By V. Radhika, Womens Feature Service
The image was stark in its defiance: A serene-faced monk raising an upturned alms bowl, indicating his brotherhood’s refusal to accept offerings from Myanmar’s military junta – a significant gesture in this tiny Buddhist country. This and subsequent images of the monks-led demonstration, quickly dubbed the Saffron Rebellion in September 2007, were beamed out to the world by an intrepid team of journalists working with Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), who put themselves at great personal risk to capture the events through their hidden cameras.
The movement was brutally suppressed by the regime, which also arrested some DVB reporters. But the Norway-based network – run by expatriate Burmese – and its journalists continue to tell Myanmar’s story. Whether it was that September 2007 demonstration, the disquieting aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial that has now resulted in an 18 months extension of her house arrest due to “violation” arising from a trespass incident, or scores of other stories that impact ordinary Burmese life, they are professionally recorded and made available to the world.
Founded in 1992, the DVB, a non-profit media organisation, broadcasts news in English and Burmese via radio, satellite television and the Internet. The courage and tenacity of DVB’s team in chronicling events in Myanmar is the subject of Anders Ostergarda’s documentary ‘Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country’. Having won almost 20 international awards, ‘Burma VJ’ – which was screened at Toronto’s Hot Docs documentary festival this May – is now playing in Toronto theatres. Present at the Hot Docs was ‘Burma VJ’s’ key subject and the narrator, known only as Joshua. His identity remains a secret for safety reasons.
The 27-year-old started his career in a government newspaper but disillusionment set in almost instantly. Said the soft-spoken reporter, “There were so many limitations that one could hardly work as a reporter, particularly one who wanted to speak the truth.” It was this desire to represent the true story of Myanmar that led him to DVB and Joshua became among the first of DVB’s TV camerapersons and journalists in Myanmar.
Although DVB began broadcasting into Myanmar via shortwave radio from July 1992, it was only from 2005 that it began satellite telecasts into the country. “We did not know how it (TV programming) would turn out when we recruited journalists like Joshua. We just had to try and we were lucky that these youngsters were willing to take the risk,” said Khin Maung Win, DVB’s Deputy Executive Editor, who was also present at the festival in Toronto.
Joshua, who was trained (in technical aspects of TV reporting) on the Thailand-Myanmar border, was under no illusion about the danger his chosen vocation posed in a totalitarian regime that brooked no dissent. And if truth had to be told it could only be done with the aid of clandestine cameras. Not that Joshua was never scared. In fact, the documentary opens with his words: “When I pick up the camera, maybe my hands are shaking. But after shooting for a while, it is okay. I have only my subject in my mind.”
It is this single-minded focus on the subject that keeps his camera rolling. A lot of people have cameras in their hands but the real test is to film incidents as they unfold, he said, in an interview given shortly after the screening at Hot Docs. That is what he did when he filmed a small street protest, a precursor to the monks-led demonstration that swept the country following the regime’s decision to lift fuel subsidies, causing fuel prices to shoot up 500 per cent overnight.
Shooting this street protest, however, exposed Joshua to the attention of Myanmar’s military junta. He fled the country to escape arrest. Soon after, the monks took to the streets and the public, with large numbers of students, began joining the monks in their demonstrations. From a safe house in Thailand, Joshua coordinated the efforts of his colleagues back home in filming the protests and ensuring that the footage reaches DVB’s Oslo office.
Ostergaard’s film is a docudrama, a melange of actual footage and dramatic reenactments. In fact, ‘Burma VJ’ has been criticised for being pitched as a documentary even though a substantial part of the film is a reenactment. But there is no dispute about the facts as they are shown in the film or the dangers journalists and activists face in the line of duty. And that is what strikes a chord with viewers.
“Reaching out to a large viewership: that is what we at DVB are striving for”, says Joshua. Though disconsolate at being away from Mynamar as the Saffron Rebellion unfolded, he says his safe house in Thailand opened a window to the outside world. “In the beginning when I had to move out I felt very upset and that I could not go on. I felt I was not a journalist anymore, but then being away also enabled me to see things in a wider perspective. When you are a reporter on the field you focus only on your story but when you are in an office you see the bigger picture. I could give inputs to my colleagues on the field so that we could make better stories.”
He added, “When you see the result, you are satisfied and feel you have completed the job well.”
It is this desire to do a good job in telling the story of Myanmar to the outside world that motivates people like Joshua to reach out to DVB. And their numbers are growing. “When I started out with DVB I was the youngest reporter. Now I have become among the senior-most in the group,” Joshua said breaking into a soft smile. He went on, “After the monks demonstration people could see what we can do, so a lot of young educated youth are contacting us with a desire to work with us.”
Among the interested youngsters are a lot of women. Win said, “Earlier it was the men who took the risk of participating in demonstrations/working in the media. Women (wives, daughters and sisters) provided background support. But now women are very outspoken. When men are arrested they become campaigners and now when we recruit we have more young women coming forward.”
Eleven out of DVB’s 80 journalists inside Myanmar are women. Win
Emphasised that they are the same as men, meaning they play all journalistic roles required of them. “And some women even have more responsibilities than men have. In the beginning, our reporters inside Burma were mainly men, but since Saffron Revolution in 2007, we could recruit more women,” said Win.
Although disappointed that the 2007 movement was as brutally crushed as the one that unraveled on the streets in 1988, Joshua and Win draw their inspiration not only from the fact that a lot of youngsters are coming forward to become journalists but that ordinary people are seeking them out to tell their stories.
As Joshua put it, “Earlier the sight of cameras would scare people away now they come looking for us because they can see that our stories are making an impact. That is what motivates us.”
Incidentally, Joshua has since returned clandestinely to Myanmar a few times.