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“Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country”

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As Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi goes on trial, we look at an award-winning documentary film about media activism in Burma and the extraordinary risks citizen journalists take to get information out of the country. The film follows a collective of undercover video journalists in Burma called the Democratic Voice of Burma, who smuggle out footage from Burma to Norway, from where it is broadcast around the world. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about Burma right now. The trial of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is underway inside the notorious Insein Prison in Rangoon. She is charged with breaching the terms of her house arrest because of a visit by an American man who swam across a lake to reach her house earlier this month.

The Burmese junta says John Yettaw spent two days in Suu Kyi’s home before he was captured as he made his way out. Suu Kyi’s lawyers say she will plead not guilty, saying Yettaw was allowed to stay only because he pleaded exhaustion. Yettaw is also being tried, as are two of Suu Kyi’s assistants.

Aung San Suu Kyi has already spent thirteen of the last nineteen years in jail or under house arrest. She faces a further three to five years in prison if found guilty of these latest charges. According to Burma’s constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi was scheduled to be freed on May 27th, after six consecutive years of house arrest. Some observers see the charges as a pretext to ensure she’s in jail during next year’s elections. No outside observers are allowed at the trial, and all foreign journalists are banned from Burma.

Protests against the trial are taking place outside Burmese embassies around the world today. President Obama formally extended sanctions against Burma on Friday.

Well, I want to turn now to a new award-winning documentary film about media activism in Burma and the extraordinary risks citizen journalists take to get information out of the country. It’s called Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country and opens at New York’s Film Forum this Wednesday.

The film follows a collective of undercover video journalists in Burma called the Democratic Voice of Burma. They smuggle out footage from Burma to Norway, from where it’s broadcast around the world. The film focuses on the 2007 uprising, known as the Saffron Revolution, but many of the reporters were first politicized by the 1988 uprising. This is the story of one of the journalists, who goes by the name Joshua in the film.

    JOSHUA: In 1988, I was just a little boy. But that’s when everybody in Burma got into the streets. They’d had enough of military rulers. They wanted change. It was the students who led the demonstrations. They became more and more outspoken, and they demanded that the generals give up power. There was so much hope. We even had Aung San Suu Kyi, who came back from Europe to lead the people. But the generals wanted it differently. At the end of the day, 3,000 people were killed in the streets, and it was all over.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the new documentary Burma VJ.

Well, last week, the director of the film, Anders Ostergaard, and Khin Maung Win, one of the founders of the Democratic Voice of Burma, came to our firehouse studio in New York. Win participated in the 1988 student uprising and now lives in Norway.

I began by asking Anders Ostergaard how he got involved in the project.

    ANDERS OSTERGAARD: I actually hooked up with these guys, the young reporters of the DVB, long before there was an uprising. We were not hoping to make a big film; we were hoping to make a little human interest portrait of this street reporter trying to cover everyday life in Burma as good — as well as he could. But this Joshua, as he’s called, the main character of the film, is thrown into world events as this uprising happens, and he becomes the guy to categorize all the news coming out of Burma and sending it around the world.

    AMY GOODMAN: Tell us, Win, who he is and what the Democratic Voice of Burma, DVB, is.

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: Democratic Voice of Burma is exile radio and television station. We broadcast from Norway to Burma. About 20 million Burmese people rely on our channel to get real news and information. Joshua and many others, underground journalists, are working for our television stations. They did dramatic job during the Saffron Revolution, as well as Cyclone Nargis disaster. Without these video journalists, DVB is not possible.

    AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain how he films. Explain the video images and how we are watching them.

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: They all have to use hidden cameras, small Handycam cameras. They have to go out, and then they find the stories during the Saffron Revolution.

    AMY GOODMAN: During the Saffron Revolution.

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: Yes. The monks-led revolution, we call Saffron Revolution. And at the beginning, the monks do not allow them to film. But later on, they became partnership. They work together.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what are the dangers that people with cell phones, with video cameras, face in Burma, who try to do this?

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: Nowadays, the military regime is cracking down on anyone with cameras, even with the cell phone with camera function. And our journalists who are involved in the filming of demonstration are in jail. Ten of our journalists are in jail. They are serving prison terms as high of sixty-five years just for filming and sending out the footage.

    AMY GOODMAN: Anders, the footage of the Japanese journalist that is captured, explain it.

