September this year marks the sixth anniversary of the monk-led mass protests in Burma that become known as the Saffron Revolution. During the uprising and subsequent bloody crackdown, journalists from local and foreign news agencies allowed the world a glimpse into Burma’s situation and the brutality of the military regime.
Video journalist Yan Naing from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) risked arrest to get images of the 2007 demonstrations out of the country, and his footage became part of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Burma VJ.” In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy reporter Myat Su Mon, Yan Naing recalled capturing on video the killing of Japanese AFP video journalist Kenji Nagai in Rangoon.
Question: What were the working conditions like for journalists during the September 2007 protests?
Answer: It was more difficult for video journalists like me to collect news during that time because if I was found with a camera without official permission, I could be sentenced to five to 10 years imprisonment.
Q: Where were you when Kenji Nagai was shot on Sept. 27?
A: I was at the corner of Anawratha and Sule Pagoda roads, from where I could see him moving up and down the new pedestrian bridge crossing the Sule road. I filmed him and the soldiers he was filming. He was moving from place to place and shooting the footage he wanted.
Suddenly, army trucks appeared and drove into the crowd at speed, with the intention of dispersing them. People tried to get away and some fell. I was on the bridge then.
I heard someone from the crowd vituperated the soldiers and people started throwing water bottles at the trucks. One of the soldiers lost control and was about to shoot at the crowd, but another one shouted at him not to. I was able to take footage. I knew there would be a crackdown, but I didn’t know how it would happen. Given the movement of the soldiers, I aimed my video camera at the most crowded point and got ready to record.
A photo journalist was next to me and the bridge was packed by then. Finally, an order to disperse the protesters came. The soldiers followed it and people started to ran away. A soldier standing beside Kenji Nagai fatally shot him. From where I was standing, the shooting was like a scene in a movie. My camera happened to be aiming right between the soldier and [Kenji Nagai], so I was able to catch the shooting. Kenji Nagai fell down and didn’t move at all but his camera was still in his hand.
Q: Did you know Kenji Nagai was a journalist?
A: Not really. I thought he was a tourist since every foreigner I saw there had a camera. I later found out that he was a journalist when I was at the British Council to put online some of what I had shot, because a woman working there got me in as her friend.
Q: What was your emotional state on the bridge?
A: I was very agitated. Throughout my experiences, I have witnessed the killing of students and monks. I was imprisoned for being involved in political activities. But I tried to calm myself by thinking that attaining a video clip of this moment was important for our country’s history.
During the war in Vietnam, a cameraman took a photograph of a wounded 7-year-old girl running out of her village while it was under attack, which not only won a Pulitzer Prize but also created anti-war sentiment among American citizens. Keeping that knowledge in mind, and remembering my own experiences during the 1988 uprising, I decided to make a record of the situation I was in, no matter what it took. Of course, I felt bad seeing people like that.
Q: How much impact do you think the footage you took in 2007 has had on Burma?
A: The Saffron Revolution was initiated by monks but became internationally well-known due to the killing of a Japanese journalist in Burma. The video clip of Kenji Nagai being shot dead by a soldier amplified the message of the monks’ protests. Furthermore, a related documentary film, which was listed in the nominees for an Oscar, brought more attention from the international community.
Q: Many journalists are now travelling in and out of Burma. What do you want to tell them based on your own experiences?
A: The country has opened up but we still cannot say that we now have media freedom. We were in the dark, so we celebrate that we can see a light, when we see the red glow of dawn. The day is yet to break.