Thursday, June 18, 2009

Power through peace: In exile, Burmese monks still carry the torch

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Now is a critical time for democracy's worldwide battle against totalitarianism. Rioters in Iran are disputing the outcome of a possibly stolen presidential election. North Korea has sentenced two American journalists to 12 years of hard labor for allegedly crossing the border into the closed country from China. And Burma's only living democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was recently allowed to leave her home after years of house arrest — but only because the country's ruling military junta decided she should be in prison instead.

That crisis comes into local focus with this week's showings of Anders Ƙstergaard's documentary Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country at SPACE Gallery. Comprised of footage filmed by undercover journalists risking their lives to share truth with the world, it chronicles the so-called "Saffron Revolution:" five weeks in 2007 when Burma was rocked by pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks. (See the review, "Pixel Revolt," by Christopher Gray, on this page.)

But what the movie doesn't show is as important. Accompanying the film, and holding discussion sessions after the screenings, will be three of the monks who led the Saffron Revolution, and who continue to demand the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other Burmese political prisoners. These monks have much more perspective to share than what's included in the 85-minute doc.

One of them, U Pyinya Zawta (who appears in the film making calls from Burma to Thailand using the pseudonym Ko Nyo), tells through a translator on the phone from his new home in western New York of the 10 years he spent in Burmese prisons — which didn't deter him from helping to lead the Saffron Revolution. (Wanted by the government, he has since escaped the country, and found political asylum in the US.)

While he pronounces himself "very pleased and satisfied with the work and the sacrifices" of the undercover videojournalists, he notes that the movie, and the VJs' work overall, necessarily "only shows a fraction of the reality that's taking place in Burma."

One major limitation: available light. "Much more severe and brutal human rights abuses took place when night falls and after the military curfew," he says. The military waits until after dark to surround temples and neighborhoods, disconnects what little electricity is still on, and storms in. In some incidents, he recalls, people were "almost beaten to death," and others were "buried alive."

The regime's repression is overt. U Pyinya Zawta's own temple, Maggin, in the center of the capital city of Rangoon, was closed completely, its head monk and another two leaders imprisoned, the young monks sent back to their home villages, and many other senior monks scattered into hiding and exile.

But the Burmese people still demand the military honor the 1990 election in which they chose Aung San Suu Kyi as prime minister; they continue to resist, even as the military steps up repression, hoping to prevent an uprising if — but more likely, when — they sentence Aung San Suu Kyi to more prison time.

The junta is hoping to prevent a different type uprising, at the same time: one from the international community. And this leads to U Pyinya Zawta's final twin pleas: He asks the military to "free Aung San Suu Kyi along with the National League for Democracy political prisoners," or "there will be no peace." And he says the United Nations, the US, and the world at large must put real pressure on the Burmese junta.

"They issue statement after statement condemning" the junta, he says of these international entities, but that is "dancing to the tune" of the dictatorship, because "these resolutions are all on paper." What is needed, instead, is for the world to "give them a deadline" with "clear and decisive consequences." Maybe something like what he, thousands of other monks, and the videojournalists would face if they were ever caught in Burma.