The Human Rights Human Dignity film festival could not screen its opening film Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess in Rangoon this week. Burma’s film censorship board banned the film because it could allegedly tarnish the image of the Burma Army and harm ethnic unity.
I expect that there will be enough—completely warranted—criticism of this decision. It showed that censorship still exists in Burma under the new government, and highlighted two critical issues as festival co-organizer Mon Mon Myat pointed out at the opening, that “military and religion still cannot be touched.”
The decision shows that there is a line the National League for Democracy (NLD) ministers dare not cross. I have been in Burma long enough that I already know that argument of those who are ready to defend banning this film: that this is a sensitive time leading up to the 21st Century Panglong Conference and it is better not to shake the boat now.
Because I care about peace and reconciliation in Burma and do understand that reconciliation is the biggest issues facing our country, I have spent hours asking myself if the screening of the film could really have been ‘harmful.’
I came to the following conclusions:
- It is simply wrong for the censorship board to have banned the film.
- It is wrong to have a censorship board.
The fact that the festival could not screen the film highlighted how the military still influences what can and cannot be done from behind the scenes. But it is not only about the military, it is about the deep fear that has been ingrained in peoples’ minds, and that even people who are not ex-military but who currently work in state institutions are afraid of upsetting the military.
Banning the film does not help reconciliation—it is the other way around. Censoring the truth harms reconciliation. Honestly recognizing the wrongdoings that have happened before—and are still happening—will do much more for reconciliation.
I think I understand the concerns of the people in top positions who are making decisions on the NLD side. They are trying to walk a narrow path, one that will not upset the military but will also introduce reforms that people expect. But the truth, suffering and pain that many families and communities have dealt with must also be taken into consideration. Their experiences cannot be censored or pushed under the rug in the name of reconciliation. Denying the truth and not acknowledging pain and suffering undermines the chance for a resolution.
Many groups have suffered under military rule. But if the democratically elected leaders and the military leaders want to achieve peace, they need to admit that ethnic and religious minority groups have suffered. Recognition of this will do just as much for reconciliation as any negotiations that go on behind closed doors. To really succeed in the peace process, you need those negotiations, partnered with high-profile talks and public recognition of past wrongdoings. It is the responsibility of the leadership to do so.
If Burma genuinely wants to address human rights abuses, culture, art and media should be encouraged to bring truth, painful stories and wrongdoings—both past and present—into the open.
Igor Blaževič is a human rights campaigner, founder of One World, Europe’s biggest human rights documentary film festival, and a jury member at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival in Burma.