Lifting the Curtain…on Myanmar…on Burma

Good Afternoon…

…Early Evening

Today I saw a documentary about Burma called,  They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain.

I think it is something that you should watch in full.

It was a documentary filmed in Myanmar, or Burma depending on who you talk to, over a period of two years, by Robert H. Lieberman. According to the New York Times, Mr. Lieberman,

A novelist, filmmaker and physics lecturer at Cornell University, he went to the capital, Yangon, to teach film and make public-service ads as part of the Fulbright Specialist Program, one of the few American aid efforts in a country on which the United States has imposed heavy sanctions. Early on he was admonished not to film.

It was, he said, “a proverbial red flag for a filmmaker.”

And so he filmed, not quite clandestinely, but cautiously enough to avoid — mostly — attention in a place where photographing government buildings, military bases, bridges and even certain streets is grounds for arrest. During that trip, and three more over the next two years, he recorded 120 hours of video documenting life in a beautiful but oppressed and impoverished country, just as the stirrings of political change were beginning to appear.

(Here is a link to the film’s website: )

The San Francisco Gate reviewed the movie and had this to say (emphasis is mine): ‘They Call It Myanmar,’ review: timely

“They Call It Myanmar,” but most of us know it as Burma, except we don’t know Burma, hardly at all, because it has existed under a military dictatorship for the last 50 years. The regime has deliberately kept it isolated from outside influences, and thus this documentary by Robert H. Lieberman, accurately subtitled “Lifting the Curtain.” The film provides one of the ultimate functions of a documentary, taking us into the life and culture of a people most of us would never know.

For the first 10 minutes, Burma looks like an ideal travel destination – gorgeous and exotic, full of pristine Buddhist temples and friendly people. But then you notice the military presence, and the fact that Lieberman isn’t allowed to videotape anything or anybody. (He does anyway.)

Few Burmese will make even the most innocuous criticism of the government, at least not on camera, out of fear of being carried off in the night. One man becomes positively giddy when asked his opinion of things – it’s the first time anyone has ever asked his opinion.

This “giddy” response is seen towards the end of the film, and it seems like the ending punctuation of the documentary’s statement. Not a period or question mark, but an exclamation point on the Burmese people’s culture, tradition and the powerful government/military/regime/colonial/royal rule these people have endured over the centuries.

There was another comment in the film that I thought was very telling. In discussing the religious nature of the Burmese people, the connection was made between the Buddhist teachings, and the contentedness of the people.  That the people are too content…and that actually could be one of the things within their culture that has lead to the situation they are in.


“Fairy Tales” – Bagan, Myanmar. Photograph by Amnon Eichlberg.
For more photos of Burma see this site: Myanmar –

Trailer for the film below…

You can see the film in full here, the cost is under 4 bucks:  They Call It Myanmar: Lifting The Curtain – YouTube

Shot clandestinely over a two-year period by best-selling novelist and filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman, this film provides a rare look at the second-most isolated country on the planet – Burma. It lifts the curtain to expose the everyday life in a country that has been held in the iron grip of a brutal military regime for 48 years. THEY CALL IT MYANMAR, culled from over 120 hours of striking images, is an impressionistic journey. Interviews and interactions with more than one hundred people throughout Burma, including an interview with the recently released Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, are interwoven with spectacular footage of this little-seen nation and its people. Though Burma has tumbled from being one of the most prosperous and advanced countries in Southeast Asia to being one of the world’s poorest, THEY CALL IT MYANMAR is a story of beauty, courage and hope.

You can also stream it on Netflix, which is how I saw it.

As that quote from the movie’s youtube page states, Lieberman interviews Aung San Suu Kyi in the film, I have another review of the film, this time from the New York Times: In Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar

She was released from house arrest in November 2010, shortly after Mr. Lieberman thought he was finished. He returned to Myanmar in February 2011 for the fourth time and arranged to interview her.

