A Hidden View into Burma’s Oppressive Regime
To much of the world, Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a closed country. The military dictatorship in power tries its best to keep it that way. Under the regime’s oppressive control, the 2007 anti-government uprising that happened there could have passed without much notice, were it not for the daring work of a few video reporters who risked torture and death to provide some of the only footage of the protests to the outside world.
The film Burma VJ follows a group of clandestine video journalists (VJs) known as the Democratic Voice of Burma as they dodge secret police and try their best to document the uprising. Mere possession of a video camera in the country is enough to get a person arrested by the police, and much of the film is shot by shaky hand-held cameras, hidden inside bags to avoid detection.
In August of 2007, the Burmese junta lifted fuel subsidies, causing a sharp rise in prices on everything from bus fares to food. The film’s main character, known only as “Joshua,” began filming small-scale protests that were swiftly quelled by government forces. By September, thousands of Buddhist monks joined and began leading the protests against the government.
One particularly illuminating scene came when a reporter from the Democratic Voice of Burma tried filming the Buddhist monks protesting. At first, the monks tried to push the journalist away, saying they didn’t want trouble. The narrator said they had mistaken the journalists for secret police. Moments later, the real secret police appeared and tried to arrest the journalists. The monks physically protected the reporters from arrest, and accepted the journalists into their march.
Footage of the protests, including the government’s strong-armed responses, were somehow smuggled out by the Democratic Voice of Burma and broadcast on CNN, the BBC, and other major news outlets. Eventually, more than 100,000 people joined the protests, openly advocating for the junta’s downfall. The images captured the attention of then-President George Bush, who strongly condemned the junta’s “vicious persecution” and expanded sanctions on the country.
The sad truth of the film is that the protests did not work. Government forces became increasingly violent, firing tear gas and guns at unarmed protesters, killing many, including a Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai. The monks backed down, but not before many were beaten, killed, and disappeared by the junta. The government is still in power today, and journalists are still the targets of attack.
One of the few inspirations in the film was opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In the film, protesters marched toward her home, where she had been under house arrest for 13 years. Today, Suu Kyi is making headlines again, facing accusations from the government that she violated her house arrest by sheltering a man who swam to her compound.
If there’s one hopeful outcome of the government crackdown, it’s in the Democratic Voice of Burma. The group claims to have recruited 80 new video journalists, many inspired by the 2007 uprising, who will continue to try and report from inside the country.
You can watch the trailer for Burma VJ below: