Burma VJ has been met with very positive reviews in the UK following its release last week, with a 94% Rotten Tomatoes rating, but what do the Burmese depicted in the film make of it?
In his first contribution to Netribution, JJ Kim travelled to the heart of the pro-democracy movement in Thailand to watch the film with Khine Wai Zaw - who was involved the Saffron Uprising of 2007 - and hear his story. It's a fascinating insight into the benefit of social-documentaries from someone who grew up within the heart of the former British colony under the rule of the Junta.
It is Friday 9th July 2009. With the award winning “Burma VJ” released in British cinemas, many people get their first glimpse of the Saffron Revolution (2007) - the most comprehensively documented of many horror stories from Burma’s near half-century under oppressive military rule. Meanwhile, it is business as usual for the many organisations working in Burma’s neighbouring countries – in safety – to bring democracy back to the world’s second most corrupt country (Transparency International 2008).
The heart of the Burmese pro-democracy movement is in Mae Sot, Tak Province, Thailand, on the Burmese border, a six-hour bus-ride from Chiang Mai, where much of Burma VJ was produced and even directed remotely. A transient town - with many Burmese migrant workers and Non-Governmental Organisations of all kinds - Mae Sot is home to many politicians, educators, religious leaders and activists who have been forced into exile. However, far from running away from their pasts, many have set up organisations to support those suffering in Burma and inform the world of the extreme injustices inflicted on civilians by the nation’s totalitarian military regime.
Khine Wai Zaw
One such organisation, is the All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress (AASYC), a largely political group based in both Thailand and Bangladesh. The AASYC office – walls adorned with banners saying “Free Arakan” and “SPDC out” (referring to the regime’s official name – The State Peace and Development Council) - is where I met with Khine Wai Zaw, to discuss his participation in the Saffron Revolution and watch the film, Burma VJ.
Khine Wai Zaw, as he has made himself known since leaving Burma in December 2007, grew up in Mrauk-U, an ancient city in Arakan State, an area colonised by the Burmese in 1784. He had told me many times before about life growing up under martial law – in constant fear of surveillance. “In my hometown we saw soldiers everyday,” he began hesitantly. ”In groups of at least 4 with rifles or M16 machine guns. Sometimes, they would go to the market and buy things but pay very little or go to traditional local events so we used to fight them. They would come back the next day with more military so many of my brothers had to leave the city and now they can never go home because the soldiers are looking for them.
However, these things are rarely talked about in Burma – out of pure fear of incarceration or worse. Military intelligence officials in civilian clothing are on every corner, in work places and in every teashop, eagerly seeking a chance to report a “traitor” to their superiors, condemning them to imprisonment, torture or even murder for expressing their opinions. “In Yangon, we had to discuss politics very slowly and carefully because our brothers were involved in underground political activities - we would be watched all the time and many brothers had to leave.”
“The soldiers began to shoot and in the same moment many people that we had been protesting with all day turned on us and started beating us; it became apparent that these people were also working for the SPDC... I saw many girls falling – they were very afraid! That was the last day I protested.”
Khine Wai Zaw
Burma VJ tells the story of the Saffron Revolution of 2007, the first nationwide uprising in Burma for 19 years. The revolt was brought to a sudden halt when over a hundred civilians, including monks and students were shot dead and far more were detained without trial.
The roots of the uprising
On the 15th September 2007, 20 year-old Khine Wai Zaw could tell something was different as he prepared for the two-day journey to Yangon (Rangoon), where he would stay with his Aunt and Uncle. That day, Khine Wai Zaw saw something he’d never seen before: monks and other civilians demonstrating against the government, openly talking to crowds about political ideals such as democracy and human rights. “I had never seen protests before. Many people had closed their shops and restaurants. Many policemen and soldiers were talking on their phones and many monks were chanting and marching. I was excited and a little scared. I had goose-bumps”
By the 25th of September, millions were mobilised across the country- monks, teachers, writers, students and housewives alike were marching through the streets calling for a justice that they barely understood. “I didn’t know much about democracy at that time but I knew that I wanted to change our system because everyday I faced many difficulties. In every street in Yangon there were many prostitutes, many beggars and many soldiers walking and in vehicles.“
At first many watched the monks from the sidelines, apprehensive to join in. Scenes from Burma VJ show a march through downtown Yangon while thousands watch from their windows cheering and clapping from their windows. “They were afraid. Even though they were clapping their hands, they were afraid. I think one thousand people were watching us and then they joined us slowly, slowly. “ Khine Wai Zaw recalls from another part of town where he joined in the demonstration.