“ ‘No personal questions,’ ” Mr. Lieberman recalled her telling him at the outset, a stipulation that complicated the interview, which unfolded awkwardly and yet revealingly. In the film she reflects on the country, its colonial history and her father, Aung San, the revered revolutionary general who led it to independence from Britain, only to be assassinated by rivals in 1947, when she was just 2.

Only an exceptional 2-year-old could have remembered a father lost at that age, she says, poignantly revealing that her father was, for her, as mythical a figure as he has been for her fellow citizens. Hers is the most famous voice, but only one among dozens of people Mr. Lieberman interviewed — some shown with their faces obscured, almost all left unidentified on screen.

“I think a firm, strong, authoritarian hand cannot create unity,” she says in the film, explaining the mind-set of the military rulers up to the election of the new, apparently reform-minded president, U Thein Sein. “It can only give the appearance of unity.”

The film, made with a Sony camcorder (all the better to tuck away when necessary), unfolds as an episodic travelogue, interspersed with historic footage and explanatory narration (on subjects like why the country is known both as Myanmar and the old colonial name, Burma).

Some scenes — shot from Mr. Lieberman’s commercial flight from Thailand or from the window of a moving car — reflect the limitations of trying to film in a police state.

With Mr. Lieberman as the garrulous narrator, it includes clips that would not be out of place in a homemade vacation video, but also interviews that show, indirectly at times, the social and economic conditions of a country that closed itself off from the world for decades. Some of those interviewed speak openly, even candidly.

“Thinking is not an option,” one woman says, describing the Orwellian nature of the place; she is not shown on screen.

Reflect on that statement a moment, it puts the giddiness from the man who was simply asked what his opinion was into perspective, doesn’t it?

One more review from the NYT, this one from the Arts section: ‘They Call It Myanmar,’ by Robert H. Lieberman –

Robert H. Lieberman/PhotoSynthesis Productions

A fisherman in the documentary “They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain.”

The movie covers the country’s history, including its domination by the British and Japan; its independence in 1948; and its fall to a military coup in 1962. It outlines the Buddhist precepts that sustain most of its people. And it addresses the 2007 nonviolent protests that Buddhist monks took to Yangon, a major city.

But most important, the film talks to regular citizens: on the street, in a restaurant, at a temple and tourist spot. Those interviewed are gracious and exuberant, living in a country rich in natural resources but trapped in crushing poverty.

In November of last year, this commentary on the Obama Administration was published in National Journal, written by Michael Hirsh: Obama’s China Encirclement Policy: Why It’s Likely to Work

Robert Lieberman, the maker of the critically acclaimed documentary, They Call It Myanmar – Lifting the Curtain, tells a story that exposes some of the cynical reality behind President Obama’s historic visit to politically imprisoned Myanmar today. Shortly after Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning democracy activist, was released from two decades of house arrest in November of 2010, Lieberman was invited to show his film at a Yangon festival that Suu Kyi was organizing called “The Art of Freedom.” Thoughtfully, he informed the U.S. Embassy of his plans. Their reaction? Near-panic.

“They basically said, ‘No way should you do this. You cannot show a movie without it being cleared by [Myanmar] censors. We respectfully request that you remove any reference to the embassy, so it won’t seem to anyone that we helped you,’” says Lieberman, a Cornell University professor. Deferring to his government’s wishes, Lieberman showed his movie at the British Embassy in Yangon instead, without incident. “The British had guts,” he says.

There you have the Obama administration. It will defend human rights and democracy, but only when it’s suitable. And usually when lip service to human rights serves some other end. We saw a similar dynamic play out in the first year of the administration, when Obama’s “outstretched hand” to the Iranian regime led him to slight the “Green Movement,” a precursor to the Arab Spring uprisings that was subsequently crushed. In this case, the administration was just gearing up for a major strategic shift aimed at encircling China with allies old and new, and Myanmar, long isolated by Western sanctions, was deemed a key player. All of which suggests that if there is any president that Barack Obama most resembles right now on foreign policy, it is probably Richard Nixon, the master practitioner of cynical realpolitik. Except rather than opening China to outmaneuver the Soviets, 40 years later he’s opening Myanmar to outmaneuver the Chinese. And just as Nixon and his foreign-policy impresario, Henry Kissinger, never paid much attention to human rights, Obama is treating them as an afterthought as well.

