Shooting back

AUSTmagLOGOIt’s a long arc from the grinding misery of military oppression to the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood, but “Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country” is a favourite to win an Academy Award tomorrow. And, hidden, or imprisoned or clandestinely at work, Burma’s covert video journalists will be at the glittering Awards, in spirit at least, cheering the film home.

Featuring raw and disturbing footage of a brutal security crackdown, “Burma VJ” documents the sheer bravery and determination of the video journalists who covered the Buddhist monks’ Saffron uprising in 2007. It includes film of the monks marching, and of the savage reprisals later meted out by the armed forces. Tens of thousands of protestors joined the monks for a few halcyon days until the military lost patience, and all hope of change was crushed.

Aung Htun shot a fair amount of the documentary’s bloody footage, and he would like to see it win some recognition from the Hollywood stars in their silks and cascading diamonds. But the wiry reporter, who has run so many risks and been through so much, won’t be in Los Angeles for the lavish ceremony. Apart from mundane considerations of cost and distance, there is the question of anonymity. Aung Htun goes to extraordinary lengths to keep his face and any distinguishing features hidden, determined to prevent Burmese intelligence officials from getting their hands on anything which could identify him. Aung Htun is not his real name; and he makes sure his face is never recognisable in photographs or on film.

DVB VJ Aung Htun. Photo by Sian Powell.

DVB VJ Aung Htun. Photo by Sian Powell.

Arrest, detention, torture and beatings are an ever-hovering threat for Burma’s covert reporters, yet Aung Htun’s main concern during the monks’ uprising was professional — to get the pictures and make the world see. “I was very solid,” he says. “I had already made up my mind I could face torture. I just prepared mentally that I could face it. I just kept working, I didn’t think about it in advance. I just kept working and working.”

Only 29, Aung Htun has been detained by Burmese security twice, dodged his way through fierce interrogation, filmed marauding Burmese soldiers from close-quarters, used code-names and careful cut-out meeting procedures, secreted cameras in bags and boxes for clandestine filming, and crept through the night like a bandit. He filmed bloody and battered monks in the midst of the Saffron uprising, ducking away from their monastery minutes before the armed forces returned for another round of bludgeoning. The fresh-faced but inwardly steely journalist filmed students scattering when the soldiers opened fire on a demonstration, killing a Japanese photographer. He narrowly escaped twice in one day.

A video journalist, Aung Htun works with the Democratic Voice of Burma, the Oslo-based non-profit media organisation dedicated to providing Burma and the world with impartial coverage of the Burmese junta’s activities. The work is always dangerous, particularly when the so-called “State Peace and Development Council” military regime is feeling the pinch: as it did in 2007 and as it does now, in the lead-up to an election later this year. The junta does not take kindly to reporters, slinging as many as 14 of them into prison over the past 12 months or so.

Two of Aung Htun’s DVB journalist colleagues have recently been condemned to long terms in Burma’s appalling jails. Their crimes? They apparently violated the nation’s Electronics Act, a draconian statute that limits journalism in Burma to government-approved coverage. In December, Hla Hla Win, a 25-year-old woman, was sentenced to a total of 27 years in prison – 20 years apparently for interviewing monks, and a further seven years for riding an improperly registered motorbike. Then, in January, Ngwe Soe Linn, who won a Rory Peck award for his contributions to a documentary about the 2008 cyclone Nargis, was given a 13-year jail term; 10 years for violating the Electronics Act and three for seemingly spurious immigration irregularities.

Now safely living in Thailand, Aung Htun intends to get back into Burma at some stage, especially now that a Burmese election appears to be on the cards, the west is talking about engagement, and the junta is cracking down harder than ever. Yet besides the personal danger, his family in Rangoon is also at risk, even though he has tried to keep them from knowing too much about his dangerous peregrinations. “They rarely ask,” he says, with a captivating grin. “Also, I don’t tell them. They usually tell people I’m a student.”

Now he isn’t even exactly sure which of the more general scenes used in “Burma VJ” were actually shot by him. There was never time to review the footage; the tapes were always handed over for uploading as soon as possible. The clandestine footage, from largely hand-held cameras, was often shaky, but it was urgent and powerful, and networks around the world picked it up.

Directed by the Danish filmmaker Anders Ostergaard, “Burma VJ” began life before the Saffron revolution. It was originally intended to be a straightforward documentary about video journalists in Burma, but that all changed with the uprising in 2007, when the world watched the simple bravery of Buddhist monks marching day after day, the students chanting for freedom, a pause of hope, and then the brutal crackdown. A lot of the original Saffron revolution footage was shot by DVB journalists, but the feature-length documentary includes some re-enactments that were shot in Thailand.

Aung Htun explains that the DVB reporters only had handycams, at best, and the quality of the film wasn’t really good enough for anything more than spot news. Re-enactments, while they might offend purists, were better for some of the historically unimportant scenes. Regardless of the criticisms, the documentary has already won a slew of awards. It has again focused attention on blood-stained Burma, where as many as 2,100 political prisoners languish in jail and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for nearly 15 of the past 21 years.

“It’s already gone beyond our dream,” Aung Htun says. “It’s the power of film, the power of citizen journalists.”