Whilst watching the film with Khine Wai Zaw and three young Arakanese girls - the atmosphere was infectious. Excited murmurs quickly turned into laughter and cheers from the AASYC office while the girls saw sights they had never imagined: literally thousands of civilians defying the system and expressing their anti-military sentiments loud and proud.
But the atmosphere quickly changed once the first signs of violence came to the screen. (continued...)
They started with tear gas, and then went in with batons and finally guns – M16 machine guns. “That evening on the 25th I went home and listened to the radio [BBC, and Voice of America] and heard that people had been shot in other areas.” They say that in the face of danger, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream and one prepares for fight or flight. In Burma on the eve of the 25th September 2007, millions were preparing to fight.
The next day – September 26th, Khine Wai Zaw walked alone across town to the Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s equivalent of St. Pauls Cathedral, where many monks were gathering to lead another day of protests. “When I arrived, military intelligence were waiting and watching everybody so I was afraid and turned back. On my way back many monks and many nuns were heading to Shwedagon so I joined and turned around. There were many people. I was not afraid. I was very very excited.”
“We walked around the pagoda, praying and chanting. There were many military officials in civilian clothes with guns. At about 1:00pm they attacked many nuns and monks with batons and hitting out with their guns. The monks and the soldiers were throwing stones at each other so we joined hands and stood on the left and the right side of the monks and nuns to protect them while the military started to hit us with batons. At this time we could hear many gunshots coming from the downtown area – machine gun shots. After that, the monks asked us to leave for our safety, so we obeyed and went home about 2pm or 3pm. On my home I felt very bad and paranoid – I thought everybody was watching me.”
On the 27th, thousands of people across the city gathered in teashops to discuss politics without fear of military intelligence. “Many of my friends who had been too scared to participate before were no longer afraid.” Khine Wai Zaw recalled with a grin. “ There were many of us together- my Arakanese friends. At this time there were many people gathering in the centre of the city so we went there to hear them speak.”
“We gathered around Sule Pagoda where the soldiers had built a barrier to stop us getting close. We joined hands and circled around them. At first they just watched us - we could see over 100 soldiers preparing. The soldiers began to throw tear gas bombs and stones at us and started beating people with batons. They told us to leave but we refused. Everyone wanted to fight, even girls and woman. We really want to fight but, as always, the monks told us not to because we will all die.”
“The soldiers began to shoot and in the same moment many people that we had been protesting with all day turned on us and started beating us; it became apparent that these people were also working for the SPDC. Some people were screaming ‘Go! Go! They are shooting! Run from this area!’ I saw many girls falling – they were very afraid! That was the last day I protested.” Khine Wai Zaw returned to his Aunt and Uncle’s home that day to hear numerous reported deaths on the radio. Recent death toll figures have varied massively but many believe the true number to be up to 200 including dozens of monks and nuns.
“The next day, Yangon was a different city – it was very quiet. The SPDC arrested many people. All the teashops and streets were empty. They declared an emergency 10 pm curfew, which lasted for months. There was a lot more military in the city after that – watching civilians everyday. A few days later, they arrested Zarganar, a famous comedian, for giving water to monks and attending speeches.” Zarganar was later arrested again in 2008 and sentenced to 65 years in prison without trial for giving aid to cyclone victims. He is now just one of over 2,100 political prisoners in Burma surviving with little air, light , food or water and facing routine torture.
“I watched the film and had good memories. I was excited – I cannot explain the feeling – I can just feel it. Films are very important for the struggle for democracy because everybody loves films and everybody can relate to them. Modern technology has made the movement very different. When we watch this film we can gain an almost real experience.
“The Burma VJ film was very good. These are real events in Burma on camera! In Burma we cannot even take photos. The police or soldiers ask why we are taking photos and take our camera. Even foreigners have will have problems if they try to take photos in Burma.
“Many Burmese people are talking about it in blogs and internet chat. I don’t know if many people are watching it though – they have to be very careful. Some people are watching it but at the market we have to be very careful asking for this film. If we get caught with it we will go to prison. If they find someone selling it there will be further punishment. I think its most important that this film is seen inside Burma.
“I think about the next revolution in Burma but I have no idea when it will be. We had 19 years between the 1988 uprising and the 2007 revolution. On the other hand it could be tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. We don’t know but I’m sure the monks and students will revolt again someday.”
When asked what he wanted, Khine Wai Zaw’s answer was simple. “I want to make peace for Arakanese people, Burmese people and world people”