Contact: Roland Watson, roland@dictatorwatch.org


March 8, 2009

Please forward.

This is a review of the film, Burma VJ, by Anders Ostergaard. Its subject is the "Saffron Revolution," or the Buddhist monks' uprising in Burma in September 2007. The primary focus, though, is not the actual uprising. Instead, it is the efforts of underground videojournalists who covered the event (hence the VJ in the title), for the Democratic Voice of Burma media group.

This approach raises an obvious criticism, which applies to much of modern journalism. The main subject is regularly the journalists who work a story, not the story itself. Mr. Ostergaards's film is yet another manifestation of Marshall McLuhan's famous statement: "The medium is the message."

Still, Burma VJ does give an accurate portrayal of the uprising. The only noticeable shortcomings are the lack of coverage of the many other activists, from the 88 Generation Students and the National League for Democracy, who protested following the SPDC's energy price hikes (in the film, only NLD member Su Su Nway and her immediate associates are featured); and the fact that the demonstrations took place throughout Burma, not only in Rangoon.

The film is also useful for the political analysis it enables. It covers, briefly, the triggering events: the price increases, the student and NLD demonstrations, the initial support by the monks, and the SPDC's brutality against monks in Pakokku. The main focus is the large-scale involvement of monks that followed in response to the last. The film does not address why the uprising failed. However, a careful appraisal of its content yields a series of strong clues.

The uprising was not planned. It developed quickly, and largely in a reactive fashion. There was never an overall program with freedom as its goal. The initial protest subject was the price rise. With the beatings in Pakokku, this changed to a demand for an apology from the SPDC. It was only when the number of monks marching grew to the tens of thousands, and they openly invited the people to join them, that the objective of freedom began to surface. This was then reinforced by the appearance of the
Fighting Peacock flag.

When the people joined the monks, they implicitly accepted their stance of non-violence. The idea was to be completely passive: "If enough of us demonstrate, surely the generals will realize the errors of their ways, and yield."

I am not criticizing the monks, or anyone else who took part. Their actions were heroic. I just want to reemphasize that no uprising script was in place, and which included contingency planning. For instance, the monks apparently did not prepare for the possibility that their monasteries would be attacked, in the dead of night.

The film also shows that opportunities for action were missed. As one example, when the monks marched to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's house, and she came to the gate, there were only a few soldiers present. It would have been straightforward to charge the gate, "unarrest" Daw Suu (as the monks did earlier with a DVB cameraperson), and occupy her compound. Such an action would have electrified the nation, and set the stage for massive popular resistance. But, the opportunity was not grasped, and the following day a hundred soldiers were on guard at the gate.

There was only one forceful action against the SPDC, when young men threw rocks at soldiers manning a road blockade. (The film showed the soldiers throwing the rocks back.) This raises an obvious question. If this was a revolution, where were the protestors' own barricades, and the storming of government offices (not everything has been moved to Pyinmana)? And where was the revolutionary graffiti!? (Many blank walls were shown.)

It was called a revolution, but more accurately it was a collection of peaceful demonstrations. Even so, it caused local SPDC commanders to hesitate. Had a proper revolution ensued, Burma would likely be free today.

The diplomats of the world, and many exile advocacy groups, present the situation in Burma as one that can be resolved through negotiation and dialogue. This is not true (and, we need to examine why they act as if it were). Than Shwe will not go quietly. Some form of force will be required.

Many Burmese now understand that the world is not going to help. If their country is to be freed, they are going to have to do it themselves. But, in reaching this conclusion, they should not forget its corollary. If Burma is going to be free, the people must go on the offensive. Waiting for Than Shwe to give up power will accomplish nothing.

Burma VJ, ultimately, is a very sad film. The uprising failed. The SPDC, yet again, got away with murder. The country now has another 1,000 political prisoners. It is, on the other hand, an interesting film, because of the portrayal of the activities of an underground media group. What Burma needs, though, are underground revolutionary groups, which are willing to fight back.

It would be nice if pacifist strategies would work, and perhaps in some places they do. But not in Burma! The monks have an important role to play, but it is not the only role. Real revolution is required. The country needs to be seriously destabilized. This is the only way to split the junta, and - by putting its financial interests at risk - to force the International Community to intervene.

Closing Note: The above is not an impersonal analysis. Some of our associates are now in prison. Others have been killed. It is still difficult to accept that the uprising failed. (It is unbelievable that the U.S. and Europe just stood by, and refused to do anything.) When the people of Burma are once again organized to renew mass resistance against the SPDC, they must be prepared to be completely self-reliant. And, there must be plans in place, and which anticipate moves by the junta, such that success is the only possible outcome.

Also, we fully understand that some of the exile groups do not promote revolutionary change because it would jeopardize their funding. Their hands are tied. If they want to continue their activities, they have to toe the pacifist line (at least in public).