Making Movies for Democracy in Myanmar

A video shows how changes in some censorship policies have affected one industry.
Nov 13, 2015·
Formerly based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Joseph Allchin has written for Financial Times, The Economist, Foreign Policy, and others.

Myanmar’s government has been notorious for its censorship. No private daily newspapers existed from the time the military rulers took power in 1988 until 2011—every article had to be preauthorized by state censors, who would forbid publication of articles, including even ones about sports, based on minor infractions. The country’s film industry was all but wiped out by the harsh censorship of the military. Enforcement eased under the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein, who took office at the end of 2010, but even the last year has seen high-profile casualties of restricted speech. Htin Lin Oo, a columnist and former member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, wrote critically about the advance of extremist nationalist monks; in May he was sentenced to two years in jail with hard labor.

Today the censorship battleground in Myanmar has shifted from media beamed in by radio and satellite to social media. Another notorious case is the “penis poet,” Maung Saungkha, who shared on Facebook his poem describing a tattoo of the face of an unnamed president he said he had down below. The 23-year-old student was recently charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of Myanmar’s telecommunications act. A number of others have been arrested under the same law for vague and offhand social media commentary, including an NLD supporter charged in October for comparing the uniforms of the country’s military to women’s clothing. (Traditional belief still held by some men in Myanmar maintains that women’s clothing can sap their power.)

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has maintained that censorship laws are used selectively, with Htin Lin Oo’s conviction in “stark contrast to the treatment of those…who are clearly inciting violence against minority communities, particularly the Rohingya,” it noted in a June 3 statement. If—as looks likely—the NLD is declared the winner of Sunday’s election, there is high hope for change, and that the movie industry will be emboldened to take on subjects addressing a troubled past. But taboos and religious sensitivities among the populace remain, and balancing the demands of segments of the public with the principle of free speech will undoubtedly be a challenge for the new government.