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Burma Video Journalists: Courageous Reporting From A Closed Country

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"The situation in Burma now is pretty much the same as in 2007," says Aye Chan Naing. Aye Chan is the Executive Director of the Democratic Voices of Burma (DVB), a collective of anonymous underground video journalists (VJs) who record events at great risk inside that troubled and largely closed country, smuggle the footage out and then broadcast it worldwide via satellite. "There was a bomb blast in Rangoon just today, for example. Our guys were there and taped it but one was arrested and is in custody now."

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Aye Chan and his colleagues from DVB along with the 2007 "Saffron Revolution" in Burma, when more than 100,000 Burmese demonstrators took to the streets of Rangoon to protest the repressive regime that has held them hostage for more than 40 years -- are the subjects of Anders Østergaard's documentary BURMA VJ: REPORTING FROM A CLOSED COUNTRY, which debuts April 20 on HBO. The riveting Oscar-nominated film, says Østergaard, "tells two stories -- the macro one of the uprising and the micro one of the reporters."

The Danish director originally began working with DVB's citizen journalists in 2005. "We planned to do a much smaller film about the VJs and their lives," he says. "It was just a coincidence that the uprising happened while we were making it." Although foreign news crews were banned from entering the country and the Internet was shut down, DVB collective managed to record the historic protests on handycams and let the world and more importantly the Burmese people know what was happening.

"Media has quite a big power," says Aye Chan. "And while it's true that our impact is international, the bigger impact is in Burma itself. That's the main reason the authorities arrest journalists like us" If no one records them, demonstrations and protests mean nothing it's as if they never happened. But once on film, the story can spread to the whole country."

DVB broadcasts two hours of programming via satellite every day to people inside Burma. "There are two million dishes inside my country," he notes. "Most are watched by many, many people -- sometimes by the entire village. So even in a closed country, we see that videos and still photographs can really change public opinion." One good example: when the military junta that runs Burma began killing Buddhist monks who had led the protests, the official government media naturally didn't mention it. But DVB broadcast video of their bodies. In a profoundly religious land, where monks represent one of the few countervailing forces to government control, DVB's images of dead monks floating in rivers had a huge impact on the populace. Seeing is believing, as the expression goes".

Despite the power of the media, however, and the ability of DVB and its supporters to broadcast images of repression and resistance both internationally and inside Burma, the sad reality is that the "Saffron Revolution" failed to topple the autocratic regime, and has thus far produced little real change in the Burmese political situation -- as both Østergaard and Aye Chan are quick to acknowledge.

"Will change come to Burma?" Aye Chan asks. "No one really knows. It may look like the government has control, but the feeling in the streets now is quite different. The government is weakening day by day -- soldiers are deserting, officials are frustrated, the military is leaking to us -- we haven't seen these sorts of things before. Now we can see cracks in the government, in the civil service, in the military" Their frustration is getting high, and it is now reaching into their inner sanctums."

"The question is, as always, how long?" he concludes. "It looks like the whole system could collapse at any minute, but the military has managed to stay in power since 1962""

"The DVB had a snowball effect and made a huge impact inside the country," says Østergaard. "And it can be an engine for change."

But is that engine stalled?

"I'm certainly not triumphant," he admits. "Ultimately, however I am optimistic because the Burmese are not just victims. They can also be protagonists, as the film shows. The biggest resource in this struggle is the Burmese people themselves."

"But we can't be too lighthearted," he adds quickly. "So the reality is that you should have mixed feelings about this film. The viewer is allowed to have mixed feelings about, for example, the power of media to affect change or not. Because it's a tragedy and it's not" It's also an expression of the human spirit and of courage. I wanted to celebrate the VJs and show their inspiration to the whole world so as to promote change and discussion. One day, someone will make the change in Burma happen but maybe it will have to come at a more favorable time""

Fourteen of the VJs active in 2007 are now in jail and others are in hiding. Aye Chan says the DVB is busy recruiting a new generation of VJs and expanding its reach beyond Rangoon. The VJs are currently undergoing camera and safety training and getting ready for Burma's first allegedly "free" elections in 20 years -- since the overturned 1988 election and subsequent imprisonment of democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest ever since. Their non-violent, media battle against the military junta continues.

Will the coming election reprise the tumultuous events of 2007? Aye Chan is skeptical. "There will probably not be a big uprising," he says. "But we are now training eighty people to cover it, and expanding beyond Rangoon. In 2007, unfortunately it often took as much as two days to get footage there from elsewhere, so we're trying to speed that up. We use both the Internet and couriers, but sometimes the Net is difficult, and we believe during election period the government will cut access to it anyway, so we also continue to rely on satellites."

Although DVB training takes place mostly in Thailand, the group's main headquarters is in Oslo, and its funding comes mostly from Scandinavian sources as well as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Institute here in the US.

If you want to help the courageous VJs of Burma and the ongoing struggle of the Burmese people for democracy there are many different levels of support possible. But Aye Chan's "main message" to those outside the closed country "is just to get involved, write to Congress, try to get more focus on the Burma situation. Many politicians in the West made big statements in 2007," he recalls. "But just a few months later, everyone forgot about us. That's why the government survives they just wait until the situation cools down and then they crack down. So we need constant pressure and follow up -- or there will be no solution."

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Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at www.roryoconnor.org.
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