“On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship” Interview w/ Director Karen Stokkendal Poulsen

On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship

by Ian MacKenzie

The world celebrated when Myanmar’s military government transferred power to Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi after her landslide election in 2015. But how is political responsibility passed down in a country whose new democracy is founded on 50 years of dictatorship and entrenched ethnic discrimination? Karen Stokkendal Poulsen’s new film, On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, which premiered at Hot Docs 2019, shows the ways in which Aung San Suu Kyi has had to contend with an atmosphere of total distrust and collaborate with the same men who kept her under house arrest for a total of 15 years.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

How did you become involved in this project? Why make a documentary about this subject matter?

Karen Stokkendal Poulsen: I am interested in telling the surprising stories from the closed rooms of power, which gives complexity and nuances to what we know, but mainly I am looking for stories that give hope for change for the better.

What was your goal when you first went to Burma? What were you hoping to achieve?

I thought it was a miracle story of a military regime that voluntarily started to democratize and an extraordinary woman, who had won a decade long non-violent fight for democracy. In this case, things unfolded in such a tragic way and the story was much darker than I had anticipated. So the objective became to tell the story truthfully and make a dramatic story out of this complex universe and characters.

I realized how privileged a position I was in as a documentary filmmaker.

Explain to me the effect that sanctions have had on the country’s ability to do business with the outside world.

 The sanctions meant that they couldn’t do any business with the Western world and were left to the mercy of China. With China’s ever growing influence in the region, Myanmar feared to simply be eaten up by China and its interests. The lack of business with the outside world meant first of all that the country was held in extreme poverty for decades while all the neighboring countries in the region have seen booming economic development. For the military leaders it meant that they couldn’t travel, they couldn’t spend their money abroad (and they had made fortunes on ripping off the country of its resources), and they couldn’t even get sick family members treatment at foreign hospitals when needed.

On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, in Myanmar

On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, in Myanmar

What is the targeted sanctions list? How many of the leaders are on this list?

Targeted sanctions list is the list where specific individuals are put if they are as individuals considered responsible for things such as suppression of the people, crimes against humanity, anti-democratic practices etc. Usually you sanction a country and their over-all businesses, but on top of that you can choose targeted individuals that you put on a separate list to make sure that they don’t find ways around the system. I don’t know exactly how many were on that list, but it is usually the inner core of “the worst.”

What was required in order to obtain the access required to shoot the film? What difficulties did you face?

Everything was difficult concerning the access. Just to get the visa to film was a major obstacle. To get even a first meeting took months and months. I was being surveilled, my telephone was being tapped and I could never trust anyone. However, an extended diplomatic network, very good local associate producers and lots of time and patience let me gradually get closer to them and higher up in the hierarchy.

What was your experience like speaking with the military leaders? How did you approach the interviews, knowing what they were like and the power they wield?

When I finally got to sit with the military leaders in a one-to-one situation, I realized how privileged a position I was in as a documentary filmmaker. Because when we were finally there and began to talk, I had no agenda but my own — to get deeper into their minds and to tell that story. I was not there to persuade them to change their policies, like diplomats or NGO’s. I am not even a journalist that has to publish something the next day and is expected to find the smoking gun. I was really able to talk to them in an open way and direct the conversation according to my own beliefs and what the situation brought. And I think that made a major difference and made them relax. I was actually surprised by how little I was restricted and how I was able to talk with them about even very sensitive issues, simply because it was an open and sincere conversation and not an interrogation. That said, they obviously tried to pursue their agenda and I mine – to bring out their stories and emotions. But the frame allowed for a different tone in the entire conversation.

Democracy is more complex than we think.

Tell me about the significance of the monks and astrologers. They appear to exert a lot of influence, something that people in the West might find hard to believe.

Yes, they do have a very powerful role, especially because the people believe in their importance. The astrologers are present in every aspect of life and help people find names for their children, dates for their weddings and advice for any important decision. That goes for the military leaders as well. As a Buddhist-dominated country, the monks have come to have an extremely influential role, and unfortunately lately in a very radicalized form. It doesn’t concern all monks, but it goes especially for the monks in the Rakhine region.

On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, in Myanmar

On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, in Myanmar

Where does this come from? Is it part of the country’s religious past? Their belief system?

I believe this is a tendency you see in any religion or actually any too strong ideology; it can be abused by the leaders to exclude and suppress minorities and to enhance their own power.

How does such a relationship exist? I would have expected monks to be opposed to working with such a government.

Again, I think it is more a matter of a power game than the actual belief system. The top leaders amongst the monks know how to abuse their power just like the military does. It is contradictory to the Buddhism’s core principles, but I believe most religions and ideologies have peace as a core value but find ways to bend it in their favor.

The Rohingya crisis appears to be the best thing possible for the military leaders, to legitimize their existence and power over the nation.  How have they exploited it for their own means?

They have first and foremost put Aung San Suu Kyi in a dilemma and forced her to choose between the support of the international society and the Burmese people. It has illustrated their power and given them a reason to uphold their existence. Everyone in the country sees it (due to the narrative they hear from the government) as a legitimate fight against terrorism.

I don’t see her as a tragic figure, neither a victim.

Aun San Su Kyi goes from being the hope of the nation to being reviled by the international community for her silence regarding the Rohingya crisis. What does this say about the difficulties of transitioning to a democracy after so many years of military rule?

To change a country into a democracy requires not only an election but a much deeper change of society and mentality. It requires in this case that the military would fully cease power, which they haven’t. And it requires peace and stability, which this country is still far from seeing.

Is Aun San Su Kyi a tragic figure? What can we learn from her Faustian bargain with the ruling military? The fact that she is compelled to silence in order to achieve her goals.

I don’t see her as a tragic figure, neither a victim. I actually believe she is a very strong personality, and she had a choice: she could have said no to power under these circumstances; or she could have stepped down in the Rohingya crisis and stepped up for humanity. But she didn’t. It makes her tragic only in the sense that she is not or never was the moral leader we hoped she was.

Where does the country go from here? Can there be democracy when such deals must be made?

I believe the country is very far from a full democracy. As long as there are wars (and there will be for a long time), the military keeps playing a key role in the country. Until the constitution changes or the security/military affairs play a much smaller role in the country, it will be difficult to see a flourishing democracy in Burma. However, I believe that there is a lot of hope to find in the young generation. I have met fantastic people that are reflective and well organized and put an amazing effort into their fight for democracy on a daily basis.

What would you like audiences to take away for this film?

That democracy is more complex than we think. That it goes not only for authoritarian regimes that are trying to democratize but for any country, society, human interaction: democracy is difficult and requires compromise. That even the worst of dictators have a human side and the apparent icon can be cynical, but for all of them it goes that they are human. And human beings can change and make the world change. Even the strongest structures and systems depend on psychology and human will.

Watch the film’s trailer, below:



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