TV review: ‘Burma with Simon Reeve’ (2018)

Shocking and insightful, this is a two-part investigation into the current situation of Burma (Myanmar) as it recovers from the lengthy military dictatorship which followed independence from the British. Aung San Suu Kyi is popularly seen by many as a human rights hero but this documentary suggests that she isn’t able to do enough. BBC presenter Simon Reeve travels the country on foot, by car, boat and bicycle, with trusty cameraman Jonathan. As always, there are beautifully filmed aerial shots as well as the grainy night-time footage from sneaking into/out of places. Here are some highlights:

  • In Yangon, reunited with activist and former exile Cheery (who risked her life helping Simon cross into Burma in Tropic of Cancer), it is clear that while some things have changed since the end of the dictatorship, there are serious issues which people can’t really talk about. The Rohingya crisis is going on, but you wouldn’t know it in lively Yangon.
  • A monastic school in Pakkoku is benefiting poor children and orphans. They also train Buddhist monks. Simon rises at 4.30am to follow the monks’ rituals and to collect breakfast from donation points. Monks had a role in the uprising which was crushed by the military. We also see a controversial group of monks, Ma Ba Tha, whose propaganda is fuelling the conflicts between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority in Burma.
  • The human rights disaster that is the ‘genocide’ of the Rohingya is witnessed in Bangladesh, which has the biggest refugee camp in the world. Simon’s guide in Kutupalong camp has lived there for 26 years. Heartbreaking stories are heard from the people. The Unicef children’s centre is allowing the young victims to get their childhoods back.
  • At the border, people are allowed to cross to grab their aid packages and that’s it. Simon’s crew takes an injured Rohingya man to the Red Cross hospital. He had gone back to check on his farm in Burma and was beaten by the military. ‘He’s lucky to be alive.’

  • Along the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, the second biggest city in Burma. People are bringing slabs of jade to the market, where the Chinese buyers give prices for these green rocks mined from the far north of the country in unknown conditions. Simon tries on a jade bangle with a £3000 price tag and worries it’ll get stuck on his wrist, so he’ll have to buy it. Apparently a BBC presenter’s salary doesn’t stretch that far.
  • The Greenhill Valley Elephant Sanctuary is in the forested mountainous Shan state, which is home to elephants jobless since the reduction of logging in Burma. Simon feeds a stack of vegetables into an elephant’s mouth and helps to bathe her in the river. He plants a teak tree and names it after his son.
  • Teams compete at a spectacular balloon festival. One of the balloons contains 70kg of homemade fireworks. Launching it could go ‘horribly wrong, because the balloon is made of paper… paper!’ and the crowd screams as another balloon showers rockets everywhere. Simon is hit by one and is relieved to have a BBC fire blanket at the ready.
  • Crossing into the conflict zone via Thailand on foot, they sneak past an army base to visit the rebels who have been fighting the Burmese military for decades. On patrol with the soldiers, they’re also looking out for rival armed groups. Simon concludes that the biggest issue in Burma is that the military needs to be reformed and its power checked, otherwise the country can’t change for the better.

If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for another few months. Image taken from iPlayer.

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