A year with the Burmese resistance


Barefoot Student Army
Produced by Open Channel in association with Lyndal and Sophie Barry
Screening on True Stories, ABC TV, at 8 p.m., Sunday, May 10
Reviewed by Anthony Thirlwall and Bronwen Beechey

In March 1988, Burmese students took to the streets of Rangoon, calling for the end of the corrupt and oppressive Ne Win government. Their actions forced the resignation of Ne Win, but in September a military coup by his supporters ushered in a period of savage repression.

The military regime initiated vicious reprisals against the student protesters, killing an estimated 10,000 students and imprisoning up to 10,000 others. Those who escaped fled to the jungle along the Thai-Burmese border, to take up arms against the military dictatorship.

Barefoot Student Army was made by two young Melbourne film makers, Lyndal and Sophie Barry, who spent a year living among the students and recording their struggle. The documentary incorporates their video 8 footage and newsreel film to explain the background to the 1988 protests and tell the stories of some of the students. It also documents the struggle of the Karen people, who have been waging armed struggle against the Burmese government for 40 years.

Young people such as Hlaing Bwa, a guitar-playing former high school student, describe the transformation of their lives from middle-class comfort to the harsh conditions of jungle warfare. As another student says, "We would rather be holding chalk, but we have been forced to hold the triggers of guns".

They also tell stories of horrific torture and violation of human rights by the military. These abuses have resulted in UN sanctions against Burma, but the Australian government last week announced that it would hold off on the sanctions after some political prisoners were released.

"The Burmese government has done these little things before", Sophie Barry told Green Left. "They don't really mean anything. The Australian government should apply the sanctions until the military hands over power to the democratically elected government."

A number of large Australian firms trade with Burma. Lyndal Barry describes some of the Australian-Burmese trade: "Multiplex Construction are involved in renovating hotels. The Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation are doing irrigation work ...

"BHP signed a production-sharing contract with the Burmese government in 1989, which included a $US6 million 'signature bonus' to the government. Another Australian company involved in Burma is the Lloyd Helicopter Group. The Burmese government say that they are using helicopters to spray opium crops, but we have evidence that the helicopters are in fact spraying chemicals over areas where the resistance is based, and are also used for transporting heroin."

Barefoot Student Army also shows the strong role played by women ent. Lyndal explained, "Most of the women in the student army learn to use weapons, and some choose to go to front-line positions, though most prefer to do teaching or nursing in the liberated areas ... There are also a number of women in leadership positions in the Karen resistance — two out of their 20 generals are women — and there are a lot of women's organisations."

Many women in the border areas have been raped by the military. Lyndal and Sophie are currently involved with members of the Burmese community is raising money to send a sexual assault worker from Australia to teach Karen women to counsel survivors of rape.

Lyndal and Sophie see many parallels between the situation in Burma and East Timor, although they feel that fewer people are aware of the desperate situation in Burma.

"The students are fighting for many basic rights that students in Australia take for granted", Lyndal commented. "It's also important to point out that while the students are calling for democracy, they aren't in favour of American-style capitalism by any means. They are fighting for a democracy which preserves Burmese and other cultures, and provides for everyone's needs."