I have just returned from a screening of Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, a documentary on the 2007 fuel protests in Burma, directed byAnders Ostergaard. First off, I really enjoyed the film. Its realism (despite a few obvious reenactments) blew me away. It’s incredible how all this, the crackdowns, the raids, the protests, everything could have been captured on home video by some truly brave people, dubbed ‘vj,’ short for video journalist.
The movie was, to put it simply, raw and real. There’s no other way to describe it, from the shaky camera angles to some escape scenes as the cameramen run away from gun-wielding soldiers. Although the film doesn’t really go into any depth on how and why the protests started (because of a two-fold increase in gas prices), it really struck my chords. Also, the movie devoted most of its time to Rangoon, where the bulk of the protests were and didn’t even mention Pakokku by name, the town where monks were brutally repressed by monks and the place that sparked countrywide protests later that month.
There were several scenes that filled me with rage and pure emotion. The narration, by the actual videojournalist who works for Democratic Voice for Burma was great. He ended the movie with a wonderful line about the Burmese notion of hna myaw, which I find hard to translate. It’s a sense of wasting one’s time and effort in pursuing something that seems to have no end despite how valuable and important this pursuit is. Maybe the 2007 protests were a repeat of the 1988 uprising or even a “failure” by the standards of some people. But it demonstrates that 19 years later, nothing has changed.
Going with some of my friends who grew up in Burma made me see the movie in a different light, because as an “outsider” who grew up in California, I don’t see things the way a Burmese born in Burma would. They brought up several interesting points. In Burma, there’s such a thirst for knowledge that cannot be quenched, as testified by the huge lines that form in the wee morning hours in front of the American Library in Rangoon. Yet people just do not get any news or information about the ongoing events in the country because of censorship and government repression. My friends said they learned more about their own country in America than back in Burma, where everything comes from hearsay and where everything is filtered at school, so only material the government wants to project is indeed projected. If only there were a way to disseminate this movie inside Burma.
Also, they were very pessimistic about a nonviolent struggle for reform, something that rarely succeeds in the third world. One said that it’s not an even playing field, with the soldiers and thugs on one hand carrying weapons and the defenseless citizens who have nothing except retreat on the other. I’m not sure how successful a violent struggle would be, but it’s interesting to see how many Burmese criticize non-violent means for change (my family included) while the West constantly lavishes praise on the Burmese for doing this. Traditional Buddhist doctrine, which strongly forbids violence of any sort, as well as the general stance of the Burmese pro-democracy movement are what keep potential violence, aside from occasional strange bombings, in check. But I suppose that there is never a clear answer except time.
One of my friends also mentioned that the failure of Burmese to trust one another, to be loyal to one another, the complete breakdown of social mores, play a major role in preventing ordinary Burmese from coalescing and creating change. When one is reduced to survival, what else is left? My grandfather always likes to say that the Burmese have no thissa, a sense of loyalty to one another. Cynical maybe, but the opinion of many.
In retrospect, it may not have been appropriate to call these protests the “Saffron Revolution” because Burmese monks’ robes are usually not saffron and it was not a revolution.
The movie will be released May 20. Anyone who is interested in Burma or the recent protests should definitely check it out.