Burma VJ – Joshuas farlige reise

Jan Krogsgaard er konseptmaker og forfatter av Oscar-nominerte "Burma VJ". Her forteller han om det farlige arbeidet en av filmens mange undercover-journalister måtte gjøre for at filmen kunne bli en realitet.
 

When Joshua got the phone call we became nervous. The military regime in Burma had been hunting down colleagues in his underground journalist network for months. Anybody with a camera was regarded as an enemy of the state. Many had gone into hiding. With few resources, starving and scared, some had managed to escape abroad while others were now being tortured for information in the prisons of Burma.

Joshua and I were working together in his small office in Mae Sot, a Thai town on the border with Burma, when the call came. It was a burning hot day in April 2008 and the Water Festival, the Buddhist New Year in Burma, was in 5 days time.  

For two months, we had been examining video footage from the 2007 uprising in Burma, where protesters in Rangoon and in cities around Burma were calling for a peaceful transition to democracy, after nearly half a century of military rule. Tens of thousands of monks and civilians were marching through the former capital Rangoon, chanting: “May all beings be free from fear and suffering – Reconciliation, Reconciliation, Reconciliation.”

But it was not to happen. During a two day deadly crack down Rangoon was chocked in teargas and echoing of gunshots, people were fleeing for their lives, many were killed and the military sealed Burma from the inside out.

 

Joshua is a young man, at that time 27 years old. I learned to know him during my work with the documentary movie Burma VJ – Reporting From a Closed Country. We worked together on the manuscript and narration for the movie and he is its main character and narrator.

Joshua works as an undercover video journalist (VJ) inside Burma, a very risky life. When the Burmese military took power in 1962, they immediately showed their stance, killing close to two hundred university students who were peacefully demonstrating against the military coup. The message was clear: from now on, any choosing to lift their voices against the generals of Burma could expect a similar response. It happened again in 1988 where several thousand people were killed, it became so tragic that nurses and doctors outside a hospital waived banners imploring soldiers to “stop the killing” written with the blood of the dead. In September 2007 history repeated itself again.

Joshua works for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) an exiled Burmese TV-Station based in Oslo, Norway. DVB broadcasts news, information and programs to Burma the only television alternative to the military’s omnipotent control of media and reality making in the country. Deliberately the population has been kept uneducated, misinformed and barred from information from the outside world. Watching DVB is regarded a criminal act against the state.

 

 

Inside Burma, DVB has a small network of undercover VJs who, despite the unrestricted violence of the military, and a society infiltrated by informers and spies, try to gather stories from a reality that people inside Burma can relate to.

When the call came Joshua was told to return to Rangoon. He had escaped from Burma seven months earlier after filming a small demonstration, by a young woman. It was such unusual footage from this closed country that it became breaking news around the world. One month later the big demonstration started in Rangoon and Joshua, from Thailand, became the liaison and tactical leader of the VJs inside Burma, who provided the world with footage from the uprising, and the crackdown that followed. All foreign press were denied entry into Burma – it became the first time in history that undercover journalists provided coverage to all major TV-stations in the world. It was TV history. It was also the first time that the Burmese people could watch themselves as private people on a Burmese language TV station expressing their own desires.

Joshua’s mission was to go to Rangoon and empty an apartment full of compromising materials: laptops, satellite modems, tapes and, most crucial, handwritten notes with the telephone numbers and code names of other network members. Joshua and his fellow VJ, a friend by the name of Aung Maung, who had been arrested during the military’s hunt, was the only one aware of the apartment’s location: it was paramount that nobody got hold of the contents, it could destroy DVB’s network. Joshua had no keys to the apartment, and would have to find a way of gaining entry without arousing suspicion.

He decided to move immediately, using the Water Festival as his cover. During this carnival-like festival, a time for forgetting, Rangoon’s streets are crammed with people dousing each other with water to cleanse and purify the other of the sins and misdeeds committed in the past year. People dance, eat and drink while others arm themselves with hoses, buckets, bottles, teacups or what ever else is at hand to drench each other. The streets turn into flowing rivers. Even the generals partake, pouring purifying water on each other, sequences which are filmed and repeated on Burmese TV later in the evening. But as Joshua once said “No matter how much water they pour on each other, I cannot imagine that they can clean themselves from what they have done to Burma”.

 

Joshua travelled illegally overland to Rangoon, I followed to “shade” him with my camera. I flew in by plane. Coming back to Burma I immediately sensed what I had sensed so many times before: a human-created pain hanging in the air, a deep sadness that permeates every molecule and particle in the country. Joshua’s words from an early interview “everybody in Burma is in pain, even the Generals” reverberated inside me. While driving from the airport I recalled one of our last late night talks in Mae Sot: I had asked Joshua how he felt when he realized that Aung Maung had been imprisoned. We knew that he had been suffering water torture for weeks and that he lay paralyzed in a dark room in an abandoned hospital wing in a prison in the outskirts of Rangoon. I feel “hna myaw tal,”, Joshua told me. It took us a while to translate the phrase from Burmese into English, it means “something is broken beyond repair”.