    ANDERS OSTERGAARD: Well, there was a situation the day the military decided to crack down in a big way. There was this peaceful demonstration led by the monks, the monks that were still remaining, because a lot of them had already been arrested. And as the military started to shoot and disperse this demonstration, a Japanese guy happened to be in the front. I would say, I think actually his Burmese colleagues would not have put themselves in the position he was in. They knew better. They knew that they were meaning business, these soldiers, that they were actually going to shoot to kill.

    AMY GOODMAN: We watched — we watched as the film — he is filmed. Not only he is filming, but you have one of the Burma VJs also filming him in the khaki shorts.

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: Yeah. We send several video journalists, you know, all over the cities, and at that time we have three journalists in that scene capturing the same event from different angles. That’s how we know the whole story, what happened.

    AMY GOODMAN: And we listened as people said, “Who is this person? What happened? We think it’s either — well, no, we don’t think it’s Burmese. We think he’s foreign.” And then someone says into the phone, “No, it’s foreign. He’s Japanese.”

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: That’s right. You know, we have regular contact with our video journalists on the ground to explain the situation, what is happening right now, so that we get a sense what is happening there and that we are waiting for their footage. Now, we always ask who have been killed. And, you know, he could not be distinguished easily at the beginning, whether he is Burmese or — you know, because he is Asian. We don’t know if he is Burmese or he is foreigner. But later on, our reporters on the ground, he — after he checked with, you know, from several angles, and then he can explain us he might be a Japanese.

    AMY GOODMAN: And the response of the Japanese government?

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: That immediate response came from the Japanese government. Japan is the biggest aid-giving country to the military junta. Only after their citizen is killed — it is proven on camera — they reacted by stopping the aid.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, Japan stopped giving aid to Burma.


    AMY GOODMAN: To this day?


    AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your own story, Win. How did you end up leaving Burma? Where were you born?

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: Similar demonstrations happened in 1988, twenty-one years ago. I was an activist at that time. And they killed 3,000, and then they jailed several thousands. And I was one of, let’s say 20,000, 30,000 student activists leaving the country, in fear of being arrested if we remain in the country. So I left Burma one day after a military crackdown in 1988.

    AMY GOODMAN: Describe the situation in 1988.

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: At that time, millions of people all over Burma, even larger than the 2007 revolution, all the people all over the Burma came out to the streets. They demanded change. They demanded more freedom. They demanded the people’s rights be respected. But the military just killed 3,000 to end the demonstrations, without any change. Since then, you know, the military became even more brutal and repressive.

    AMY GOODMAN: And the Saffron Revolution, for the robes of the monks, in 2007, 10,000 monks marched. People at the time were saying, “What happened to the monks?” What did happen to them? Some actually marched by Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, as she wept, because that was a forbidden road.

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: That’s right. You know, the regimes was really threatened when the monks meet Aung San Suu Kyi. The regime never want all the players in politics get together. So they started crackdown against the monks following day. So, many Buddhist monks were arrested on the night of 26th of September, and then they were taken away. We even still don’t know where are they now. There are some Buddhist monks who escaped from the crackdown, and they are in the United States. A few of them are in the United States and other countries. But there are still many, many monks we still don’t know where they are now.

    AMY GOODMAN: When you escaped in 1988, you lived in the forest, in the jungle, for several years?

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: That’s right. You know, we have no place to go when we escape Burma, so we just stay in the jungle, together with some ethnic groups who are also fighting against the military rule for greater autonomy. So we stay with them together. I stayed there for several years.

    AMY GOODMAN: What maintains the Burmese regime’s power, with the population so clearly opposed?

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: They just create fear. The fear is only instrument they are using. So they are very much clever to create fear, among even the army, within even the soldiers, and then government servants, among the public. Fear is their main instruments to keep people silent. But nowadays, people are breaking the silence.

    AMY GOODMAN: And the response of the Burmese government now to the film?

    ANDERS OSTERGAARD: Well, so far they’re trying not to. They will not honor us with their comment, their public comment. But they are certainly keeping an eye on the film, I’m sure.

    AMY GOODMAN: Win, have you met Aung San Suu Kyi?

    KHIN MAUNG WIN: No, I have never met in my life. When I left Burma — I am not from Rangoon. I am from the remote area. She is in Rangoon. And then I left one day after the military crackdown, so I have been living in exile, and she is in Burma. So I have never met her.

AMY GOODMAN: Khin Maung Win, he is one of the people who lead the Democratic Voice of Burma media activists. He’s outside the country, along with Anders Ostergaard. Together, they directed this film, Burma VJ, that’s opening at the New York Film [Forum] on May 20th.

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