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The Rambo approach to Burma

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20 June 2008 10:37

Guest blogger: Andrew Selth, Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute and author of Populism, Politics and Propaganda: Burma and the Movies

Sylvester Stallone has claimed that his movie, Rambo 4, released internationally in February and available to Australians on DVD next month, has a serious purpose — to draw attention to the Burmese government’s long record of human rights abuses and to mobilize action against the military regime. Yet, its dubious entertainment value aside, this movie in fact has the potential to do Burma’s opposition movement considerable harm. 

When deciding where to set his movie, Stallone reportedly asked both the UN and Soldier of Fortune (SOF) magazine to name the world’s worst current war zones. SOF nominated the 60 year-old civil war between Burma’s central government and the ethnic Karens, most of who live along the Thai-Burma border. The cinematic result is an almost cosmic battle between good and evil, as the invincible US Special Forces soldier John Rambo once again comes out of retirement to rescue a group of Christian missionaries held captive by the Burmese army. As the movie’s tag line goes, ‘old heroes never die, they just reload’.

The brooding, disaffected anti-hero of First Blood (1982), Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (1985) and Rambo 3 (1988) is now in his 60s, and less prone to leaping about the landscape, but he can still mow down the bad guys with the best of them. According to the Internet Movie Database, the film averages 2.59 killings per minute. As one US reviewer has noted, the final body count of 236 dead in just 91 minutes makes it ‘possibly the most violent movie ever to get an R rating and a wide release in America’.

Rambo’s sizeable contribution to this non-stop slaughter is justified on the grounds that Burma’s military government has absolutely no redeeming features and its evil servants thus deserve everything they get. During the course of the movie the Burmese army is found guilty of genocide, homicide, infanticide, torture, rape, pedophilia, arson, theft, environmental degradation and cruelty to animals, among other crimes. This gives the avenging Rambo a license for guilt-free mayhem on a grand scale. Nothing is left to the imagination in this digitally-enhanced festival of blood, viscera and severed limbs.

Stallone, who co-wrote and directed the latest Rambo epic, wanted his movie to reflect real world events, and to influence international perceptions of the situation in Burma. He has spoken publicly about Burma’s terrible human rights record — the suffering of the ethnic minorities in particular — and challenged the military regime to let him into the country, so he can tell them where they are going wrong. In the movie, the hero suggests by his words and actions — particularly actions — that violent resistance to such oppression is not only justified but necessary. Efforts at humanitarian intervention are dismissed as well-intentioned, but essentially naive. The only way to improve matters, this film clearly says, is to overthrow the regime by force.

Rambo 4 is such a gross caricature of the violence being perpetrated against the civilian population by the regime that few will see it as a convincing picture of contemporary Burma. Even so, its crude political message has been welcomed by activists and members of Burma’s scattered exile community as a vivid and timely reminder of the military government’s brutal rule. It is already popular with Karen insurgents based along the Thai-Burma border, many of whom idolised Rambo even before the release of Stallone’s latest film. In addition to sporting Rambo tattoos and wearing Rambo T-shirts, they have apparently taken to repeating the hero’s mumbled line, ‘Live for nothing, die for something’.

Not only has Rambo 4 been denied permission to be screened publicly in Burma, but after it was released, Burma’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Board ordered all journals and newspapers in the country to publish a government article criticizing the movie. Entitled ‘Speaking seriously, it is hilarious’, the article lampooned the movie, describing the lead character as a fat lunatic with sagging breasts. Despite the efforts of the authorities to prevent its unlicensed distribution, however, DVDs of Rambo 4 can still be obtained from street sellers, and many people are prepared to risk jail to watch it, either at home or in underground theatres. Stallone has said that ‘it is flattering to be part of a movie that is giving the Burmese people hope’. He also feels ‘it is cool to say “I’m banned in Burma”’.

For all its appeal as a revenge fantasy, however, Rambo 4 ignores the enormous complexity of Burma’s current problems. As Brian McCartan has persuasively argued, the extreme level of violence shown in Rambo 4 ‘trivializes the actual conflict situation in war-torn Karen State’. The regime’s long history of atrocities has been well documented, but some of the more horrific scenes in the film are ‘complete fiction’, according to human rights groups. More children die from a lack of medicines to treat diseases than are shot by the Burmese army. Also, there is no mention in the film of the hundreds of dedicated Burmese who daily risk their lives to assist their countrymen and women along the Thai-Burma border.

Indeed, by grossly over-simplifying difficult issues and painting the protagonists in such stark colours, Rambo 4 may actually hinder resolution of Burma’s problems. For, if taken to heart, let alone seen as reflecting reality, the movie supports equally simplistic political views and encourages the advocacy of short term, black-and-white solutions where more carefully calibrated, long term approaches are necessary. As David Steinberg has written, ‘even more problematic, and far more dangerous, is the implication that the regime may be overthrown by US public or private military action’. In the current circumstances, an attempt by pro-democracy groups to seize power by force would inevitably result in a bloodbath, and any encouragement given to such a plan — covertly or otherwise — would be very irresponsible.

Also, ever since the 1988 uprising there have been calls by activists for an invasion of Burma, to restore democratic rule. This issue resurfaced in public debates about the international community’s overriding ‘responsibility to protect’ the victims of Cyclone Nargis, after the military regime refused to allow foreign countries to deliver aid to devastated areas of the country. For all the rhetoric heard from world leaders, forcible external intervention has never been on the cards. Yet, even public discussion of such an option increases the regime’s paranoia and hardens its resolve to resist what it considers to be a gross violation of Burmese sovereignty and unacceptable foreign interference in Burma’s internal affairs.

Thus, while it may give Sylvester Stallone a warm inner glow, and bring temporary comfort to the activist community, Rambo 4 risks delaying the resolution of Burma’s complex problems and prolonging the suffering of the Burmese people.

Photo (apparently taken at a market in Burma) by Flickr user woowoowoo, used under a Creative Commons license.

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