Contact: Roland Watson,
FILM REVIEW: BURMA VJ
March 8, 2009
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).