision of limited health and education. In return, DKBA and other ceasefire groups had to regularly work as a proxy force for the Burmese military, supporting offensives against their former comrades. Military offensives notoriously involve human rights abuses including forced portering, extrajudicial killings and extortion. DKBA troops have also perpetrated grave human rights abuses against civilians in areas under their control, including forced displacement and forced labor.[1] [open endnotes in new window] While the DKBA was formally disbanded and incorporated into the Border Guard Force in 2010, DKBA brigade five split and remain in conflict, under the name DKBA. The KNU signed an initial peace agreement with the Burmese Government in January 2012. They still hold arms and negotiations are ongoing for a lasting peace.

Karen language cinema

Film’s produced for entertainment in Pwo Karen language are not produced commercially, but rather made by individuals and civil society groups, often with the stated interests of preserving Karen language and heritage. The DKBA has been engaged in the promotion of Pwo Karen language, Buddhist and animist religions and a particular interpretation of “Karen” culture. Members of the DKBA have worked with local individuals and production groups, to engage in feature filmmaking, music video production and the recording of events such as Karen Martyr’s Day and Karen New Year. The production of Pwo Karen language cinema is not centralized—filmmakers and production groups are located around the state, notably in Hpa’an, the capital of Karen State; Shwe Ko Ko, one of the major former DKBA bases; and Thamanya, an important Buddhist site. Films are formally authorized and censored by the state level Karen Literature and Cultural Development Association, under the Karen State government. The person in charge of approving the release of Pwo Karen film is based in Yangon, so filmmakers have to travel out of the state in order to gain permission. This means that productions do not need permission from the national Motion Picture Censor Board, which tightly regulates the Burmese language cinema industry.[2] The Karen Literature and Cultural Development Association approves films for production and release based on three guidelines:

  • The production must be in accordance with Karen culture and traditions.
  • Films must not use terms and phrases that could cause disunity amongst ethnic groups in Burma.
  • Production must be in accordance with national political, social and economic objectives.

Members of DKBA are entwined with local producers in townships where they have authority. Since cultural production has been formally autonomous from the DKBA, these personal links are likely to persist, despite the DKBA’s transformation into the Border Guard Force.

Growing up in areas under KNU control, I saw the DKBA as traitors and opportunists. I couldn’t comprehend why they would befriend their enemy, the Burmese military regime. I still vividly remember my first direct and terrifying experience of the DKBA. I was 13 years old living in Huay Kaloke refugee camp on the Thai border. One night, the DKBA, along with Burmese government troops, attacked our camp, shooting and setting fire to houses. There were causalities, including some of my school friends. Our house, along with most others in the camp, was burnt down. Out of the family belongings that were destroyed, those I miss the most are my childhood photographs.

While these actions are difficult to forgive, DKBA leaders argue that they work for a noble cause.[3] For the DKBA, film and music videos have been key media to communicate their history, legitimacy and program. It was common to see DKBA leaders allied with celebrities, including Karen and, surprisingly, non-Karen actors, models and singers of national prominence in Burma.[4] The use of Burmese celebrities is a clever strategy the DKBA used to organize Karen publics and spread their message, in a more appealing way than solely relying on military parades and speeches. It also provides DKBA leaders with a sort of celebrity “power.” VCDs of music videos, films and mass ceremonies are then sold and shared throughout eastern Burma, the Thai borderlands and to diaspora communities beyond.

Within the insurgent landscape that I grew up in, video was also used as an important medium for propaganda. A number of activist groups within areas under KNU authority engage in film production for advocacy (that might be labeled propaganda by the enemy), including documentary, music videos and feature films. Karen media organizations such as Kaw Lah, Kwekalu and Burma Issues have been using documentary as a tool to represent and record the systemic human rights abuses suffered by those living in conflict areas by the Burmese army and DKBA (while the KNLA also commit human rights abuses, they are rarely reported in public). Documentary films produced by exiled Karen groups have a clear political agenda and often a different audience to those produced inside the country. Many short documentaries, especially those produced by Burma Issues, are made for an international audience and involve English voiceover and/or subtitles. One important aim of exiled film groups is to achieve a wider recognition of Karen suffering and as a strategy to push for broader political change in Burma. In addition, S’gaw Karen language feature films are produced for politically-tinged entertainment, often filmed in refugee camps and distributed within communities of displaced Karen. S’gaw language films have reached a larger diasporic audience through online distribution on YouTube and some S'gaw Karen filmmakers, notably Chelly, have become celebrities within dissident communities. Exiled films on the whole carry messages, either direct or subtle, against the Burmese government and their allies, and therefore stand in direct opposition to Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower.  

Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower

Living on the Thai border in my late teens, I tried to watch DKBA propaganda films a couple of times but I didn’t have the energy to finish seeing them. Too many bitter memories and low production quality. As time has passed, and production values have improved, I made another attempt at looking at DKBA-related cinema. In the past years, I have been involved in exiled journalism myself, writing strategically against the regime. Leaving the political polarization of Burmese exile in Thailand for Australia, I found I could see Pwo Karen film from a new standpoint. Film allows for a new means of representing the war in Burma, and illuminates the different and conflicting layers of Karen identity. Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower, the film I am going to discuss, is made by and about Karen people, thus being a rare form of cinematic self-representation, as well as a form of propaganda. Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower, the film I am going to discuss, is made by and about Karen people, thus being a rare form of cinematic self-representation, as well as a form of propaganda, for an ethnicity where creative space is limited. Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower is produced by the Thamanya Happy and Beautiful Literature Group, one of the most active in Pwo Karen cinema production. The majority of films produced in exile for local audiences are in S’gaw rather than Pwo language. My family is a mix of Pwo and S’gaw speakers and I speak both of these Karen languages. Watching a film in Pwo language speaks to an important part of myself, like listening to my grandfather, and it provides me with a sense of connection to a place that was once my home.

Blood’s Oath to Beautiful Flower starts with a romantic narrative involving Kyaw Thwi Paing (Full Blood) and Pu Shu. Kyaw Thwi Paing is the estranged son of Su Thwi (which literally means Mr. Nation’s Blood) a former KNU sergeant who defected to the DKBA and became a lieutenant. Kyaw Thwi Paing and Pu Shu live in the same area and are attracted to each other—however their relationship does not develop because of Kyaw Thwi Paing’s hesitation to make his feelings known and Pu Shu’s adherence to the cultural practice of not making a first move. Some time passes and Pu Shu falls into severe hardship after her mother loses all of their assets betting on the lottery. After moving to another village, Kyaw Thwi Paing realizes that he loves Pu Shu so he returns and they have an emotional reunion and confess their love for each other. Kyaw Thwi Paing soon has to leave to work in another area and they promise each other that they will loyal, life-long lovers.

The focus shifts to the father, Su Thwi, who receives a letter from his former lover Paw Hee (meaning Beautiful Flower), who he had not heard from for over twenty years. She writes to tell him that he has a son, who is already a young adult. Shocked, he immediately goes to their village to meet Kyaw Thwi Paing for the first time. Su Thwi brings his adopted daughter with him and the four of them sit down under the shade of a mango tree. Su Thwi appears full of happiness knowing he has a son, but this is tempered by his need to disclose “the truth” about his life. He tells his daughter to be strong and then begins the story of what has happened to him since leaving Pee Hee. This begins an extended flashback that takes up a large part of the film.

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