September of 2007 was marked by an extraordinary event: Buddhist monks led a throng of more than 100,000 people in a protest against the dictatorship that has ruled Burma for more than 40 years since a military junta seized power. Virtually no foreign coverage of the event was possible – Burma remains one of the most isolated nations in the world, and has little use for outsiders with an opinion. One citizen named “Joshua” organized a guerrilla news network with covert recordings of footage that was smuggled out of the country and assembled into this documentary. It is the only real inside coverage of the event that has any value, and was shot and assembled at a very high risk to the lives of the reporters involved. Anyone who had the sack to shoot tape in Burma, or write on the incident, or take the impossible trip through the jungle to deliver the film is nothing less than the greatest of investigative journalists. In an age of worthless media, I present to you a group of legends in one of the finest films of the year, Burma VJ.
Joshua is the coordinator for this guerrilla news organization which provided the only images of the Burma uprising, broadcast on BBC and other news media. Without their involvement, only word of mouth would have reached the outside world, and there would be no counter to the propaganda from the government-owned television stations. The small army of journalists armed with old cameras braved street protests while surrounded by plainclothes intelligence officers. They had no illusions about the task that faced them. As Joshua noted, “ I want to fight for democracy, but I think we have to make a longer plan.” In 2007, the government doubled the fuel prices, leading to grumbling that led to public complaining about price gouging. This was the spark that set off protests that had laid dormant since the near-unanimous election victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and her subsequent house arrest, which was followed by the jailing of thousands of dissidents, and the murder of 3000 Burmese citizens. The journalists of Burma VJ did not care about the risks – they had no country, and no way to go but forward. One such underground reporter spent 12 years in prison for his involvement in street protests. “Everything just stays the same”, he grouses. Joshua replies, “Don’t be too sure.” Optimism may seem quixotic under such circumstances, but revolutionaries have no other choice for a mindset.
Burma VJ details not only the protests themselves, but the devilish details of high-risk journalism. Clandestine internet hookups, satellite feed, hidden cameras that are old, broken, and hard to replace are just part of the problem. Informers are everywhere, and anyone can be a spy. Journalists are subject to torture and life imprisonment. Joshua reentered Burma after the fuel prices went up to assemble his volunteers, as a feeling was in the air. At first, questions to citizens were met with dismissive waves – people were scared. Protests started to form on the street corners without a clear plan or leader. With time, people began their own demonstrations. Some were veterans of the last great uprising. Thugs were sent to break these up, snatch cameras, and help haul people into unmarked cars. Buddhist monks decided to join the protests – despite their apolitical leanings, they have taken to the streets in the past to oppose public suffering. They became political, and led protests that exploded with intensity. The journalists were there, cameras in hand, to provide the only record of the events. In one gripping scene, two such reporters were discovered by policemen, and the monks surrounded and protected them – likely saving their lives. As they continued to march with their alms bowls upturned (no alms for the generals), the protests were joined by citizens. Within a few days, the throngs numbered in the thousands, and then tens of thousands.
The footage is shown to the outside world, and suddenly the impossible comes into view. One of the most breathtaking scenes that you will ever see in film is from one such demonstration that fills a street to the horizon, over a hundred thousand people gathering to protest. Then, the camera pans to the buildings on the side, as a journalist shouts “There are so many…”. The buildings sag under the weight of people who crowd the windows and rooftops to cheer the monks onward. One protestor after another and the faces are no longer afraid, but screaming to the skies. And one such march reaches the guarded house of Aung San Suu Kyi, who emerges briefly to wave at the crowd. The Burmese government was so sure that remarkable woman had been forgotten.
As with all movements, this uprising ground to a halt after curfews, arrests, and finally violent reaction bled the crowds dry. The military-run government responded in the only way it knew how – by filling the streets with the army. Despite the immediate dangers, Joshua’s reporters remained on the street and caught one scene of carnage after another. To this day nobody knows how many were killed this time, but the images were sent to the international media nonetheless: a Japanese reporter shot in the face at point blank range and carried away, monks beaten and arrested, monasteries raided, and the lifeless body of a monk floating in the river. The journalists are targeted as enemies of the state for getting the images out to the world to see. Three of them are taken away and given life sentences by the police. The hope amidst the people returned to its dormant state until the next outburst. In the meantime, Joshua prepares to recruit more journalists equipped only with a cell phone and a pair of stones I could only dream of carrying.
Seated in a comfortable country like this one, I am struck by how clearly these people understand democracy. Willing to die for the chance to entertain the possibility of eventual democracy, these guys put the timid and fat journalists on the corporate-owned news networks to fucking shame. While those shitpieces merely repeat whatever information is given to them by government or business interests, the reporters of Burma VJ go out there and get the goods while hiding in a hole, under fire. The dull and docile reporting by the networks during the last two hobby wars in the Middle East signified the Fourth Estate was in great decay. Burma VJ has shown how utterly compromised to the point of uselessness that they have all become.
This is the future of the true journalism, ladies and gents, unpaid guerillas with amateur footage, giving you the real deal while the polished stations feed you the same old shite. The filmmakers suggested as much, providing a clip of the highly polished and colorful propaganda from the official news stations. Not that MSNBC or CNN are government-owned, of course – they parrot the acceptable news allowed by their owners, tainting any information they wish to pass on. FoxNews does not qualify as news, being a disciplined mouthpiece for Rupert Murdoch. These days, if you want to know what is going on, you need to either take the standard media with a tremendous grain of salt, or read underground shit like Buffalo Beast, or Al-Jazeera English. Apart from being entertaining, these sources are free from the massive conflict of interests that dominates our domestic news sources. The borderline insane reporters of Burma VJ tower above them all. They give us at least some hope that the free press will not die as we thought – it will just change as the rules are reinvented by forces beyond our control.
For more information about the film and how to get involved (if having a free press is of interest to you): website: www.burmavjmovie.com