By Stephen Brookes in Mandalay
for Asia Times
The scene: The outskirts of Mandalay Palace, dusk. A tall figure in Burmese court dress appears from behind a wall and rushes down a flight of steps, where a British military officer is standing with his troops.
"Captain, Captain!" he shouts. "I have met a Burmese prince and his followers! They are very dangerous -- they will do anything to get the throne!"
"Where are these people?" demands the captain.
Stephen Brookes "I have shown the sergeant here the place," says the tall man, patting another soldier on the chest. "I think that if we get 20 soldiers, it will be quite enough. And Captain!" he calls, as the British officer starts to move off. "When you see Colonel Sladen, tell him: Do not forget Maung Tha Pyo! Do not forget Maung Tha Pyo!"
"Cut!" shouts the director, and the actor playing Maung Tha Pyo -- a minor traitor in the fall of Mandalay to the British in 1885 -- slumps into a chair and lights a Marlboro, looking irritated. The director's assistant, script in hand and a cell phone tucked in the belt of his camouflage pants, barks instructions to the extras, and the cameraman repositions the tripod-mounted Arriflex for the next scene. It's a little after six o'clock and the actors are ready to quit for the day, but there's still one crucial scene to be finished.
"This is a very important film, and we have to make sure all the historical details are precise," said Tekatho Hpone Naing, watching the action from his chair under a huge tamarind tree near the palace wall. A courtly man in his late 70's, Tekatho Hpone Naing is deeply interested in this movie, and the crew treats him with deference: Not only is he Myanmar's most famous writer, he's also the author of the novel they're filming.
Titled "Thu Kyun M' Khan Byi" -- We Shall Not Be Enslaved -- the movie is an account of Britain's rapid conquest and annexation of Upper Myanmar in the final days of November 1885, when King Thibaw and his queen Supayalat were dethroned and sent into exile. It was a traumatic moment in the country's history, as Myanmar -- then known as Burma -- came under British rule for the next six decades. And it happened, historians agree, because Thibaw's weak and faction-ridden government was unable to fend off Britain and France as the two great imperial powers fought for supremacy in South East Asia.
"I wrote this novel to warn my people not to repeat the tragedy again," said the elderly author, as a crowd of extras in turbans and khaki uniforms filed past. "But I blame no one, including the British. What happened was that an advanced, industrial civilization met an isolated one, and we lost. So with this novel, I tried to warn my people: Be modern. Be international. Open your eyes, and open your hearts."
Despite going through ten editions since it was written in 1958, this is the first time that the book is being filmed -- and no expense is being spared. The director, cinematographer and all the key players are winners of Myanmar's Academy Awards, and thousands of extras are being used in the epic scenes. "This is the most important film ever made in Myanmar," said Chit Oo Nyo, the film's screenwriter, as he watched the rehearsal from the sidelines. "I'm a little nervous."
But even as Myanmar's historic defeat is being brought to the big screen, the threat of domination by "neo-colonialists" is a daily theme in the state-run press. That very morning, Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, one of the country's top leaders, had urged the nation to "crush" anyone spreading foreign ideas, explaining: "Colonialism of old times had its way of unjustifiably transgressing, making war and occupying another country. Neo-colonialism today has its way of breeding their cohorts in a country they want to get under their influence and try to dominate it with their cultural ways."
Is that why this movie is being made now -- as anti-foreign propaganda?
"Absolutely not," insisted screenwriter Chit Oo Nyo. "The most important thing we want to say is that inner unity is more important than external influences. It doesn't matter about imperialism -- with unity in the country, we will never be lost."
As he spoke, the sky had grown dark and hundreds of spectators had gathered in the surrounding meadow to watch the spectacle. It was an eclectic crowd: schoolchildren, old men on bicycles, mothers holding babies, soldiers from the military compound that occupies a large part of the palace grounds. The air was thick with hundreds of tiny white moths fluttering in the 4,000-watt stage lights, and an unkempt man with a wild beard sat cross-legged in the grass, mewing like a cat, as children threw bits of grass at him. Occasionally a brightly-dressed actress would appear out of the shadows, glitter for a moment, and disappear again into the dark.
From his seat under the tamarind tree, the old novelist surveyed the scene intently.
"This is an historical tragedy, but people rarely understand the meaning of history," he said quietly. "In 1970, the Russians translated my book, but they didn't comprehend it at all. They called it 'a novel of national liberation.' But that's just communist jargon -- pointing to outsiders, capitalists and imperialists, but never toward oneself." He paused, looking over the crowd. "One has to examine oneself, in order to understand history."
As he talked, a technician nearby was taping a small explosive device to the stomach of one of the actors, preparing for the final scene of the day. It was to be a complicated death scene, and the crew was working out the intricate special effects of bloodletting. The director rushed back and forth among the characters, fretting over the details and checking the costumes, making everything real.
Finally, the scene was set. The director motioned with his hand, and an aide passed a bottle of stage blood to the traitorous Maung Tha Pyo, who took a swig and held it in his mouth, grimacing at the taste. The cameras began to whirr, the clapboard clapped, and Maung Tha Pyo stood alone in the harsh light.
Out of nowhere, a fighter loyal to King Thibaw burst onto the scene and charged the traitor with a cry, thrusting a long wooden sword between his arm and torso. The hidden blood bags burst and Maung Tha Pyo, mortally wounded, coughed up his mouthful of blood and fell to the ground with a groan. The killer raised his bloody sword in triumph -- but suddenly a British soldier appeared behind him, aimed his musket and shot him in the back.
The effect was electrifying, as the musket exploded and blood burst from the belly of the swordsman, spreading quickly across his shirt. "Run! We have been betrayed!" he shouted to his comrades, as he sank slowly to his knees and pitched over dramatically into the dust.
The rest, as they say, is history. There was silence for a moment, then Maung Tha Pyo picked himself up, spat the last of the fake blood out of his mouth and lit another cigarette. His killer unhooked the special effects device from his waist and traded jokes with the technicians, as the cast of traitors, heros, courtiers and conquerers -- their work done for the day -- shunted off their costumes and returned to real life.
Leaving only the question: What is real life in Myanmar?