For those who haven't been reading this blog lately, let me explain first that I'm in New York City right now. And tonight, I went to the Film Forum in Greenwich Village to watch "Burma VJ," an HBO documentary about the underground video bloggers who chronicled the popular uprising in Burma in September of 2007. Three of the monks who led the demonstrations and then had to run for their lives disguised as car salesmen (now that would be a major leap even for the paranoid Burmese military to make) were at the theater for a question-and-answer session after the showing and now I feel like a baby-stepping slacker of a social change agent. A bunch of talk and some occasional action, maybe, but nothing like what they've been doing in an attempt to free their people.
I spent most of the film with my hands up under my chin, unconcerned with what those sitting next to me must have thought. The suspense was chilling, despite the homework I did before leaving Louisiana so I'd have a clue what I was looking at. I mean, I knew the end of the story and yet I was still shallow-breathing through it, almost afraid to blink.
Some of the marching monks were children. Few were very far into their adulthood. And there were hundreds, maybe thousands of them, leading the demonstrations in their saffron-colored robes carrying their alms bowls bottom up to symbolize their unwillingness to accept contributions from the military officers who do the dirty work of the junta that has changed Burma's name to Myanmar and crushed its people for forty years. Monks refusing alms in a country where 90 per cent of the people are Buddhist is a major statement of shaming condemnation. And even after the military brutally beat the demonstrators in front of their supporters, killing one monk in the process, the monks came back again and again, forcing the government's hand until more than two hundred monks at one time were dragged bloody out of a single monastery and caused to disappear.
Even after that, monks and students still took to the streets, belligerently ignoring the government's edict that no more than five people could congregate at a time. At one point, when it became apparent that the guns were coming out, a VJ only an arm's length from the action captured the student leaders declaring over a bull horn, "Those who are not afraid to die, come to the front."
All of this is only in the film because incredibly brave and dedicated souls committed themselves to filming the events in a country where people were being shot for having cameras. In fact, more than one of the Burma VJ's were filming when a Japanese photographer was shot to death, sending that single incident out over the airwaves by satellite to the astonishment of a watching world and the horror of the military leaders giving the orders. Which was the whole point of the VJ's actions. They wanted to show the world what the dictatorship in Burma was up to. And show us all they did.
Now that U Pyinya Zawta, U Gawsita, and U Agga have been forced to run for their lives, they worry about their friends back in Burma. They know some of them are imprisoned and being ill treated. They know that some of them are dead (the film shows one monk floating face down in a creek). And they can't get good information to even know which are which. Not only are the monks and students under constant surveillance now, however. The fact is, no one in Burma dares talk about "politics" with anyone else for fear it will get back to the Powers-That-Be. There's no wiggle room. And still they fight.
Most of the Burma VJ's are now in prison or in hiding and no longer in touch with each other. Wildly popular opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for years and is about to be tried in a kangaroo court to move her into prison proper. Nevertheless, "Joshua," the VJ who was in Thailand during the demonstrations in 2007, catching what the other VJ's pitched and forwarding it on to the rest of the world because his cover had already been blown, has walked back over the mountains into Burma to set up another VJ network in preparation for the next revolution.
At the end of the showing, the three monks in attendance politely described their concerns -- two through an interpreter and one in halting, but understandable English -- and asked for help for their fellow Burmese citizens. They want China and Russia to vote as U.N. Security Council members to bring pressure to bear on the military junta in their country. The U.N. talks about how wrong the junta is, but implements nothing to put teeth in their statements. The U.S., too, of course, only talks about democracy in Burma without doing anything to encourage that as a reality. But then, the U.S. has never really had a problem accepting fascist dictatorships. It's the socialist democracies that make our government nuts.
In any case, the three monks, one of whom said later that they pray loving kindness constantly on the military tormentors who hold their country's people in thrall, not surprisingly, chose to close this evening with a prayer, as well:
"May there be no deception of one another;
may loving kindness envelop the world;
and may there be peace on Earth."
NOTE: The three monks at the film showing have apparently reached President Obama, according to The Huffington Post. Not that the Burmese junta is likely to listen. But still...