Myanmar movie theatres crackle while the audience munches on sunflower seeds, a human soundtrack I heard all of last week as a jury member for Yangon’s Human Rights, Human Dignity International Film Festival.
The festival comprised an eclectic selection of international documentaries, and among my peers at the jury’s table were former Myanmar political prisoners, once-exiled journalists, academics and foreign filmmakers. The audience represented a cross-section of the ethnic and religious diversity of Yangon, all drawn by the opportunity to enjoy dozens of free films from Myanmar, Cuba, Belarus, Spain and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But one film that didn’t play is a Myanmar production, The Open Sky. The film depicts a friendship between Buddhist and Muslim women in the central Myanmar 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 1000 houses destroyed, the majority of which were Muslim owned. Several thousand Muslim inhabitants are still homeless today.
The festival organisers withdrew the film on June 18 after facing heated criticism via social media from some Myanmar people alleging that it gave a sympathetic portrayal of Muslim victims. Fearing possible violence or intimidation at the festival, the organisers 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 Myanmar since 2012. Just last week, monks called on 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 denouncing – and in one case physically attacking – United Nations officials for perceived Muslim bias. Ultra-nationalist monks have pushed a paranoid conspiracy narrative claiming that the small Muslim minority are threatening the country’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 marred what was otherwise a remarkable and positive celebration of human rights through film last week in Yangon, 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 citizens also shows that the struggle for respect for rights in Myanmar has a long way to go.
David Scott Mathieson is the senior researcher on Myanmar in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. Since 1995, David has worked on various issues related to military rule and repression in Myanmar, and from 2002 has been an academic researcher living in the Thailand-Burma borderlands, looking at the complex interplay of refugees, narcotics and civil conflict.