With this feeling rooted inside him Joshua returned to Rangoon with out knowing if Aung Maung had been talking or not. But we also had reminded each other what they teach in the Buddhist monasteries: that one of the four causes of decline and decay is “omitting to repair that which has been damaged.” A teaching that is so much needed in Burma these days, that all groups would do well to put into practice.  

When we met two days later in the water-drenched city, only one hundred meters from where the Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai was killed, Joshua was on high alert. He told me the cause for his alarm while we passed laughing kids who splashed water at us with buckets and hoses: sources from the prison said that the pain Aung Maung was suffering had become too much, and he had been forced to speak. How much the military intelligence knew, or whether they were aware of the apartment, Joshua didn’t know. Our reality had changed uncontrollably.
    
If caught, Joshua would end up as so many others in Burma, spending years in solitary confinement, not being allowed to read, write or speak, being incarcerated in dark rooms where time and space dissolve. The only communicating voices are the voices inside one’s own head. Reading just one word on a piece of paper becomes a hunger. The most human voices they hear are guards shouting insults, or the sounds of their inmates being routinely beaten, knowing that their turn would come soon.

As Joshua turned away, he said goodbye to me at a street corner. I knew I had no chance in this world to help him with what he was up against. Words that have followed me for years, expressed to me by a Burmese woman taking care of trafficked girls in Thailand came back to me — “Jan, we are like people without protection trying to protect people without protection.” I could only wish Joshua good luck as I watched him melt into the celebrating dancing crowds with this lonely task ahead of him.

Jan Krogsgaard is the concept originator and scriptwriter on the Oscar nominated documentary movie Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country. Jan also worked as assistant director, and as cameraman in Rangoon on the film. He started his Burma film project in 2003 and has made several recording trips to Burma. As a filmmaker Jan has among other projects made the 43 hour long art-documentary installation/document “Voices of Khmer Rouge” where 30 former low ranking Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers) tell their personal life stories from the 33 year long civil war in Cambodia, and “101 Regrets” a documentary art film where 101 old Danish people reveal what they regret they did not do in their lives. 101 answers of unrealized dreams, wishes and hopes. These days Jan work on a book about the VJs and will tour Japan in April with “Burma VJ”.
 

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Burma VJ – Joshuas farlige reise

Jan Krogsgaard er konseptmaker og forfatter av Oscar-nominerte "Burma VJ". Her forteller han om det farlige arbeidet en av filmens mange undercover-journalister måtte gjøre for at filmen kunne bli en realitet.
 

When Joshua got the phone call we became nervous. The military regime in Burma had been hunting down colleagues in his underground journalist network for months. Anybody with a camera was regarded as an enemy of the state. Many had gone into hiding. With few resources, starving and scared, some had managed to escape abroad while others were now being tortured for information in the prisons of Burma.

Joshua and I were working together in his small office in Mae Sot, a Thai town on the border with Burma, when the call came. It was a burning hot day in April 2008 and the Water Festival, the Buddhist New Year in Burma, was in 5 days time.  

For two months, we had been examining video footage from the 2007 uprising in Burma, where protesters in Rangoon and in cities around Burma were calling for a peaceful transition to democracy, after nearly half a century of military rule. Tens of thousands of monks and civilians were marching through the former capital Rangoon, chanting: “May all beings be free from fear and suffering – Reconciliation, Reconciliation, Reconciliation.”

But it was not to happen. During a two day deadly crack down Rangoon was chocked in teargas and echoing of gunshots, people were fleeing for their lives, many were killed and the military sealed Burma from the inside out.

 

Joshua is a young man, at that time 27 years old. I learned to know him during my work with the documentary movie Burma VJ – Reporting From a Closed Country. We worked together on the manuscript and narration for the movie and he is its main character and narrator.

Joshua works as an undercover video journalist (VJ) inside Burma, a very risky life. When the Burmese military took power in 1962, they immediately showed their stance, killing close to two hundred university students who were peacefully demonstrating against the military coup. The message was clear: from now on, any choosing to lift their voices against the generals of Burma could expect a similar response. It happened again in 1988 where several thousand people were killed, it became so tragic that nurses and doctors outside a hospital waived banners imploring soldiers to “stop the killing” written with the blood of the dead. In September 2007 history repeated itself again.

Joshua works for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) an exiled Burmese TV-Station based in Oslo, Norway. DVB broadcasts news, information and programs to Burma the only television alternative to the military’s omnipotent control of media and reality making in the country. Deliberately the population has been kept uneducated, misinformed and barred from information from the outside world. Watching DVB is regarded a criminal act against the state.

