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Festival Cancels Film on Anti-Muslim Violence After Social Media Criticism

Programs for the international “Human Rights, Human Dignity” film festival that runs from June 15-19 in Rangoon. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

By San Yamin Aung
June 18, 2014

RANGOON — The Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival taking place in Rangoon this week has cancelled the screening of a documentary dealing with anti-Muslim violence after social media users criticized the film for being too sympathetic to the plight of Burma’s Muslims.

The documentary, titled “The Open Sky,” follows a woman who visits her Muslim aunt whose house gets burned down during the outburst of anti-Muslim violence in the town of Meikthila in March 2013, which killed more than 40 people and left more than 10,000 people displaced.

The film documents the events that took place and how a Buddhist friend helps the aunt during the conflict; it shows the views of the aunt and her friend about the conflict, and their views towards each other.

The documentary was scheduled for screening on Monday at Waziyar Cinema and on Tuesday at Junction Cineplex. But on Sunday criticism of the film began to circulate among some Burmese Facebook users, who claimed that it sympathized with Muslims during the conflict. Some alleged it was shot with the financial support of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, the festival founder and director, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the festival’s organizing board and juries decided to cancel the film’s screening because it appeared to have inflamed lingering Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Rangoon.

“We are not holding the film festival to create conflict. We can’t let any conflict come in the way, so we removed ‘The Open Sky’ from our list,” he said, adding that he received some Facebook messages with obscene language because of the film’s planned screening, but no direct threats.

“I feel really sorry about the decision to remove the film. It hurt the feelings [of the filmmakers], the dignity of the institute and also the dignity of film festival. But there is a possibility that [the film] can bring conflict and now the country is in very sensitive state,” he said.

“All we know is that there is a group that is trying to create conflict in our country. If we can, we should avoid that, so we don’t want to take any risks by showing this film.”

The Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival is being held in Rangoon for the second year and is being funded by international donors, such as the British Council, USAID and several foreign embassies.

“The Open Sky” is one of 32 Burmese films being screened from June 15-19, together with nine documentaries from other Southeast Asian countries and 26 international films.

The 20-minute film was produced by Kyal Yie Lin Six, Lynnsatt Nwe and Phyo Zayar Kyaw of the Human Dignity Film Institute, which is being headed by Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi. The filmmakers could not be reached for comment on the cancellation of their documentary.

“It was filmed according to their ideas. It is one of five films that the Human Dignity Film Institute produced this year after a seven-week workshop,” Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi said of “The Open Sky.”

Burma has been experiencing heightened religious tensions since mid-2012, when deadly violence erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State, leaving scores dead and tens of thousands displaced. Last year, anti-Muslim violence spread to more than a dozen towns in central Burma, including Meikthila.

The tensions have been fanned by nationalist Buddhist groups such as the 969 movement of monk U Wirathu, who has been openly criticizing any type of support or sympathy for Burma’s Muslim minority, while also advocating restrictions on Buddhist-Muslim marriages.

In February, three activists, including a leader from the influential 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, were prevented from appearing at literary event in Mandalay after dozens of Buddhist monks protested their inclusion because they are Muslims.

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