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‘Eastern Star’ – Myanmar and the reporter and the whistleblower – who really wins? (review)

‘Eastern Star’ – Myanmar and the reporter and the whistleblower – who really wins? (review)

Myanmar remains a troubled country and a new play looks at the major unrest in that country in 1988 and 25 years on what it means to two protagonists who experienced very different outcomes as a result…

By Suman Bhuchar

EASTERN STAR’ is a play about the 1988 Student Revolution in Burma (Myanmar) that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to the forefront of politics.

But it is very much a play about atonement and forgiveness and it is an important political story that also opens up debates about democracy, free speech, the role of media and the treatment of its sources.

It also is very topical right now as it foreshadows what is happening in Myanmar today: there has been a massive global outcry of the recent conviction and imprisonment of two Reuters journalists who defied the present regime and reported alleged atrocities in Rakine state against the Rohingya community there.

Christopher Gunness (Michael Lumsden) Photo ©Brendan Foster Photography

Eastern Star’ tells the story of two key protagonists involved in the tumultuous events of 1988.

The popular protests were begun by university students fighting for democracy, but sadly ended in a military coup and mass repression.

The military still remains in power mostly, and the political head of the country is Aung San Suu Kyi.

Eastern Star’ had its world premiere at the Tara Studio in South London, which is an intimate space well suited to this type of intense, simmering, political drama.

Christopher Gunness was a BBC World Service reporter and the other key figure in this was U Nay Min, a Myanmar-based human rights lawyer who was supplying information to the young reporter about what was happening inside his country.

Initially, Gunness was based in Burma (the name change to Myanmar occurred a year later in 1989) but then he was expelled and had to report from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The play is set many years later – in 2013, at the Silver Jubilee of the ‘Students’ Revolution’ and Gunness (played here by Michael Lumsden and better recognised as ‘Alistair Lloyd’ from ‘The Archers’ on Radio 4) has been invited to take part in the official celebrations.

He’s debating with his partner, Patrick Pearson (Jake Hansard) about whether he should attend the celebration, as there are some unanswered questions in his past he hasn’t properly confronted himself.

He decides to attend, and learns his former source Min (played by British Chinese actor, David Yip), is not on the guest list but he finds a way to meet him.

It’s a difficult meeting as Min feels let down by a man whom he regarded as a friend, while Gunness tries to come to terms with his actions.

U Nay Min (David Yip) Photo:© Brendan Foster Photography

As the men talk, Min’s niece, Maya (Julie Cheung-Inhin) learns about that period in Burma, as we do. It’s surprising she doesn’t know anything about her country’s past but, I guess, a culture of secrecy pervades the society and people are scared to talk.

Gunness worked with writer and director, Guy Slater to tell this story because while his career took off after those events in 1988, Min was imprisoned for 16 years and was tortured for talking to the media at that time. And Gunness did not campaign for his colleague.

Today, Gunness is the chief spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

He has been very vocal and in the news following the decision of the US government to cut off funding from this agency that works for Palestinian refugees.

In the forward to the programme notes, he acknowledges his credit and says, “U Nay Min is a hero of our times. This play is a compelling testimony to the indomitability of the human spirit with its power to rise above pain and reach out cross unthinkable divides”.

ACV rating: **** (out of five)

Eastern Star by Guy Slater with Christopher Gunness until September 29 at Tara Studios, 356 Garratt Lane, London SW18 4ES.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture