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The second annual Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival, held this week in Rangoon, ended on Thursday following a controversial move by organisers to cancel the screening of one film due to online intimidation earlier in the week.
The Open Sky, which was to be screened in the festival’s student competition category, was pulled from the festival after threats against the filmmakers, organisers and cinema were posted on Facebook. The organisers did not announce a winner for the student competition.
The film documents the friendship between two women in the central town of Meiktila following sectarian clashes last year. More than 40 people were killed over three violent days last March, which left over 12,000 people displaced, the vast majority of them Muslim.
Igor Blazevic, the festival’s international advisor, said that cancelling the screening was a decision made by himself and the rest of the organising committee.
“To the audience and to the people of this country, I apologise for making that hard decision,” he said. “The Open Sky was not able to be screened because of too many threats that [we] were not able to manage. It is an extraordinary, nice, positive, human, great film, that this country needs to see.”
Burma has experienced a surge of online hate speech over the past year, fuelled by popular notions that Burma’s Buddhist majority is threatened by the spectre of Islamic “expansionism.” Social media platforms – more accessible since Internet censorship ended in 2012 – have become beacons of hate speech, with Internet users reinforcing and propagating a resurgent animosity towards Islam and Muslims, worrying sentiments advanced by political and religious leaders.
“It’s unfortunate, what happened, but I think it reflects rising intolerance and people feeling emboldened to spew hatred and threats around the country. This is just another indication of ultra-nationalism and anti-Muslim hate speech, and it will backfire,” said David Mathieson, the senior researcher on Burma at Human Rights Watch. “It has raised interest in the film, so the film will probably become even more famous now, and that’s the positive result of all this.”
Derek Mitchell, the US ambassador to Burma, offered stern criticism of the threats levelled towards the festival. “There will always be those less courageous people who feel threatened by speech they do not like, or a story that does not conform to their own prejudices,” he said.
His sentiments were echoed by British ambassador Andrew Patrick in an address, who said that in a democracy, “you don’t try to shout down” opposing views.
Ko Ko Gyi, a leading activist with the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, was the only speaker who did not allude to the threats levelled at the festival in his address. Over the past two years, he has made numerous statements that reinforce popular prejudices against Muslims, particularly the much-maligned Rohingya.
The top prize in the national category went to Sai Khong Kham’s This Land is Our Land, which addresses the problem of land grabs and environmental degradation across Burma.