Myanmar And Its Film Industry Fear Election Could Mark End Of Period Of Freedom

On Sunday, the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) is scheduled to have a democratic general election. It will be the first national election since the 2011 dissolution of the military junta that had oppressed the people of Myanmar for over five decades.

The generals still hold most of the power in the government, and just about everyone is looking to the election as a sign. Is the move to democracy real or just window dressing for a military bent on keeping control?

In 2011, in addition to allowing some civilians to hold seats in its Parliament, the government of Myanmar relaxed its tight regime of censorship. Myanmar’s citizens were skeptical at first. But soon dozens of outspokenly partisan newspapers emerged. Political art flourished. And people had more open conversations in cafes and on the street.

Myanmar’s film industry also went through a renaissance. Human rights documentaries got their own festival in the capital city of Yangon, and filmmakers began to take their films to rural areas much like the Soviet filmmakers did after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Horror films, which had been banned previously, topped box office charts. And political comedies became the most popular genre in Myanmar’s large straight-to-DVD film industry.

I traveled to Myanmar in January 2014 under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, leading a small team of filmmakers and media experts. We learned about Myanmar’s film and video industry and started conversations about how they might connect with a global media community.

We were energized by the optimism that pervaded every conversation. Myanmar was opening up, we were often told, and things had progressed too far to turn back.

As elections drew closer, however, the government started to backslide. Just a month after we left, the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders had their license to operate in Myanmar revoked (it was later restored), and the process of freeing political prisoners had stalled. A parliamentary vote against amending the constitution ensured the opposition leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, would remain barred from  running for Myanmar’s highest office.

The wave of investment that followed the 2011 changes also slowed down. Starting with the opening of a Coca-Cola 

bottling plant, companies poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Myanmar, and Yangon real estate skyrocketed. But only a year later, most foreign companies opted to wait and see whether the election would ratify the new openness or be another exercise in political theater.

I decided to tell the story of Myanmar’s film and media industry. The story is both too little known and a lens through which we can see the transformations in Myanmar. So I returned in March 2015 to make a documentary. (A short version of that film can be found at the top of this post.)

Just over a year after my first visit, the mood of the country had changed dramatically. Pessimism replaced unbridled hope. Student protests broke out. Police forcefully suppressed the protests, and many students went to jail. People whom I spoke with across the political spectrum saw this as a sign that the elections might not take place at all.

The film industry also reflected the changing attitude towards the country’s future. The first story that I wanted to tell in my documentary was of Aung San Suu Kyi’s film project. In a country plagued with poverty, disease, hunger, drug addiction, and ethnic conflict, Aung San Suu Kyi devoted significant time and energy to launching a David Lean-like biopic about her father. Her father was General Aung San who led the country to independence from British rule. Why, I wanted to ask her, was hagiographical filmmaking a valuable use of resources? I hoped she would say that reclaiming the country’s narrative was a necessary precursor to unifying its diverse population and giving its people a sense of purpose. But she declined to talk about the film project until after the election.

Just about everyone else spoke candidly. I interviewed Wyne, a filmmaker whose short film Ban That Scene (2011) initiated a national debate about film censorship. Wyne worried that filmmakers who grew up under strict censorship couldn’t help continuing to censor themselves, and he felt the ever-present danger that the state could reassert control.

Younger filmmakers were more optimistic. Director Christina Kyi returned from the U.S. to her native Myanmar to make a feature film. Lamin Oo, who recently won Myanmar’s Oscar for best documentary film and whom Barack Obama praised when he visited Myanmar last year, started making films after the 2011 relaxation of censorship. He thought that a new generation of filmmakers would not be able to give up the freedoms they had grown accustomed to, regardless of the election outcome.

In most interviews, the specter of the election hung over every statement. Everyone spoke in the conditional tense.

Well, the election is finally here. And Myanmar and its people can no longer wait and see. On Monday, we will know whether we have witnessed a brief opening or a true change.

The film industry will certainly respond to this change one way or the other. As U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell put it when I spoke with him, “If people feel they have a voice through the ballot box and there is an election that results in a government that reflects them, one hopes that will lead to a flowering of expression.”

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