Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rambo in Burma

The most talked about Hollywood movie here right now is Rambo 4. Our Burmese friends love it so much. And they were amazed to know that Stallone speaks Burmese. Our co-worker wants us to watch the movie so badly that he rented a CD copy for us. When I slid the CD into the player and watched, I began to wonder how they were able to manage watching the movie much more finish it.

The opening scene is a clipping from an unknown journalist and I assumed that because it is a clipping, the picture would naturally be blurred and the sound incomprehensible. I thought the movie would become better as it went on. But to my disappointment, it got worst. The rented CD was filmed inside a movie house with a handy cam. I refused to watch it further because it was giving me a terrible migraine.

If my understanding is right, the movie is ban in Burma. But we are living in the border with thousands of Burmese migrant workers. The movie actually made them happy and jokingly told us that Rambo is the only solution to the relentless political problem in Burma.

In spite of Hollywood distortions there are grains of truth we can learn from the movie. For example, the continuous war and genocide of the Burmese junta against the Karen tribes is true. So are the missionaries who are risking their lives to help the internally displaced people.And of course, the tyrannies of the military agains the tribal people who oppose the government.

At Irrawaddy, the Burmese online news magazine, James Rose, an Australia-based media and policy advisor currently assisting various Burmese pro-democracy groups in Asia and the US, write in the opinion section about it.

The high levels of excitement over an aging Hollywood star, hacking and mumbling his way through Burma, may be odd to some, but it attests to the power of American cultural hegemony. This is a reality that even diehard anti-American hotheads must accept.

So, given the news spreading globally over the lavish red carpet openings and the musings of Rambo’s hulking front man, Burmese activists are given an opportunity to focus that spotlight so blurrily cast by Rambo.

Doing so is no easy task. The reasons are both generic and specific to Burma’s current media profile.

First, the generic problems.

Rambo is, of course, a product of the Hollywood entertainment machine. That word “entertainment” should not be forgotten. Most of those in the West who may turn out to view Rambo’s blood-spattered Burmese Days will be entering a sort of “switch-off-and-escape” mindset that makes movie-going such a popular phenomenon the world over.

Few would approach the Rambo experience as an opportunity to really learn much about Burma. Sly Stallone is not noted for his documentaries. Whatever is learnt will be of little real value, other than perhaps making people similarly seek the kind of cartoonish vengeance characteristic of the Rambo franchise.

As such, for the all the arguments that Rambo in Burma shows it how it is and depicts the savage reality of life under a heinous regime, such messages will be largely lost to the largely switched-off viewers and wasted on the smattering of earnest movie-goers eager to “feel” Burma’s tragedy.

Another angle on the generic shortfalls of a pro-Rambo media strategy is that this movie, like any other out of Hollywood, is about making money. More the point, it’s about making a small minority of rich people richer.

The extent to which this dynamic aids the cause of a free Burma is questionable. As soon as a cause is identified as “commercial” as appears to be the case with Burma, it tends to lose its shape and those who may have previously been able to influence the strategic culture will be marginalized as new profit-oriented methodologies are introduced.

Now to the specific problems related to Burma media strategies and Rambo.
The nature of the Burma demonstrations, to date via the world’s media, has been one of peaceful protest. The cry of metta (“loving kindness”) sent out into the Burmese air by the marching monks has become the banner under which the world has tended to view the current situation in Burma.

As such, introducing a snarling, blood-soaked, murderous Rambo into the media landscape and you have a classical case of what is known, in media terms, as a “mixed message”. The combination of two such diametrically opposed approaches to dealing with Burma’s dire circumstances tangles the whole Burma issue and removes some of the pillars of the bridge of clear communication to the world.

“Is Burma about peaceful change or is it about civil war?” once media consumers begin asking such questions, the answer is already more or less unimportant. By now, many tracking Burma via the world’s media coverage have already expressed their confusion and have begun the fatal process of moving on.

Media consumers in advanced economies like their causes simple and clear-cut. Few are inclined to take the time to assess and analyze a given situation. They want clean lines of entry. Confusion is the death-knell for any campaign seeking to gain public attention and support.

The latest Rambo movie does indeed offer opportunities for Burma activists. But, it must be along the lines of providing clarity to Rambo’s murky and simplistic critique of contemporary Burma and must make clear where Rambo sits in the overall anti-military movement. Wherever that position may be, it should not be on top or all-encompassing. For media purposes, the Burma democracy movement must ensure that it is a case of Burma using Rambo, rather than Rambo using Burma.

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