Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Burma VJ.

Risking their lives to get evidence for the free world.

The RBC Film Theatre showing of Luc Beeson's feature film The Lady (2011) about the life of the Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi really intrigued me and left me wanting to learn more about the background to the pro-democracy struggle for freedom in that beautiful looking country. I was therefore encouraged to watch a documentary which has been made up from clips filmed on hand held camera’s and smuggled out of Burma physically or over the Internet by some very brave people at a great risk to them selves, if they got caught they would have received long prison sentences or possible been put to death. Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (2008) was put together poignantly by Danish documentary filmmaker Anders Ostergaard following the 2007 anti-government protests against the unannounced decision of the ruling State Peace and Development Council to remove fuel subsidies which caused the price of diesel and petrol to rise by as much as 66% and the price of compressed natural gas for buses to increase fivefold. This infuriated the populous who were already suffering economic distress because of the countries stagnant growth caused by the ruling military junta spending a large part of the national income on the armed forces to keep themselves in power. The protest was originally lead by students and political activists but there numbers were boosted by the addition the public and of thousands of Buddhist monks. The military’s crackdown was soon to follow and it’s alleged that there where thousands arrested and over a hundred people killed, including a Japanese photojournalist.

Buddhist Monks take a leading part in the protests.

On the burmavjmovie.com website you will find a excellent description of this very moving film and I make no apology for reproducing it as follows:

Going beyond the occasional news clip from Burma, the acclaimed filmmaker, Anders Østergaard, brings us close to the video journalists who deliver the footage. Though risking torture and life in jail, courageous young citizens of Burma live the essence of journalism as they insist on keeping up the flow of news from their closed country. Armed with small handycams the Burma VJs stop at nothing to make their reportages from the streets of Rangoon. Their material is smuggled out of the country and broadcast back into Burma via satellite and offered as free usage for international media. The whole world has witnessed single event clips made by the VJs, but for the very first time, their individual images have been carefully put together and at once, they tell a much bigger story. The film offers a unique insight into high-risk journalism and dissidence in a police state, while at the same time providing a thorough documentation of the historical and dramatic days of September 2007, when the Buddhist monks started marching.
”Joshua”, age 27, is one of the young video journalists, who work undercover to counter the propaganda of the military regime. Joshua is suddenly thrown into the role as tactical leader of his group of reporters, when the monks lead a massive but peaceful uprising against the military regime. After decades of oblivion - Burma returns to the world stage, but at the same time foreign TV crews are banned from entering the country, so it is left to Joshua and his crew to document the events and establish a lifeline to the surrounding world. It is their footage that keeps the revolution alive on TV screens all over.
Amidst marching monks, brutal police agents, and shooting military the reporters embark on their dangerous mission, working around the clock to keep the world informed of events inside the closed country. Their compulsive instinct to shoot what they witness, rather than any deliberate heroism, turns their lives into that of freedom fighters.
The regime quickly understands the power of the camera and government intelligence agents who look at the “media saboteurs” as the biggest prey they can get constantly chase the reporters.
During the turbulent days of September, Joshua finds himself on an emotional roller coaster between hope and despair, as he frantically tries to keep track of his reporters in the streets while the great uprising unfolds and comes to its tragic end.
With Joshua as the psychological lens, the Burmese condition is made tangible to a global audience so we can understand it, feel it, and smell it.

The crack down soon begins,  including the death of a Japanese Journalist seen here lying wounded.

The courage shown in this documentary by all involved including the video journalists, the ordinary people and the monks show innate bravery and a belief in a cause that’s beyond anything we would comprehend in our own so called free world.

The bravery of the Monks in particular was significant.

Things have been said to improve since the events in the documentary. There has been constitutional referendum in 2008 followed by general elections in 2010 which were mostly peaceful but the military were accused of engaging ‘in rampant fraud to achieve its winning results’ Since the elections the government has embarked on a serious of encouraging reforms including the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. In April this year the National League for Democracy were legally allowed to campaign for the first time, winning 43 of the 45 seats minimal seats up for election. As you can see from the recent article in the Mizzima, reprinted below, Burma has a long way to go before it can be accepted as a true democracy.

A little too early to lift sanctions completly.

Burma Campaign UK on Saturday welcomed an announcement by British Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain will not support EU sanctions against Burma being lifted. He has proposed sanctions be suspended instead. Germany and other EU members had been pushing for all sanctions except the arms embargo to be lifted immediately. 
With hundreds of political prisoners still in jail, military attacks against ethnic minorities still taking place, and no legal or constitutional changes that make Burma more democratic and reduce the power of the military, the complete lifting of EU sanctions would be premature, Burma UK said in a statement.
In supporting the suspension of EU sanctions, Aung San Suu Kyi is making a bold and brave gesture to the government of Burma, showing she is willing to compromise and take positive steps
“The ball is now in the court of the military-backed government. They now have to deliver real change,” the statement said.
Suu Kyi is reported to have stated: “This would strengthen the hand of the reformers - not just the suspension but the fact that there is always a possibility of sanctions coming back again if the reforms are not allowed to proceed smoothly.”
“The suspension of EU sanctions keeps the pressure on the Burmese government to continue reforms, while also making a strong positive gesture that genuine reforms will be rewarded,” said Anna Roberts, Executive Director of Burma Campaign UK.
“For the threat of re-imposition of sanctions to be credible, the EU must set clear timelines and benchmarks. We know from experience that the Burmese government is expert at delaying tactics. We also know the EU can tend to be slow and indecisive, looking for reasons to delay action.”
After years of debate about sanctions, it is now clear that, combined with domestic pressure, sanctions have played an important role in encouraging reform in Burma, said Burma UK.
 “To completely abandon sanctions just as they are working would have been a serious mistake,” it said.
Burma Campaign UK also warned companies thinking of investing in Burma that they should not think of the country as a place where they can exploit cheap labour and grab natural resources at bargain-bucket prices, thanks to the lack of proper laws protecting workers and the environment. Many sectors attractive to investors, such as mining, timber, oil, gas and dams, have been directly linked to serious human rights abuses and environmental destruction. Any European companies investing in projects where such abuses take place will be subject to high profile boycott campaigns, it said.

“Despite reforms, Burma is still a country with one of the worst human rights records in the world, and where the military has constitutional control over every level of government,” said Anna Roberts. “Burma is still a very long way from being a democracy.”[1]

[1] Mizzima News Monday 16April 2012.

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