Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Burma VJ: underground journalism in a Saffron Revolution

The forbidden name, one which will get you 12 years in jail? No, not Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Award laureate and winner of the 1990 Elections with 80% of the vote (the only elections in 20+ years until last week). Winning the election against the Junta Generals got her arrested, and 20 years of house arrest. But, the name which is feared the most: Rambo. Yes, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo.When Health Care workers and 500 medics from the Mae Tao Clinic secretly hike jungles to villages to treat amputees from land mines, teach women how to delivery babies and do operations they take with them the most banned movie in Burma, Rambo IV.

“You wanna die for something, or live for nothing?” is Rambo’s catchphrase in the film and one you hear a lot from those who go on the six month missions of health care from Thailand into Burma where 1 in 12 women die in childbirth and 1 in 3 children die before age five. Mae Tao Clinic was set up after the 1988 protest clamp-down. Rambo IV is set in Burma, and avidly watched by villagers on portable screens brought in by medics, which shows a big name action hero fighting back against the brutality of the Junta Generals on the Burmese people (of course Rambo is there to save the WHITE careworker, but hey…). Generals don’t take criticism well. These medics are now seen as ‘enemies’ of the state and are regularly shot, wounded or killed on treks, trips in and out and if found in villages. They have treated 800,000.

I watched Burma VJ, a documentary on high risk journalism taking place in Burma to keep a media voice alive. For me, I have been fevered and out of it, off and on, realizing that my ability to control my body and energy are beyond me. So much for my hopes of daily blogging, but I still hope for three times a week, but right now must, like a sailboat in a storm, go with where I am blown, looking for the times of calm. I give what bits of me I can, as much as I can.I haven't given up.

In Burma VJ (video journalism), which has won over 40 awards, the DVD is centered around Rangoon, it tells the story of how for 19 years, since the 1988 uprising, there has been no large demonstration. The 1988 demonstration uprisings against the Generals was joined by all of society including police but ended when the Army opened fire in deliberate and systematic attacks, killing over 3000 civilians. Now, with secret police everywhere, getting anyone to talk politics is impossible due to a belief that they will ‘noted’ and taken away in the dead of night, or attacked there and wrestled into the back of a truck. Having a camera is dangerous and filming on digital camcorders have to be done from hiding in the armpit or in a bag. ‘Joshua’ and his mentor has a group of journalists who film and then upload by satellite to Sweden, or smuggle it over the border to Thailand for editing and rebroadcasting back into Burma: DFB The Democratic Voice of Burma.

Joshua covers protests in 2007, done by committed individuals who know they might have at most 4-5 minutes before their banner is destroyed and they arrested. Protests increase when the Generals double the price of petrol/gas in a single day. One brave activist woman comes, surrounded by male friends, who link around her to resist the secret police. Single voices speaking up for those who dare not. Joshua follows too close and his camera is seen. He is taken to the police station where his camera is seized and he is released, to try to get him to lead them to others. Joshua has to leave Burma, setting up a remote headquarters on the border to co-ordinate placing photojournalist and editing footage. His reporters have the secret headquarters, plus a series of safe houses, and a connection of cell phones.

Suddenly the individual protests get a giant boost as the Buddhist monks appear in crimson and saffron, marching barefoot and with bowls upside down, to say they will take no rice from the Generals. The monks, all 400,000 have gone on strike, as they feel the government is hurting the people, and the religion, spurred by the beating of monks in a rural town. They want an apology from the government.

Monks are sacred, and in appearing, they are untouchable, as they are the only group so large that the government is scared of them. And the line of monks goes as far as can be seen, walking while the people applaud. Joshua is in telephone conversations with the Monk leaders in what will be known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’. DFB journalists approach the monks, but they are turned away in belief they are secret police. But in that exact moment, the secret police, hearing a DFB journalist identify himself, attack. The monks, immediately defend, linking in non-violent shields to protect the journalist. From that point on, the monks and DFB work together. This 2007 uprising gets larger day by day until the monks, a huge column of them, march to the house where Aung San Suu Kyi is guarded by layers of guards, roadblocks and army to stop anyone from seeing her, under ‘house arrest’. She greets the monks at the door and DFB records and transmits: Burma gets to see the first image of the ‘heart’ of Burma in years. Change will happen? Suddenly the video shot by DFB is the only footage of this remarkable revolution.

The government waits, but then decides to target the monks, and as things start to turn ugly, the journalist who have been with them are targeted (Soldiers shout, "Find the Cameras!"). Abruptly all internet in and out of Burma is cut. A curfew is imposed along in an announcement that night from speakers on telephone poles. Plus, the city is told, it is now illegal for five people to meet or be together in any one place. Will the monks come the next day? Will this stop the protests? DFB, with the satellite link, still broadcasts images and footage, running on CNN, BBC, and other international agencies. This is underground journalism: the years of training to take footage learned from Thailand journalists, Joshua spreads out photojournalists around an event to get footage in case one or two of them is caught, and the images get out. At the secret headquarters they watch the videos of a dead monk upload to the satellite, hoping it gets out before the government traces the signal, or raids them.

