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Dispatches: Film and Freedom of Expression in Burma
June 18, 2014

Burmese movie theatres crackle while the audience munches on sunflower seeds, a human soundtrack I’ve been hearing all week as a jury member for Rangoon’s Human Rights and Dignity Film Festival. The film festival has an eclectic selection of international documentaries, and among my peers at the jury’s table are former Burmese political prisoners, once-exiled journalists, academics, and foreign filmmakers. The audience represents a cross-section of the ethnic and religious diversity of Rangoon, all drawn by the opportunity to enjoy dozens of free films from Burma, Cuba, Belarus, Spain, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But one film that won’t be playing is a Burmese production, The Open Sky. The film depicts a friendship between Buddhist and Muslim women in the central Burmese town of Meiktila, the site of horrific clashes between the two religious groups in March 2013, which left more than 40 people dead and over 1,000 houses destroyed, the majority of which were Muslim owned. Several thousand Muslim inhabitants are still homeless today.

The festival organizers withdrew the film yesterday after facing heated criticism over social media from Burmese alleging that it gave a sympathetic portrayal of Muslim victims. Fearing possible violence or intimidation at the festival, the organizers felt they had no choice but to cancel.

This is just the latest case of growing anti-Muslim hate speech backed by threats of violence, often pushed by ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks, that has driven communal tensions and even attacks in Burma since 2012. Just last week, monks called on Burmese people to boycott future mobile phone services from Ooredoo, a Qatari company, because it is Muslim-owned. Other examples include breaking up literary events and the denouncing of – and in one case physical attack on – United Nations officials for perceived Muslim bias. Ultra-nationalist monks have pushed a paranoid conspiracy narrative claiming that the small Muslim minority are threatening Burma’s Buddhist majority faith. The radical monks are now pressuring President Thein Sein and the parliament to consider draft laws to “protect” religion and prohibit inter-faith marriage.

The spouting of intolerance against The Open Sky has marred what is otherwise a remarkable and positive celebration of human rights through film this week in Rangoon, an event unthinkable just a few years ago. By its very existence, the festival demonstrates a commitment to stand up to the forces of division and hatred. But the reaction of some Burmese also shows that the struggle for respect for rights in Burma has a long way to go.