Where will Oscar nominees be on the morning that the glitterati descend on Hollywood’s renowned ceremony?
The rich and famous may well be snuggled up in downy duvets in their luxurious mansions, perhaps nursing a severe hangover from too much complimentary champagne. But one person, whose work will grace the Academy Awards, will wake up to a very different world, as far removed as he possibly could be from such movie-star glamour.
He will rise, probably around dawn, to shouts from warders. He will rise from a concrete floor with a slop bucket, alongside a handful of other political prisoners and a host of vermin. Thus will dawn one more day of the 65-year sentence he received for making the film Burma VJ.
The journalists don’t work for money, they work for the changing of society
Around 140 other journalists in Burma who are now in jail because of their work will wake to similar conditions. Hundreds more will greet the new day knowing that if they are discovered pursuing their work they will face a similar fate.
One of the imprisoned man’s colleagues is Ay Min Soe. He was an engineering student in 1988 when student-led protests rocked Burma. For his part in them he was put in jail. ‘I was studying at the Rangoon Institute of Technology – this was at the beginning of the student uprising,’ explains Ay Min, ‘but I am also an activist, because we need to fight the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council/the Burmese Government].’
Burma VJ is the story of a team of undercover video journalists, including Ay Min, who managed to get pretty much the only footage of the September 2007 protests, which came to be known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’. Their network is affiliated to the exiled news network the Democratic Voice of Burma, which forms a vital link for news information between their country and the outside world.
Their footage from 2007 contained images not only of the thousands of monks who led the protests but also the brutal killing of Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai. Thanks to the footage, the military were unable to deny his killing at the hands of troops but to this day, and despite protests from his family and the Japanese Government, his photos have never been returned.
In Burma the act of journalism and covering events such as the ‘Saffron Revolution’ is implicitly political and people see it as uniquely important; the media are denied rights and prevented from revealing the military regime’s brutality. So the work of the undercover video journalists was critical. ‘Before 2007, 53 million people knew about the SPDC and how brutal they are. After 2007 6 billion people knew,’ says Ay Min. ‘The journalists don’t work for money, they work for the changing of society.’
For Ay Min citizen journalism is extremely useful in repressive Burma. He terms his work ‘information warfare’, and, in language reminiscent of guerrilla fighters, he says: ‘we have a lot of journalists’ – citizens who can disappear, have no office, press card or formal affiliation, but who share a secret desire to change their country.
Don’t forget about the people who are suffering because of the Saffron Revolution, including the monks. Don’t forget about them
2007 may be a defining year for Burmese journalism with the Oscar exposure and the feats that Ay Min and his colleagues achieved. That time however, as the film shows, was fraught and extremely challenging. Ay Min shot footage, which appears in the film, of the military intelligence raiding his own office: ‘I have experienced a lot of riots. I know how the police work, so I can hide and shoot footage. After 2007 our network was very weak. Our office was raided and some of our members were arrested or had to flee. In 2008 we set up our network again, and it was this network that filmed Orphans of the Storm’.
Orphans of the Storm was an award-winning success. The Channel 4 documentary details the lives of orphans from Burma’s worst natural disaster, Cyclone Nargis, which struck in May 2008. It won the Rory Peck Award and was shot by two young journalists trained by Ay Min. Again, one of them – known as ‘T’ – is in jail for his efforts.
Arrested and tortured
One of the cameramen (not Ay Min) who filmed Orphans of the Storm confirms that T was picked up by undercover intelligence officers whilst using the internet with a friend from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The cameraman suspects that the Government didn’t know about the documentary, and that T was arrested just for working with the Democratic Voice of Burma. He suggests that it was ‘only in interrogation, through torture, that they found out [about the film]’. He adds that T’s brother is also in jail, held under something called the Electronics Act: an article of ‘law’ that seems to be the icing on regressive, military-run Burma’s seemingly luddite cake. T’s brother was apparently not a journalist, ‘he just had a camera’.
Ay Min now has a young family and is as free as a fugitive can be. I chat to him in a market in western Thailand – he is not allowed to leave the town because he does not have papers and there are checkpoints on all the exit roads. His family are in the same boat – they have no papers and are effectively stateless.
To apply for refugee status in the handful of Western nations that might consider resettling them is extremely difficult without the necessary documents. One of Ay Min’s friends, who spent 18 years in jail and hasn’t seen his now grown-up daughter since she was four months old, has repeatedly been told by UNHCR that the Red Cross letter detailing his internment in one of Burma’s jails is not good enough.
And so, as another day on the run ends with talk of jail, military intelligence and fawning Western admiration I ask Ay Min what he would add about this chapter of his history and his struggle: ‘Don’t forget about the people who are suffering because of the Saffron Revolution, including the monks. Don’t forget about them,’ he replies.