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'Burma VJ,' harrowing tale of Burma protests, is Oscar contender

Documentary film 'Burma VJ' is about Democratic Voice of Burma and how it relayed images from the 2007 protests to the world. Aye Chan, the news organization's chief, speaks about his motives, the risks, and the Oscar-nominated movie.

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Just as Iranian protesters and opposition figures have been arrested – and some killed – several of DVB’s journalists were arrested and face long prison terms. Iran’s demonstrations followed alleged election irregularities; in Burma, Buddhist monks sparked what became a broader challenge to the ruling junta. But in both cases, the protesters took the same risk: informing the outside world of the regime’s brutal repression.

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“Burma VJ” relies heavily on the shaky, jumbled, occasionally obscured footage of the amateur journalists. It includes a horrifying scene of a Japanese journalist shot and killed point blank as he records the demonstration unraveling around him.

“That scene that records how the first person being killed [in the 2007 protests] was a Japanese journalist, it tells you what the military is most frightened about,” Chan says. “They target how the information is getting out.”

DVB started in 1992 as an exile shortwave radio station. The Norwegian government hosted the station – perhaps recalling how Norway’s king and queen, exiled to London during World War II, had set up a radio broadcast to reach their Nazi-occupied homeland. Additional funding followed from other foreign sources, including the National Endowment for Democracy, a congressionally funded pro-democracy foundation in Washington.

The power of video

In 2005 DVB moved into video transmission. “We realized in 2005 that there are a lot of satellite dishes in Burma, maybe 1.5 [million] to 2 million,” says Chan. “If you figure about 10 people per dish, we knew we’d have good coverage with images.” Burma's population is about 50 million.

To train its radio journalists in Burma to use video, DVB clandestinely transferred them outside the country, generally into Thailand. Two years later, the hand-held cameras were ready when Burma’s generals suddenly quintupled gasoline prices and set the stage for 2007’s protests.

"Burma VJ" pays homage to Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with brief, grainy footage of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate appearing to bless the protesters from the gate of the home where she has been under house arrest almost permanently since the 1988 elections. (To read a Monitor editorial on how to free Aung San Suu Kyi, click here.)

Chan says he, too, cannot help but be a pro-democracy activist, though he strives for objectivity as DVB’s director. At this stage in Burma’s struggle, he says, his work requires him to do both.

“We’re not saying we’re not working for democracy and human rights in Burma, we are,” Chan says. “We want press freedom in Burma.” But he also recognizes that DVB’s power lies in its credibility – with the Burmese people, the outside world, and the ruling junta.

“We think that’s our survival, to be credible in the eyes of the people and in the eyes of the regime,” Chan says. “We can be objective while also supporting changes in Burma at the same time. That’s our role in the country.”