“Burma VJ” features Joshua, a DVB journalist who had run one too many risks, and had to leave Burma before the Saffron uprising. He monitored the unfolding events from Thailand and listened to the dangers Aung Htun and the others were running.  Increasingly frustrated he wasn’t there to see the dramatic marches that many erroneously expected would presage lasting political change, Joshua was an emotional voice in exile.  Still living in Thailand he, too, hopes “Burma VJ” will make a lasting impression, and bring a little more pressure to bear on the military regime which has crushed Burma for so long.

Aung Htun called Joshua regularly during the uprising, both to report on developments and to express his anguish at the brutality and bloodshed. “Emotionally the film brings back memories I don’t want to think about,” he says, looking down at his hands. “I see the people I worked with, people who are now in prison.” He finds the footage he shot of the beaten monks in their wrecked monastery particularly upsetting. “It was a really hopeless situation. They asked me ‘what should we do, where should we go?’ How could I help them? I could be arrested any time.” He pauses for a moment, before adding: “Those monks are now in prison.”

He is concerned, now, about the numbers of wildly applauding Burmese who are clearly identifiable in “Burma VJ”. Cheering the marching monks could well be grounds for arrest and detention, and although no video shops dare stock the documentary, it can be obtained on the black market in Burma, and it can even be downloaded from the internet, something the security forces have probably already done.

Aung Htun can point to an intelligence official, dressed in civilian clothes, who is visible in two different parts of the documentary, monitoring all potentially insurgent activities. He knows Burmese security forces were filming the monks, and filming those who were filming the monks. When the crackdown began, Aung Htun was there in the thick of it. He heard the gunfire. “I felt a little bit sick,” he grimaces. “I just kept running it, whatever happened.”

He and his colleagues were creeping around the edges of the security forces, armed with nothing more than small film cameras. DVB usually broadcasts for an hour a day into Burma, but by this stage of the Saffron uprising it was broadcasting 24 hours a day. DVB resource managers handled the transmission of the footage, as well as providing equipment and funds. The identity of these managers has always been a particularly deep secret, and so far none of them has been caught. But often the video journalists’ equipment was damaged, by rain and sheer overuse, often their batteries ran out, some were forced to use archival tapes for new material because they ran out of new tapes, some ran out of money entirely, and didn’t even have enough for bus-fare.

It’s not as though they had any financial reserves. Aung Htun says the reporters generally earn a stipend of about US$200 – $300 ($221 – $332) a month, plus expenses. The cost of living is cheap in Burma, but even so, they were not flush with cash, and times were tough. But the money is unimportant, except when it’s needed to get around. “All of our guys know they are not working for the money,” Aung Htun says, shaking his head.

Funded by governments in Scandinavia and various organisations in Europe, the US and Canada, the Democratic Voice of Burma was born of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize. After she was awarded the prize, in 1991, exiled Burmese leaders were invited to Oslo, where they asked the Norwegian government for help in setting up a radio station. Originally an opposition network, but now staunchly independent of all political affiliations, DVB maintains a website ( and broadcasts both radio and television into Burma, relying on about 150 full-time and part-time staff, most of them covertly working in-country. They take horrible risks, and although they are organised into cells, and code-names are meant to be compulsory, they have been instructed to keep their mouths shut for at least a week if they are arrested to allow compromised colleagues to get away.

Aung Htun was a member of the National League of Democracy when he signed on with DVB. He grew up with politics. A child during the infamous crackdown following a nationwide uprising in 1988, when as many as 3,000 students and activists were slaughtered by the regime, he remembers the armoured personnel carriers rumbling down his street. His brother had been detained, and Aung Htun was inspired by the ferment of potential political change. Those early years led to a life in journalism which, to begin with at least, was less than fulfilling.

His career began as a reporter on a private newspaper. “It was very frustrating,” he says. “When you think about a story, you had to self-censor. There were no clear rules about what we could write. We knew everything was wrong in the system. It was our duty: we had to do something to change the system. Just being angry cannot solve the problem.”

Although he was a member of the League, and had spent time at Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, his work as a DVB video journalist was where the danger lay. He was once picked up filming after a demonstration, and finally pointed out to his interrogators that he was there legitimately, as a press reporter. Despite all the difficulties and delays, Aung Htun just kept working, carrying on with his DVB assignments, and hoping for a brighter future for his benighted country, where extreme poverty and political oppression are the norm.

In the end, he thinks, the media will help to bring the regime down. The more people know about what is happening in Burma, the more they will be fired to change it. The regime, he says, fears the power of media. “They are very afraid; they are taking all electronic equipment,” he says. “They are saying some things, like the footage of the dead monk in “Burma VJ” was a fake. It wasn’t a fake.”

The junta is notoriously media wary. Foreign journalists are almost never granted working visas. Junta leaders never submit to interviews. The BBC, Voice of America and DVB are regularly criticised for airing a “skyful of lies”. The internet is sometimes closed down completely, as it was during the Saffron uprising.

It requires courage, enterprise and a fair dollop of luck to report on the horrors of a regime considered one of the most oppressive in the world. Aung Htun, Joshua and all their friends and comrades – in prison, in hiding, and still trying to operate as reporters – know that all too well.