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Out of Darkness

When Aung San Suu Kyi is recognized by Congress next week, she will take her place among a select group of Congressional Gold Medal recipients that includes George Washington, Mother Theresa, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr.

To receive one of the medals, which the Clerk of the House’s website describes as Congress’ “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions,” requires a rare feat these days: getting 290 House and 67 Senate co-sponsors. 

Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar’s primary opposition party, the National League for Democracy, was awarded the medal in May 2008. But she has been indisposed as of late – for the better part of two decades, actually – as the country’s military leadership kept her under house arrest for years at a time, from 1989 to 1995, 2000 to 2002 and from May 2003 to November 2010, according to the CIA’s World Factbook.

Now, as the country begins instituting reforms and holding elections, Suu Kyi, whose party first won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, is free to move about the globe. And she has been doing just that, speaking to world audiences about her country and traveling to Oslo in June to deliver her long-delayed Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. She was awarded the prize in 1991. 

Her time in the Capitol Rotunda comes Wednesday, when Congressional leaders and other dignitaries will present her with the Gold Medal. 

A Look Inside

Suu Kyi’s  first trip to the United States in more than 20 years will also coincide with the release in Washington, D.C., of a documentary film that shows the challenges she faced in attempting to keep the democratic flame alive in a country that has mostly lurched through military junta and strongman rule since the end of World War II. 

Robert Lieberman, a physics professor at Cornell University, novelist and filmmaker, traveled to Myanmar over a two-year period and clandestinely videotaped his time there, revealing a portrait of a country long closed off to outsiders by repressive strictures on the press, politicians, the arts and almost every other means of learning about a place.

The result, “They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain,” combines the most compelling guerilla-style techniques of cinema verite with a tapestry-like presentation of daily life in the country.  

“Here was the original plan: This is not journalism. I wanted to take you into the country and put a human face on it. How people eat, live, sleep, eat,” Lieberman said in an interview with Roll Call.

That plan shows quite a range, from the beauty of Buddhists trekking to a holy site to the squalor of a health clinic where a
tuberculosis-stricken child is treated by a nonprofessional health care provider who is dressing her ulcerated sores without surgical gloves. 

“This is a novelist’s eye of the country. I want to take you on a journey,” he said.

A Risky Venture

The journey entailed some personal risk to Lieberman. He was constantly reminded by his allies in the country that his whereabouts and activities were being tracked. 

“They were asking about me from the ministry?” he asks a friend in a scene in the movie, the concern palpable in his voice. 

Another incident in the film details him being questioned testily by a guard for trying to take video of the national library. 

Lieberman also describes an unnerving experience he had as he was shooting a scene in Rangoon, just trying to gather video to demonstrate the nature of street life in the capital city. 

“I felt three taps and no one was there, and I knew I was in trouble. … It was a warning. … I was out of there fast, lickety-split,” he said.

Overall, a fascinating picture emerges of a country kept tightly under wraps but persevering. Such a description also fits Suu Kyi, as she endured her many years of house arrest. 

The film does indeed unfold like a journey or novel. This isn’t a standard talking heads documentary, or at least it wasn’t planned that way.

But plans change. As Lieberman and his producers were putting the final touches on editing the film, Myanmar began inching along with reforms, which culminated in two momentous events in late 2010: parliamentary elections and Suu Kyi’s release. 

Lieberman scrambled to return to the country to interview her. Her ground rules stated that the emphasis had to be on the political process, which diverts the film from some of its image-heavy tone. 

But her interview does not detract as much as it supplements, providing a political voice to the film. This is significant, given Suu Kyi’s own iconic status in the country and internationally as a stubborn advocate of a more open society. 

When Lieberman asks her whether she considers herself a politician, she provides a hint of why she has become such a charismatic figure.

“Yes, of course I’m a politician,” she says on camera. “I think politicians who think they’ve gone beyond being politicians are very dangerous.” 

Coming as it does in the middle of a U.S. campaign season that is heavy on the rhetoric of freedom and sacrifice, such a movie, and a figure like Suu Kyi, is a stark reminder that the United States, for all its problems, is light years removed from the oppression in a country such as Myanmar. 

U.S. citizens and political figures are free to express their views and practice politics in ways that are virtually unthinkable in the south Asian country. 

Yet changes continue in Myanmar. In May, the administration of President Barack Obama eased some investment sanctions in response to political reforms the government had agreed to. In August, the government of Myanmar announced  that it would cease pre-publication censorship of the country’s media. 

But there is a long way to go, as Suu Kyi has made clear in her comments in recent months, and which she will likely allude to that on Wednesday.

What’s in a Name?

Even the name of the country is contentious. 

“Since 1989 the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their state; the US Government did not adopt the name, which is a derivative of the Burmese short-form name Myanma Naingngandaw,” according to the CIA World Factbook.

“That’s why I called the film ‘They Call it Myanmar,’ which always gets a laugh out of the Burmese,” Lieberman said. “It was a unilateral action by the military government. The people had nothing to do with it.”

Even respected media outlets are split. Associated Press style is Myanmar, as it is for the New York Times. The Washington Post and the BBC, however, go with Burma.

“Suu Kyi wants to call it Burma. It’s a political issue,” Lieberman said.

The long-standing controversy even made it into the classic television sitcom that proudly proclaimed it was about nothing, “Seinfeld.”

After J. Peterman, played by John O’Hurley, tells Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Elaine over the phone that he is fleeing his clothing catalog company, she protests. But he tells her, “I’m in Burma. … You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”

For those interested in catching a look at the country before Suu Kyi’s Gold Medal ceremony, “They Call it Myanmar” will be showing at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Md., for one week, starting on Friday. 

Lieberman will be on hand for this weekend’s shows to answer questions.

As for what’s next for Lieberman, he feels like he’s ready to tackle another tough subject as a filmmaker. 

“I’m interested in doing a film on North Korea,” he said. “I did the second-most isolated country. Why not the first?”