If you want the whole story, first hand of the Saffron Uprising and the coverage of it (including interviews with monks in the extras) you need to rent or buy the DVD (it has only grossed just over $130,000). But toward the end Joshua is heading covertly into the mountains of Burma to walk secretly all the way back to Rangoon, to rebuild DFB.

DFB is still here, with footage of Aung San Suu Kyi release last week AFTER the Elections where the military government’s created party won the majority of the votes (surprise!), with monitoring from ambassadors from North Korea. Many, many accounts of villages where the army coming in, telling the elder to have everyone turn out for ‘voting’, the names written down and then the army leaves without the villagers being asked who they want to vote for.

In an odd sidebar, Suu Kyi was a week from serving her full sentence and release in 2008 when an American citizen, a Christian, swam the lake to approach and entered the house from the water saying ‘He had been sent by God.” The military used this as an excuse to add 18 months to her sentence. So please, no more missions from God okay?

I wondered, “How does a Government employ SO many secret agents, plainclothes agents, police and military?” Answer: Oil, Natural Gas and China. Much like the USA vetoes any sanctions or actions passed in the United Nations against certain favorite countries, China does the same for Burma. For the citizen in Burma they can’t understand why the United Nations doesn’t come in, after more than 23 years. Natural Gas counts for half of Burma’s exports, most to China, also oil drilling and pumping occur with a host of countries including North Korea, China, and Australia and companies like Chevron.

I recommend Burma VJ, the documentary even if you have no interest in Burma’s politics or history simply to see how to organize an effective alternative media under the most oppressive situations (five people gathering is illegal?). For now, the government has said today that complaints against the elections is a 3 year prison sentence. The journalists caught all get life sentences, as there is no greater crime than filming what goes on. This obviously makes Burma a poor tourism attraction. Watch the DVD just to see some acts of incredible journalism, as one photojournalist barely escaping death multiple times in a day, being targeted by solders but continuing to bob up from behind a wall to get a few seconds of films. Filming behind a bush as the the trucks arrive and the soldiers pour out. In one case, a journalist calls from inside a ‘trap’ (a group of protestors surrounded by army with guns), his camera gone, he begs Joshua to record his verbal narration which occurs with screams and shots in the background until the phone suddenly cuts off.

“Better to die for something than live for nothing.”


Laura said...

Wow, I didn't know that. Another educational topic by EFM. Thank you. Wonderfully written Beth.

e said...

This is a wonderfully educational post, Beth. Thank you for your lovely comment on my blog today.

Best to you and Linda.

Baba Yaga said...

Interesting, danke. I've had a passing interest in Burma, thanks to Amnesty; but all that means is being slightly less ill-informed than average, not by a long chalk actually being informed.

Yea, the chap who swam to Aung San Suu Kyi's house must have been inhabiting an alternative reality. It struck me doubly oddly, because there had been a radio play a year or three before, about some well-intentioned furriner trying to do something similar; in which the message was clearly, "You who are free do what needs to be done, don't leave it to a woman under house arrest and under extraordinarily close scrutiny". Quite.

Raccoon said...

A tag line from a movie, now a slogan for journalists. Not something you see every day.

Sounds like an interesting documentary.

cheryl g said...

Very interesting! I avidly watched the news during the protests of the monks but was completely unaware of the efforts made to get news footage.

mental mosaic said...

Great post! I heard a good interview with Aung San Suu Kyi on NPR recently. Hadn't made the Rambo connection, but have been hearing Rambo references all week, oddly enough. Synchronicity, I guess!

I do like the catchphrase: “You wanna die for something, or live for nothing?”

OK, now I'm off to see if Netflix has that documentary...


Elizabeth McClung said...

Laura: Thanks, it was education to me and I tried to make it interesting.

e: Thanks, Best to you as well.

Baba Yaga: I thought I knew what was going on but seeing it in the footage really helped me understand the nitty gritty.

Yes, life and art should catch up with each other someday.

Raccoon: Exactly, and not the most popular or radical of movies. But when everything you do could involve being shot or in prison for life, not a bad tag line.

Cheryl: I was vaguely aware and you hear about 'News Smuggled out' but this helped me understand it takes years of training, of having multiple journalist, each supporting each other, and with outside help to make that happen - in all things we are a collaborative.

Mental Mosiac: I watched the film I think but I certainly didn't make the Rambo connection. I got Burma Chronicles from the Library (thanks to the tip from Stephanie) and it is a 'white western' view of Burma, perhaps allowed because he draws it at home and doesn't take out a camera.

Yes, I like the catchphrase too, but seeing the risks taken just to get help to flood refugees, it isn't a catchphrase but sort of a mental state. Like the monks who protested, they knew that this could be one of the ends.