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Interview with Aye Chang Naing

"I think that's what every journalist does: takes risks to expose what's really happening on the ground."

HBO

Tell us about the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and what you and the organization
do.

Aye Chang Naing

We run a television station that films inside Burma, and then sends the footage out of the country where it's broadcast back by satellite to Burma. The station covers different topics like education and entertainment. Most of us film, edit, write and narrate our pieces ourselves. We package up the whole film. That's why the film is called 'Burma VJ' -- the video journalist who has to handle everything.

HBO

How long has the DVB been in existence?

Aye Chang Naing

Since 1992, we've been based in Oslo, Norway. At first, we broadcast back to Burma on short wave. But, in 2005, we started doing a satellite television program. I'm chief editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma, so I keep in touch with lots of journalists working inside the country. So when the uprising happened, we had about thirty undercover video journalists on the ground in Burma. If the government finds out who they are, they would be arrested and put in prison. So they're taking a really big risk. And, in fact, when the crackdown started after the uprising, the first person who was killed was a journalist from Japan. So the military are really targeting journalists.

HBO

Give us a snapshot of what the country was like before the uprising began, because this didn't happen overnight.

Aye Chang Naing

Oppression is big inside Burma, by the current regime, over the whole population. People have been frustrated because of the economic crisis. They've been frustrated for the lack of freedom of speech. Anything you do or say against the government, you end up in prison, often for years. And prison conditions are very, very bad. We have about one thousand political prisoners inside the country. So this whole uprising was something that was waiting to happen. The regime has done things like doubling the petrol price overnight which affects everyone in the country. The price of busses and trains rose. Food prices went up. That was the tipping point.

HBO

And the military control all this?

Aye Chang Naing

The military and their cronies own everything. They run the whole show. The people are almost like slaves.

HBO

When you first met filmmaker Anders Østergaard, what did you think about his idea of making a film?

Aye Chang Naing

Well, in 2006, he came to us wanting to do a documentary about us and other Burmese media organizations who are working to get information out of the country. He came along during the trainings and met with journalists that were coming out from inside Burma, trying to understand the whole situation and the politics. I don't think he
knew then where it all would go at first.

But in 2007, when the whole Buddhist uprising happened, he was already there. He knew about our operation for more than a year and a half, so he was in a very good position when things started happening. And he knew this story would attract international attention.

Most of the information coming out of Burma at the time of uprising that was on CNN and BBC came from us. They had to depend on our footage, our photographs, our information. Because of this, our offices were packed with journalists from all over the world, doing live reporting. And because of this, we kind of started steering the whole international opinion about the uprising in Burma.

HBO

With all the risks involved, why do you and your colleagues continue doing this?

Aye Chang Naing

I think that's what every journalist does: takes risks to expose what's really happening on the ground. What's extraordinary about the journalists that are working inside Burma with the Democratic Voice of Burma is that they know it's a constant risk, every day. One journalist, after their footage was shown on CNN, said: "Now I'm happy to go to prison, even if I get arrested." So they have an enormous desire that the information they send out spreads across the world, so that people know about Burma.

HBO

What does the future look like to you in Burma? Is change possible?

Aye Chang Naing

It's very hard to say when change will come. The current regime runs the country. But hope is quite high for us. That's how we survive. We believe that change will come. I mean, look at the rest of the world: who would have thought South Africa would change from apartheid to a democratic government. Eastern European countries have changed from communism to democracy. The Soviet Union fell. The Berlin Wall fell. In Asia, the Philippines have changed from dictatorship to democracy. Indonesia has changed from dictatorship to democracy. There is no way the authoritative regime can continue to govern Burma the way they have been the past fifty years.

HBO

What role do the monks play in all this?

Aye Chang Naing

Well, the monks are highly respected in the country. The majority are Buddhists, and they don't normally get involved unless in very extreme situations. But when the people are really suffering under military dictatorship, they get involved. And it's very extreme because it's almost like they expel the military generals from the religious community by refusing to accept any kind of donations from them. They refuse to provide funeral service for the military generals and their relatives. And that's a very, very strong, social boycott. And that is what they did.

HBO

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

Aye Chang Naing

I hope it will bring more knowledge about Burma. For example, even though it just focuses on the journalists and the uprising, it gives you the whole sense of being a Burmese inside the country. How they live and how they feel and how much they want change. It will give insight into how the citizens try to get information out of the country, and how brutal the current regime can be towards their own people and even their Buddhist monks. Could you imagine bishops and priests getting beaten up on the
streets in America? That's what happened in Burma and I think that will give people a lot of knowledge, and hopefully this knowledge will translate into a more practical effect.

Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country