This article was written before Obama visited the country…

Obama, of course, is describing Monday’s trip to Burma—the first-ever by a U.S. president—in very different terms. At a news conference in neighboring Thailand on Sunday, he sounded defensive after being attacked by human-rights activists. The harsh fact is that the long-repressive junta is giving up only a little power and has rigged its constitution to retain what it has and keep Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency. Most recently the junta demonstrated this with a bloody crackdown on the Muslim minority, the Rohingya. Obama insisted he was ready to use economic leverage and said,  “If we waited to engage until they had achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is that we’d be waiting an awful long time.”

Read the rest of that essay by Hirsch at the link above…I know we have linked to this op/ed previously on the blog, but it does need repeating here on this thread.

I wish there was a way to view this film without charge, but even if you need to pay to view, it is worth it. Please, take a look at it…wow.

13 Comments on “Lifting the Curtain…on Myanmar…on Burma”

  1. I guess you can treat this as an open thread…hope everyone is having a good day.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Wonderful post, JJ. The photos are gorgeous! I know almost nothing about Myanmar. I really appreciate this. I will try to see the documentary.

      • If you have Netflix, it is in the new release section.

        Tonight on TCM it is Allied Studio night…Billy Budd and Cabaret. So you can imagine what I will be doing tonight. LOL

  2. There is a page on the “They Call it Myanmar” website that has photos with descriptions: Photos | They Call It Myanmar

    • dakinikat says:

      Myanmar is one of my countries since it’s part of ASEAN. It has a list of things it has to comply with in order to part of that trade area and as part of the currency unification process which is probably why it’s beginning to open up. It’s a fascinating country with wonderful people. I can’t help but wonder if the military will eventually fade away anyway since they are all very old men now. Thanks for this.

      You do know that most of the protests of the military regime has been led by Buddhist monks? It’s part of the saffron revolution. 100s, if not 1000s, of Buddhist monks have been killed protesting military rule and treatment of the people there.

      • The only mention the saffron revolution at the end of the documentary…but they do say the numbers are in the 1000s. It is fascinating, and frightening when you see the conditions the people live in.

  3. RalphB says:

    A bit of tectonic activity in the Ring of Fire.

    Sydney Morning Herald: Major quake hits near Solomons, triggering tsunami warning

    A major earthquake registering at magnitude 8 has hit near the Solomon Islands, with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) issuing a tsunami warning for a wide swathe of islands in the South Pacific.

    The quake struck at a depth of 5.8km at 11.07am AEDT on Wednesday, near the Santa Cruz Islands, which are part of the Solomon Islands nation, and sea level readings indicate a tsunami has been generated.

  4. RalphB says:

    Salon: Virginia GOP no longer even trying to hide true purpose of voter ID laws

    The Virginia Legislature has just passed new voter ID laws severely restricting the number of documents voters can use to prove their identity. Because “voter fraud” is not actually a real problem, Virginia’s Republican legislative majority was free to make the rules as hilariously arbitrary as they wanted. And they honestly couldn’t have made their actual intentions — the suppression of undesirable poor/minority votes — more plain.

    From the Lynchburg News & Advance (via TPM):

    The Senate legislation, and a companion measure — House Bill 1337, sponsored by Del. Mark L. Cole, R-Spotsylvania, which cleared the House of Delegates today on a 63-36 vote — would eliminate the use of a utility bill, pay stub, bank statement, government check and Social Security card as acceptable identification that can be presented at the polls. Voters would still be able to use a voter identification card, concealed handgun permit, driver’s license and student ID card.

    That’s right. You can no longer prove your identity with a utility bill or Social Security card — you know, two of the forms of ID you can use to prove your identity when you’re getting a driver’s license — but that concealed handgun permit is A-OK.

    Maybe no one is watching now

    • NW Luna says:

      And forget about canvasing voters unless you’ve got a bulletproof vest, helmet, and face shield.