 

 

Inside Burma, DVB has a small network of undercover VJs who, despite the unrestricted violence of the military, and a society infiltrated by informers and spies, try to gather stories from a reality that people inside Burma can relate to.

When the call came Joshua was told to return to Rangoon. He had escaped from Burma seven months earlier after filming a small demonstration, by a young woman. It was such unusual footage from this closed country that it became breaking news around the world. One month later the big demonstration started in Rangoon and Joshua, from Thailand, became the liaison and tactical leader of the VJs inside Burma, who provided the world with footage from the uprising, and the crackdown that followed. All foreign press were denied entry into Burma – it became the first time in history that undercover journalists provided coverage to all major TV-stations in the world. It was TV history. It was also the first time that the Burmese people could watch themselves as private people on a Burmese language TV station expressing their own desires.

Joshua’s mission was to go to Rangoon and empty an apartment full of compromising materials: laptops, satellite modems, tapes and, most crucial, handwritten notes with the telephone numbers and code names of other network members. Joshua and his fellow VJ, a friend by the name of Aung Maung, who had been arrested during the military’s hunt, was the only one aware of the apartment’s location: it was paramount that nobody got hold of the contents, it could destroy DVB’s network. Joshua had no keys to the apartment, and would have to find a way of gaining entry without arousing suspicion.

He decided to move immediately, using the Water Festival as his cover. During this carnival-like festival, a time for forgetting, Rangoon’s streets are crammed with people dousing each other with water to cleanse and purify the other of the sins and misdeeds committed in the past year. People dance, eat and drink while others arm themselves with hoses, buckets, bottles, teacups or what ever else is at hand to drench each other. The streets turn into flowing rivers. Even the generals partake, pouring purifying water on each other, sequences which are filmed and repeated on Burmese TV later in the evening. But as Joshua once said “No matter how much water they pour on each other, I cannot imagine that they can clean themselves from what they have done to Burma”.

 

Joshua travelled illegally overland to Rangoon, I followed to “shade” him with my camera. I flew in by plane. Coming back to Burma I immediately sensed what I had sensed so many times before: a human-created pain hanging in the air, a deep sadness that permeates every molecule and particle in the country. Joshua’s words from an early interview “everybody in Burma is in pain, even the Generals” reverberated inside me. While driving from the airport I recalled one of our last late night talks in Mae Sot: I had asked Joshua how he felt when he realized that Aung Maung had been imprisoned. We knew that he had been suffering water torture for weeks and that he lay paralyzed in a dark room in an abandoned hospital wing in a prison in the outskirts of Rangoon. I feel “hna myaw tal,”, Joshua told me. It took us a while to translate the phrase from Burmese into English, it means “something is broken beyond repair”.

With this feeling rooted inside him Joshua returned to Rangoon with out knowing if Aung Maung had been talking or not. But we also had reminded each other what they teach in the Buddhist monasteries: that one of the four causes of decline and decay is “omitting to repair that which has been damaged.” A teaching that is so much needed in Burma these days, that all groups would do well to put into practice.  

When we met two days later in the water-drenched city, only one hundred meters from where the Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai was killed, Joshua was on high alert. He told me the cause for his alarm while we passed laughing kids who splashed water at us with buckets and hoses: sources from the prison said that the pain Aung Maung was suffering had become too much, and he had been forced to speak. How much the military intelligence knew, or whether they were aware of the apartment, Joshua didn’t know. Our reality had changed uncontrollably.
    
If caught, Joshua would end up as so many others in Burma, spending years in solitary confinement, not being allowed to read, write or speak, being incarcerated in dark rooms where time and space dissolve. The only communicating voices are the voices inside one’s own head. Reading just one word on a piece of paper becomes a hunger. The most human voices they hear are guards shouting insults, or the sounds of their inmates being routinely beaten, knowing that their turn would come soon.

As Joshua turned away, he said goodbye to me at a street corner. I knew I had no chance in this world to help him with what he was up against. Words that have followed me for years, expressed to me by a Burmese woman taking care of trafficked girls in Thailand came back to me — “Jan, we are like people without protection trying to protect people without protection.” I could only wish Joshua good luck as I watched him melt into the celebrating dancing crowds with this lonely task ahead of him.

Jan Krogsgaard is the concept originator and scriptwriter on the Oscar nominated documentary movie Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country. Jan also worked as assistant director, and as cameraman in Rangoon on the film. He started his Burma film project in 2003 and has made several recording trips to Burma. As a filmmaker Jan has among other projects made the 43 hour long art-documentary installation/document “Voices of Khmer Rouge” where 30 former low ranking Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers) tell their personal life stories from the 33 year long civil war in Cambodia, and “101 Regrets” a documentary art film where 101 old Danish people reveal what they regret they did not do in their lives. 101 answers of unrealized dreams, wishes and hopes. These days Jan work on a book about the VJs and will tour Japan in April with “Burma VJ”.
 

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