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Film Censorship in Burma Underlines Existing Limits on Freedom of Expression

By Burma Partnership  •  June 22, 2016

IgorThis past week, the film Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess was prevented from screening at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival by Burma’s film censorship board. The act of censorship was justified on the grounds that the showing would increase ethnic tensions and damage the reputation of the Burma Army. According to Myo Myint Maung, the Deputy Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Information, “The censor board found ‘Twilight Over Burma’ can cause disunity among national races so they decided by vote that this film shouldn’t be allowed for public showing.”

The movie is based on the true story of Inge Sarget, an Austrian woman who married a Shan prince by the name of Sao Kya Seng. Beginning in 1948 and carrying through to General Ne Win’s 1962 military coup, Sarget’s story documents the human rights violations, ethnic tensions, and injustices surrounding some of Burma’s most important historical moments. Sargent’s husband, Sao Kya Seng, a promoter of land reform and democracy, was ultimately arrested by the Burma Army and killed mysteriously while serving his prison time. With ethnic tensions on the rise in areas such as Shan and Kachin State, the film reminds viewers  of the country’s deeply rooted divisions and the role played by the Burma Army in prolonging armed conflict.

The censorship of Twilight Over Burma is unsurprising, given Burma’s history of limitations on the freedom of expression and information. A recent report from Amnesty International found that freedom of expression began to backslide in 2014, despite promises for greater media freedom under Thein Sein’s government. The report highlights incidences of imprisonment, surveillance, threats, travel restrictions and the defamation lawsuits against journalists who speak critically of the government. In 2015, the violent clampdown on the Letpadan student protestors and the arrest of Htin Lin Oo for criticizing the extremist Ma Ba Tha (The Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion) provided further examples of the severely diminished space for free expression. The elections in 2015 were also rife with media censorship, as government-controlled outlets favored positive coverage of the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party.

The National League for Democracy-led Government has signaled that it is willing to reverse the limits on freedom of expression and assembly through its proposed amendments to the Peaceful Procession and Peaceful Assembly Act. Unfortunately, the proposals have received criticism for not removing criminal penalties on broadly defined restrictions over free speech. Further, future attempts to improve freedom of expression in Burma are likely to be countered by the country’s most notorious violator of free speech: the Burma Army, an institution that remains untouchable as regards public scrutiny and criticism. In 2014, five journalists from Unity Wee kly News were sentenced to ten years in prison for reporting on the Burma Army’s involvement with an alleged chemical weapons factory. Patrick Kum Ja Lee and Chaw Sandi Tun were both sentenced to six months for simply sharing Facebook posts that were critical of the Burma Army.  With control of 25% of seats in both houses of Burma’s parliament along with three key ministries including the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Burma Army will likely continue to attempt to control freedom of expression, especially if it allows for them to be criticized publicly.

State censorship and limited freedom of expression is not conducive to democracy. The clamping down on freedom of expression in any form, such as the censorship of Twilight Over Burma should not be permitted in a country that aspires to be democratic and to maintain the basic rights of its people. The NLD may begin its commitment to Freedom of Expression by signing and ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition, the Burma Army must realize that has absolutely no legitimate authority to influence freedom of expression and allow the NLD-led Government to progress towards genuine democratic reforms without any obstruction.

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