New Govt, Old Censorship Laws: Film About Shan Prince Banned as Threat to ‘Ethnic Unity’

By Tin Htet Paing 15 June 2016

RANGOON — A foreign-produced film about an ethnic Shan leader and his Austrian wife, “Twilight Over Burma,” was banned from public screenings in Burma by the film censorship board, claiming that the movie could harm the ethnic unity in the country.

Although the film was scheduled to open the annual Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival (HRHDIFF), on Tuesday at Rangoon’s Naypyitaw Cinema, it has since been pulled. It marks the first time that an international film scheduled for a festival has been banned by the Ministry of Information’s Film and Video Censor Board under the new democratic government led by President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

The move faced big criticism by the public and many local filmmakers who said the ban is a threat to the artistic freedom and liberty of the country. Festival organizers initially planned two other public screenings of the film in Rangoon during the festival.

The film tells the real-life tale of an Austrian woman, Inge Sargent, who became royalty when she married Sao Kya Seng, an ethnic Shan prince—or saopha—from Hsipaw, Shan State. It covers the early days of Burma’s independence up to the years immediately following the 1962 military coup, and is based on Sargent’s autobiography, “Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess.”

According to the original book, Sao Kya Seng instituted land reforms and promoted democracy, but was arrested by the Burma Army during Gen Ne Win’s coup and later disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, the organizer of the HRHDIFF said at the opening ceremony of the film festival that the film did not get the green light. It was unexpectedly banned at the last minute after receiving comments from the censorship board which described the content of the film as potentially harming “the image of the military.”

Thida Tin, deputy director general of the Information and Public Relations Department and deputy chair of the film and video censorship board, said that the film could create instability at a time when the 21st century Panglong conference—which intends to initiate a national reconcilitation process in the country—is in the planning stages under the leadership of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We found some possibilities in the film of some content that could harm the ethnic unity [of the state] and create hate speech,” she said.

“We are concerned that ethnic unity will be confronted by unnecessary problems because of the bitter experiences [of Sargent] presented in the screening, which could touch sore points of the country and create hatred,” she added.

Igor Blaževič, a human rights campaigner, founder of One World—Europe’s biggest human rights documentary film festival—and jury member at HRHDIFF, told The Irrawaddy that the act of not recognizing citizens’ suffering under the military regime could, in fact, undermine the chances for reconciliation.

“Banning the film does not help reconciliation,” he said. “Censoring the truth is harming reconciliation. Honest recognition about the [wrongdoings] which have happened before—and which are still happening—will do much more for reconciliation.”

Blaževič also said that the pain that many families and communities carry must be taken into consideration and should not be ignored.

If Burma genuinely wants to address human rights abuses, Blaževič explained that “culture, art [and] media should be encouraged to bring [into the open] the truth and painful stories about past and current wrongdoings.”

The film censorship board is made up of 15 representatives, mainly from the Ministry of Information’s Myanmar Motion Picture Development Department, and other different associations including the Myanmar Motion Picture Oganization (MMPO), the Myanmar Music Association and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture. The military-controlled Home Affairs ministry is also represented on the board.