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I have been serving as a jury member for the ASEAN film section of the  second Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival in Yangon, an amazing achievement organised by leading Myanmar film director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi.  On Sunday night we had the opening ceremony and Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi asked me to do a short performance. 

I wanted to celebrate the change we are seeing in Yangon today that allows such a festival to take place, and celebrate the commitment of the organisers and the audience to supporting human rights, and encourage community participation in the arts.  So I invited about twelve people, some friends, some friends of friends, to join me on the stage, and take a good look at the audience.  Then they told the audience one by one, in their own words, how I had approached them.  They said I had said that if they cared about human rights, they should come and see an audience that was interested  too.  

Afterwards, we watched Rithy Panh's Oscar-nominated film The Missing Picture about his family's experience of the Khmer Rouge which reminded us that no matter how much  we have suffered under the military regime in Burma, nothing compares to the suffering of the Cambodian people.

The following day, I went to Wizaya cinema to watch one of the ASEAN films, Jalana.  I was expecting to stay on for a short Myanmar documentary  called  The Open Sky  by young directors Kyal Yie Lin Six, Lynnsatt Nwe and Phyo Zayar Kyaw. It is about a Buddhist neighbour  who sheltered a Muslim woman in the town of Meiktila during the violence which took place in 2012 and led to many - mostly Muslims - dead and injured and whole neighbourhoods burnt.  

But suddenly the organisers came on to announce that the film could not be shown.  Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi said that the intention of the film festival is not to create other conflicts.  The organisers and the cinema had received threats from Buddhist extremists that the cinema would be burnt, and the organisers attacked.  They accused the film makers of making a one-sided film with foreign money.  Unfortunately given that the government in Myanmar doesn't provide support for film makers - and indeed that is the case for the majority of the ASEAN film makers showing at the festival - the only option is to draw on foreign funds. 

Over the last month, we have seen the same pattern with extremists who claim to be preserving  Buddhism, threatening leading civil society activists for their public stand against four draft laws restricting mixed marriage and religious conversion drafted by a monks group called ma-ba-tha.  They have accused civil society leaders of being 'traitors' which has led them to be joined on Facebook by others who are 'proud to be a traitor'.

Freedom of speech has expanded in Myanmar, and censorship is greatly reduced from two years ago. That is how we can have a four day human rights film festival in Yangon followed by a plan to take it to student unions across the country. But as in many countries, the organisers had still had to show all the films to the censors. They had been happy to approve The Open Sky, a film which demonstrates the metta or loving kindness which we believe is one of the Burmese people's most attractive characteristics, a form of which can be found in all religions present in Burma.  How ironic is it then, that with our new found freedoms, some Buddhists are preaching hatred and threatening violence?

Some of the ASEAN films I judged faced initial problems when they were made, like Jalana, an Indonesian film about street artists which was also filmed at a time of transition and was according to the director considered controversial by some Muslims. But the director stuck with the film and eventually it was shown without problems,  We need to find a place in Myanmar where we can show The Open Sky.  Otherwise the horizon for human rights and freedom of expression in Myanmar looks stormy.