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Capturing Burma's protests on film

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

Monks protest in Rangoon on 26 September 2007 (Image: Democratic Voice of Burma via AFP)
Images sent out of Burma brought the uprising to the world's attention

A monk looks into a camera at a monastery in Rangoon. His face is bruised and swollen.

Troops came during the night, he says. They beat the monks and took dozens of them away. He doesn't know where they are.

Outside, the camera records pools of blood on the floor, shards of glass and rubble.

The date was 27 September 2007 and the man behind the camera was Aung Htun.

He was one of a network of people working as undercover reporters for an Oslo-based NGO and opposition broadcaster, the Democratic Voice of Burma, when a fuel price hike triggered anti-government protests.

The protests spread from activists to monks and students, and became an uprising - the most significant challenge to Burma's generals in almost two decades.

Most foreign journalists are banned from Burma and the military government censors all media.

But the undercover reporters used small hand-held cameras to record what was happening. Even as troops brutally suppressed the unrest, they took enormous risks to send the pictures out of the country.

Media organisations used them to report on the unfolding crisis and the footage was broadcast around the world, defying government efforts to hide events from international eyes.

Hope and fear

The camcorder material - and the story of the journalists' efforts to obtain it - has now been turned into a film by Danish director Anders Ostergaard.

Called "Burma VJ", the docu-drama gives a powerful visual record of how the uprising unfolded.

BURMA'S UPRISING
Protests began in August 2007 after a fuel price rise
Monks joined in after troops violently broke up a rally
By late September, tens of thousands were protesting in Rangoon
Troops cracked down, shooting, beating and arresting protesters
UN says troops killed at least 31 people, detained thousands more

Some scenes are reconstructed - telephone conversations between the journalists, scenes involving the central character, Joshua, as he leaves Burma to co-ordinate coverage from Thailand. Identities of the journalists are concealed.

But the footage from Burma is at the heart of the film. Some of it has never been shown before.

Large groups of monks march through Rangoon as crowds clap and cheer from pavements, windows and roofs. An elderly woman watches the column, her face a mixture of excitement, hope and fear.

Days later, the atmosphere is tense. Troops block the road in front of the marchers. Shots are heard and protesters flee, dozens of them crowding into a stairwell to escape.

The violence escalates; a monk's body is found in a river. Hundreds of monks are detained, and rumours abound of more deaths.

Before September 2007, Mr Ostergaard had been planning to work with Joshua to make a short programme about day-to-day life inside Burma.

But that all changed when the protests erupted. "We had to revise everything when we realised that we had this incredible footage coming in," he said.

'Knew they would shoot'

Aung Htun filmed some of the most memorable material.

He started working for DVB shortly before the protests. He was fed up with state censorship and wanted to "find a way to show the daily life of Burmese people".

A VJ films monks protesting in Burma in September 2007 (Image: Magic Hour Films)

He had a week of training with the camcorder and then got to work. The reporters did not all know each other. They communicated via mobile phone or the internet.

When the protests erupted, he went to film them, regardless of the risk. Someone told him about the raid on the monastery, so he went there and persuaded the monks to talk to him.

Later that day he went downtown. He was one of at least three secret cameramen in the crowd when a soldier shot Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai - who was also filming - at close range.

"We could hear [the soldiers cocking] their triggers, so we knew they were going to shoot," he said. "But I couldn't see him very well, we were in the smoke and the tear gas."

Aung Htun was not caught by the authorities. But some of his colleagues paid a high price for their covert work.

As troops ended the uprising, the reporters' headquarters in Rangoon was discovered and raided. Three people are now in prison; many others had to flee. The network broke up in disarray.

'Inspire others'

Back in Denmark, Anders Ostergaard's team began putting the material together.

Some footage arrived straight away via DVB. But more was still arriving months later, smuggled out of Burma into Thailand.

Some of it arrived with no information on date or location. So the producers used satellite images from Google Earth to identify places and held painstaking consultations to establish the chronology.

"It was crucial to understand what was going on when, both for [a record of] the uprising and to understand the emotion of the time," Mr Ostergaard said.

Deciding how much to show - places, faces in the crowd or among the marchers - was a constant dilemma, but he had to find a balance. Showing faces was "something you have to do if you want to tell this story", he said.

Mr Ostergaard hopes that the film will reignite international interest in Burma and "let people know we have not forgotten them". It has already won several awards.

DVDs of the film have also been sent into Burma. "If we expose ourselves [by doing this], we are not sure if we will face more danger," says Aung Htun. "But we are sure it will inspire more people to work with us."

That is already happening. The protests politicised a new generation, says Mr Ostergaard, and a new, larger network of video journalists has now been established. He believes this could help bring changes.

"DVB leaders said that the fact much less people were killed this time around [compared to the 1988 uprising] could be due to the generals' awareness that things were being filmed," he said.

"In that way, the film is part of a media development around Burma that is highly significant."

(Aung Htun and Joshua are pseudonyms)



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