Linda Barnes, left, a Durango midwife and Shanta Foundation volunteer, trains village health educators in Myanmar./Courtesy Shanta Foundation.

Remembering the ‘forgotten country’

Two films on Myanmar coming to Back Space Theatre
by Luke Mehall

The recent release of a Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest is among the latest news that has shined the international spotlight on the country of Myanmar, sometimes known as the forgotten country. Also referred to as Burma, the southeast Asian nation is the focus of two films that will be shown in Durango in the coming weeks. The first film, “They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain,” will be shown for free this Wed., May 2, at the Back Space Theatre, and the second, “The Lady,” starts running Fri., May 11, also at the Back Space.
Just the Facts
What: Free screening of “They Call it Myanmar”
When: Wed., May 2, 4 & 7 p.m.
Where: The Back Space Theatre, 1120 Main Ave. Ste. #2, Durango
Who: Sponsored by the Shanta Foundation and the Open Shutter Gallery. Seating is limited and on a first-come, first-served basis

There is also a strong local connection to Myanmar, with the nonprofit, Durango-based Shanta Foundation, which works to spread its sustainable, empowerment message within rural villages. Tricia Karpfen, who co-founded Shanta with her husband, Mike, notes that while Myanmar has indeed been a forgotten country, things are changing. The release of Suu Kyi, who was subsequently elected to Parliament, is one positive example of progressive change. Suu Kyi is one of several hundred political prisoners that has been released by Myanmar President U Thein Sein, a move that has restored diplomatic relations with the United States.
“There is something incredibly moving about Suu Kyi’s story,” Tricia Karpfen said. “She embodies moral courage and belief in humanity. She is someone like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, who has stood for nonviolent political change.”

A rare interview with Suu Kyi is included in “They Call it Myanmar,” recorded just after her release from house arrest. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991 for her work in the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, for which she spent 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest. She was also separated from her husband and children during this time.

The film was shot in clandestine style, by director Robert Lieberman, an author and professor at Cornell University. Filming is strictly regulated in Myanmar, and the footage in the film reflects that, with many interviewees asking their faces not be shown, and in certain scenes the film crew takes off running when they encounter government officials. The Buddhist temples in the country are also prominently shown in the film, and the people’s deep dedication and relationship to their religion is highlighted.

Sandwiched between India and Bangladesh to the west, China to the north and Thailand and Laos to the east, Myanmar is home to an estimated 60 million people. It is the second-largest country in southeast Asia by land mass, with more than 1,200 miles of uninterrupted coastline.

Despite its mass and wealth of natural resources, Myanmar is one of the region’s poorest and most underdeveloped countries. Tricia Karpfen describes the military-run (junta) government in Myanmar as one that is corrupt and repressive. She cited the example of citizens thrown in jail for burying bodies when the government was not doing so in the aftermath of 2008’s Cyclone Nargis. Approximately 150,000 people died as a result of the storm, and many of those deaths are blamed on the slow reaction of the government, which downplayed the crisis. The longest running civil war is also in Myanmar, a 62-year-old conflict between the junta and the Karen Rebels. Most of the population lives in poverty, and the average education for a citizen is at the second-grade level. Tuberculosis, malaria and HIV are also serious problems in the country.

Tricia Karpfen notes that the people in Myanmar are full of hope for the future and are willing to work for positive change. In fact, the Shanta Foundation uses empowerment and sustainability at the forefront of their philosophy with the work they do in the country. Currently they are working in nine rural villages, with projects involving education, farming, heath care, economic opportunities, solar lighting and safe drinking water.

“They are a people who want to help themselves,” Tricia said. “They are gracious, generous and courageous. The Shanta Foundation sets the economic foundation for success, and the people come through with the sustainability.”

The second film coming to The Back Space is “The Lady,” a film that also focuses on Aung San Suu Kyi’s life. The film is a biopic, filmed mostly in Thailand, but the director actually never met Suu Kyi, because of her imprisonment. It has received international attention, including that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who introduced the film at a screening in Washington, D.C. Clinton traveled to Myanmar in December 2011 and met Suu Kyi, the first visit by a major U.S. official to the country in more than 50 years.

“The Lady” will run from Fri., May 11- 17 at The Back Space Theatre.
For more information on The Shanta Foundation, visit More of Luke Mehall’s writing can be found on his blog at:


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