Last week I saw a very powerful film – Burma VJ records the 2007 saffron revolution in Burma and the brutal crackdown by the Burmese ruling generals that followed.
The film was made by undercover Burmese journalists who faced life imprisonment if they had been caught and is a remarkable tribute to the courage of these journalists.
The events in 2007 were sparked by the doubling of the price of fuel. This lead to a large jump in the price of food and other necessities, at a time when people were already struggling to survive. A few brave individuals demonstrated in response to the price hike and they were immediately arrested and taken off to prison.
But then a sleeping giant stirred. Thousands of Buddhist monks who had previously remained out of politics could no longer stand silent in the face of the suffering of the people and the oppressive policies of the generals. They came out onto the streets in support of the brave individuals who had been calling for justice.
This film is unforgettable for so many reasons. For me the most memorable scene was the sight of the columns of monks striding through the streets of the capital Rangoon on the first day of the demonstrations. The first question on everyone’s lips was how would the people react – the second was what would be the reaction of the generals. Many in Rangoon still remembered the violent response to student demonstrations in 1988 when more than 3000 people were killed by the army on the orders of the ruling generals.
There was no doubt about the reaction of the people – they poured onto the streets in their thousands. In one scene the camera panned the buildings around the column of monks and the people walking with them. The rooves of the buildings, every window and every doorway were filled with people waving and cheering. There was no doubt about who they were supporting.
Sadly Burma is not the Philippines – this was not to be the beginning of a People’s Power revolution.
The reaction of the Burmese authorities was swift and brutal. The monks had announced that they planned to march through the streets the second day. That night the government declared a curfew and troops smashed their way into the main monasteries and beat then arrested as many monks as they could find.
Everyone waited to see what would happen the next day. Incredibly the few monks who had evaded arrest still came to the agreed assembly point to be met by columns of troops who summarily beat them and then carried them away in army trucks.
Thousand of citizens who were waiting for them sat on the road in peaceful protest. They were given several minutes to clear the road then the soldiers opened fire killing many. There are haunting scenes in the film of men and women carry their injured friends off the street as the army continues firing at the people who were already fleeing.
The final scene of the film is the corpse of a Buddhist monk who had been brutally beaten floating in a swamp. In the Buddhist religion the most heinous act is to kill a monk – in 2007 the ruling generals showed they were prepared to commit that crime many times ever.
Three years later and elections have been held in Burma. The National League for Democracy – the party of Aung Saan Suu Kyi – boycotted the election because of the undemocratic nature of the new constitution (brought in after the events of 2007) and the unfair conditions placed on the election.
One positive sign is the recent release of Aung Saan Suu Kyi from house arrest however the events of 2007 recorded in Burma VJ give little hope that the generals intend to give up any of their power.
Burma VJ will be screened in Townsville on International Human Rights Day – Friday 10 December. Please contact Peter Hanley (firstname.lastname@example.org) for details.
For the latest news on Burma and to take action see http://www.amnesty.org.au/crisis/comments/24194/