“There are two types of prisons in Burma: one with walls and one without.”
This is how Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition leader and pro-democracy activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle under Burma’s military dictatorship, sums up the sorry state of her country. This is how the Burmese people (population: 50 million) have been living for more than half a century under the tyranny of one of the longest running military dictatorships in the world.
A rare glimpse of that massive ‘prison’ and the people’s struggle for democracy is found in BURMA VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country. It’s is a powerful documentary directed by Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard.
The film uses camcorder and cellphone footage collected by underground video journalists (VJs) working for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a collective of Burmese journalists in exile. Set up in 1992, DVB has several dozen VJs recording the life and times of their giant ‘prison’ and smuggling these out of the country for international dissemination. DVB operates satellite TV channel, coordinated from its headquarters in Oslo, Norway. It also disseminates the material by radio and web.
A Sundance and Berlin festival award winner, the film is currently nominated for an Oscar award for the best Documentary Feature of 2009. I’ve just watched the 85-min film, which filled me with outrage (over the utter abuse of power by Burmese junta) and deep admiration for the video journalists whose work is portrayed in it without disclosing any of their identities.
We don’t really see the film’s heroes or heroines – digitally empowered and passionate young journalists – for a very good reason. Being a VJ in Burma is one of the most hazardous journalistic assignments on the planet: the country is ranked almost at the bottom (171 out of 175 countries) in RSF’s Press Freedom Index 2009. If caught, VJs risk torture and life imprisonment.
But by its very definition, video journalism is a field job — it can’t be done from the relative safety of a closed room. DVB’s courageous VJs document travails of ordinary people in the streets, market places, temples, and when dissent erupts periodically, at demonstrations and marches. In doing so, they take huge chances of being spotted and nabbed by the military and undercover police, or their civilian informants.
Watch Burma VJ Viral video (1 min):
Burma VJ is based on the brutal quelling of the September 2007 monks’ uprising, when thousands of politically neutral Buddhist monks took to the streets. The story is narrated by Joshua, a 27-year-old DVB reporter now living in exile in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
In September 2007, an increase in fuel prices sparks extensive protests by students and activists against the military junta. For the first time, they are joined in the streets of Rangoon by thousands of Buddhist monks (the saffron revolution). While 100,000 people protest a repressive regime that has held the country hostage for over 40 years, foreign news crews are banned and the Internet is shut down. The underground VJs are the only, tenuous link that can tell the outside world the mass scale repression unfolding in Burma. The government outlaws all public gatherings, moves soldiers in, and embarks on a bloody crackdown.
As the firearm shooting continues, VJs continue to shoot from street corners and wherever else they could. One VJ captures the horrific moment when Kenji Nagai, a Japanese reporter filming the demonstrations, is shot dead at point blank range. This footage soon reaches the global news channels and shocks an already alarmed world.
Watch Burma VJ official trailer:
Interview with Anders Østergaard and Khin Maung Win, deputy director of the Democratic Voice of Burma in exile was filmed by Liza Béar and originally posted on http://squaringoff.blip.tv.
BURMA VJ: Anders Østergaard, Khin Maung Win Interview
Actor Richard Gere talks about his impressions of Burma VJ
DVB’s courageous reporters and editors – some of whom I met during a visit to their Oslo office in late 2008 – are struggling against one of the most ruthless and entrenched military dictatorships in the world that tolerates no dissent or criticism. Burma has also been listed by CPJ as the world’s “worst country to be a blogger”.