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.
“Modern technology has made the movement very different. When we watch this film we can gain an almost real experience... 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...
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."
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.”
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
“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
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...)