Propaganda on the Mountain
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BEYOND 1988 — REFLECTIONS

Propaganda on the Mountain


By AUNG NAING OO Saturday, September 25, 2010


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War and propaganda are inseparable.

I have never been in active combat, so I cannot describe what it is like to be in an actual battle. But Burma has been at war with itself for many decades, through which I have seen how propaganda works.

During the socialist era, we heard much propaganda related to armed conflicts involving the country’s ethnic nationalities and the Communists. It came in various forms: radio, newspapers, school curriculums, speeches by government leaders, songs, movies and, later, on TV.

But as a youngster, it took a while to realize what was real and what was propaganda. Sometimes, an event like the 1988 uprising helps one to learn to see and recognize the difference.

Born and raised in small rural town at the height of socialism in Burma against the backdrop of on-going civil war, I grew up believing that all armed insurgents were “destructive elements bent on destroying the country”—even with the particular twist that the Karen rebels were “hideous-looking.” I don't know where that particular slander came from, but it stuck in my head.

I had many good-looking and beautiful Karen friends, but it never occurred to me to stop and think if that belief I had about the rebels was really just nonsense.

And I was fond of one of the Burmese army’s signature tunes, which went: “Yebaw [soldier] never dies; but even if he does, he will not go to hell.” It was so catchy that it stuck in my head without ever thinking what it meant and what message it was designed to convey.

During the colonial wars, British and Indian soldiers were referred to as white and black “kalaar” respectively—a derogatory term for Indians—by the Burmese royalists fighting against the invasions at the turn of the 19th century. During the war, the Burmese nationalists called the Japanese “nga pu” or “dwarfs.”

There are similar examples, such as the Burmese army’s use of the word “thaung gyan thu” or “insurgents” for all armed groups. In the early 90s, the Burmese regime even called seditious monks “insurgents in robes,” though the term was later dropped after protests from the Buddhist clergy.

These examples of propaganda are, in fact, “nan hnein” at work. This Burmese phrase has a particularly nasty psychological implication—it means, and I paraphrase”—“crushing the mind and morale of the enemy by using a defamatory label that expresses his inferiority, while simultaneously affirming the inherent superiority of one’s own race or group to lift their spirits.”

During my time in the jungle around 1993, someone brought a video of a propaganda movie from the Communist Party of Burma. It was called “Inextinguishable Flames.” I do not remember when it was made, but it was very good, highly professionally made, perhaps with the help of the Chinese.

It was in Burmese and the message was very clear—that the communists were strong, resilient and united and that the flames of their struggle could never be doused.

To me, the film was very impressive, particularly the scene in which hundreds or thousands of Communist (Wa) fighters carried torches in the dark, singing continuously and creating miles of human chain along a mountain path, with the light from their torches reflecting and swaying gently in the darkness.

It gave me goosebumps to watch this scene. I was inspired, and for a long time admired the Communist party, for coming up with such a great idea.  

In the Wa camp too, I witnessed the propaganda machine at work against Khun Sa’s army.

Not long after we had arrived, the Wa and the Lahu celebrated their New Year. It seemed to me that they were celebrating the Chinese New Year because—if I am not wrong—it was in late January or early February.

Hla Win, one of the Wa officers who had attended the Academy for the Ethnic Nationalities in Sagaing, invited us to join the celebrations, so we went along with them to the festivities, which were being held in a nearby field.

It was a cool beautiful night and colorful flags were flapping in the breeze on the mountaintop.

When we got there, around 30 people—young and old, men and women with colorful dresses—were already in a circle dancing and singing. Others stood and clapped and watched the dance.

I watched as the Wa and Lahu stepped in and out the circle harmoniously. The songs were more like Burmese water festival raps—short and rhythmic.

I found myself somewhar engrossed in the dance. We were asked to join in, which we did. After a round or two of dancing, we were offered some alcohol, perhaps rice wine, although I couldn't be sure. I sipped it and spoke to Hla Win about the song and dance, and asked him what they meant.

I was pleasantly surprised.



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Free Man Wrote:
25/09/2010
If my memory doesn't fail me, I think you wrote in one of your books that you realized, only after you had arrived in Thaybawbo Camp, that your belief that all armed groups were “destructive elements bent on destroying the country” and the Karen rebels were “hideous-looking” was wrong. Is that right?

It is sad to see that the term "kalaar" is still used by some media agencies to refer to Indians and/or Muslisms. In fact, some of my teachers even used this term to refer to some Indian students when I was in high school. And the majority of the people of Burma still use the term. Something should be done about this. We should learn to develop empathy.

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