Monday, May 6, 2013

I am Sick of these Motherfucking Burmese in my Motherfucking Ayutthaya: The Burmese Menace in Thai Nationalist Historical Epics

Burma today is one of the most tragically underdeveloped countries in the world.  Upon independence from Britain in 1948, Burma was mineral-rich and would seem to have had a comparatively promising future.  But the country almost immediately fell apart, with communists seeking to overthrow the nationalist government of U Nu and disaffected ethnic minorities in the East staging uprisings that rage to this day (the Burmese civil war is the world’s longest running conflict).  In 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup and ruled the country as a psychotic dictator until 1988 (among the signs of his insanity, a numerological fixation on the number nine, which led to the introduction of Burmese money in unites of 90 nyat (nine being an auspicious number)). 

In 1988, independence leader Aung San’s daughter, the much revered Aung Sang Suu Kyi, returned to the country from exile in Britain to lead its burgeoning democracy movement.  Her party won elections in 1988, but the military decided (a) not to recognize them and (b) that Ne Win was too fucking crazy and was an impediment to the maintenance of military rule.  And so the army overthrew Ne Win and slaughtered thousands of democracy activists.  The new regime called itself the State Law and Order Restoration Committee (SLORC, which has to be the worst acronym this side of the Filipino MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front)).  The SLORC renamed the country Myanmar, renamed the capital Yangon, and then moved the capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to a previously unknown village name of Naypyidaw, and continued to prosecute brutal wars of repression against the various ethnic minorities: the Shan, the Wa, the Karen, the Kachin, etc (emphasis on the etc.). 

In recent years, Burma has undergone an apparent transition to a more democratic form of government.  Power has been transferred to a civilian government (composed largely of former military officers who resigned from the army for the sole purpose of claiming to be civilians), Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from house arrest and her party has entered parliament, and the government has now established cease-fires with most of the ethnic rebels (except the Kachin, whom the military continues to persecute in a war that gets very little international attention).  But the country’s still an underdeveloped mess and its future is uncertain.  In recent months, the predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority has faced pogroms from Buddhist mobs; Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to defend the Rohingya, an act of moral cowardice which has pissed off pretty much everyone.

I say all this as a preface to this post’s cinematic observation, which is that the Burmese menace that haunts so many Thai historical films becomes grotesquely ironic when you compare modern-day Burma and Thailand.  Thailand is a bastion of regional stability and economic power when compared to its impoverished, war-ravaged neighbors (specifically, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia).  In fact, one of the leading causes of instability in the post-WWII era in Thailand has been the near constant activity of Burmese ethnic rebels along the Thai-Burmese border.  Over the years, the Thai government has demonstrated varying degrees of tolerance for the different groups (much as they had a deeply inconsistent policy with the Khmer Rouge, who were dangerous and downright psychotic, but who provided a buffer between Thailand and the armed forces of Vietnam).

But if Burma is an irritant in modern-day Thailand, it’s hardly an existential threat (the existential threat to Thailand comes from its turbulent and often bloody party politics).  It is hard to imagine that there was once a time when mighty Burmese armies rampaged through Thailand, waging destructive campaigns that eventually annihilated the great Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1767.  The conflicts between Burma and Ayutthaya (often with special attention paid to its heroic founder-king Naresuan) provide the subjects for such nationalist cinematic epics as Naresuan (the first three parts of which run to about eight and a half hours), The Legend of Suriyothai (three hours), the blood bath Bang Rajan, and Napporn Watin’s Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya, an awful movie (which I watched this evening) about the nonetheless fascinating subject of Japanese adventurers in Thailand, circa-1610. In all of these movies, the Burmese are the most evil bastards to ever walk the earth (and the Thais are peaceful and virtuous, and their kings are virtually gods incarnate (may they be ever venerated!).  These representations of Burmese people and the xenophobia they give rise to are so over the top that D. W. Griffith himself would have looked at them and said, “Whoa, dudes, tone it down a little.”

Now, if you want to see a Thai movie with good, humane portrayals of Burmese people, I strongly recommend Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2001 film Blissfully Yours, which depicts the gentle (and gently surreal) romance between a Thai woman and an undocumented Burmese immigrant, all done up in Apichatpong’s beautiful, sui generis style.  It will certainly prove a welcome relief if you’ve watched too many Ayyuthaya chauvinist propaganda films.

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