Religious extremists have succeeded in forcing the organizers of Myanmar’s Human Rights Film Festival to withdraw the screening of a documentary about a friendship between a Buddhist and a Muslim.
The second Human Rights, Human Dignity film festival presented 67 films, including 32 local films, but minus the 20-minute documentary The Open Sky, which was singled out by extremists as part of a Muslim conspiracy to dominate Buddhist-majority Myanmar. The controversial film made by young film students depicted the unlikely friendship of a Buddhist woman and a Muslim woman amid the communal violence which gripped the town of Meikhtila last year.
The riots in Meikhtila killed 40 people and the clashes soon spread to nearby towns. The government deployed troops to stop the killings but that failed to end the tension between the Muslim minority and the Buddhist majority.
Min Htin Ko Ko Kyi, one of the organizers of the film festival, explained that The Open Sky was withdrawn from the event to avoid further conflict and hatred among the Burmese. He added that the country’s situation is critical and the organizers did not wish to offend anybody or cause further divisions in society.
An article criticizing the film went viral on the Internet when the film festival opened on June 15. It accused global Muslim groups of funding the film to promote Islam. It also accused human rights groups of being biased against Buddhists.
The organizers then received threats via social media, warning that angry Burmese would destroy the movie theater and kill the director if the documentary was shown to the public. The anonymous commenters also warned that they would start another riot in protest to the event.
The human rights film festival was supposed to be evidence of Myanmar’s democratic transition. It was dedicated to Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the late U Win Tin, Myanmar’s longest-held political prisoner and prominent icon of the democracy movement. It was designed to promote dialogue in society by “using the power of film to create a space for encouraging human rights.”
For David Scott Mathieson of the Human Rights Watch, the controversy over The Open Sky revealed the deep racial and religious divisions in Myanmar. “The reaction of some Burmese also shows that the struggle for respect for rights in Burma has a long way to go.”
United States Ambassador Derek J. Mitchell, one of the sponsors of the event, condemned the online threats made against the festival organizers. “This narrow, fearful mindset runs contrary to everything this festival is about. Everyone who values the meaning of this event must oppose the use of threat and intimidation to suppress speech and censor artists.”
It is disturbing that while Myanmar is slowly opening the space for free speech, some irresponsible citizens and netizens are using it to foment hatred and racial abuse. It is a challenge for both the government, which must not desist in further reforming the media sector; and human rights advocates who must step up their campaign to promote democracy, peace, and especially tolerance.