YANGON — The excitement and optimism in Yangon’s square just in front of city hall is hard to dampen, as hundreds gathered there to cheer on Myanmar’s national soccer team in a rare Southeast Asian Games appearance against Thailand.
At first glance, nothing seems particularly out of the ordinary as young men ride on top of cars waving Myanmar national flags, while a young boy does a dance on top of a car decked out in traditional Myanmar colors.
But this is not an ordinary sight on Yangon’s streets.
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Just a few years ago, if Myanmar’s team had made it this far, fans wouldn’t have dared to take to the streets in celebration, especially not in front of Yangon’s city hall, where numerous demonstrations had been quashed by government forces in the past.
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Down the street from the chants and cheers, there is a much smaller gathering taking place that would have also been forbidden — the Human Rights and Human Dignity International Film Festival.
The festival’s executive director, Mon Mon Myat, says the idea for the festival was born out of the new found freedoms that were suddenly instituted in the country starting in 2011 when strict government censorship rules were relaxed and political prisoners suddenly began to be released by the military regime.
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“It is kind of like [things] started opening up about democracy and human rights, so we wanted to test the boundaries,” she says.
“We wanted to test the water, we wanted to test how much we have freedom and how much we have to say about human rights and democracy. So this is what inspired us to test the transitional period of our country.”
Three years later, the festival is bigger than ever before, with almost 60 films being screened this year. It’s grown to become the largest one of its kind in all of Southeast Asia.
The festival is open to the public and admission is free of charge, allowing all walks of life the opportunity to see films and be part of the public discussion on human rights issues.
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The week- long festival, held in June each year, is not the only thing the festival does to promote human rights.
Organizers also take the show on the road to reach smaller communities that would not otherwise have the opportunity to watch films like these. They also host workshops for emerging filmmakers in Myanmar.
This is where Canada’s support has been vital.
“We are at a very crucial juncture right now where we can’t be satisfied with the gains that have been achieved,” says Mark McDowell, Canada’s ambassador to Myanmar. “We have to keep working to consolidate and enlarge these human rights gains.”
That’s why Canada is a proud supporter of training through the festival.
“We supported the training program for documentary films,” he says. “So, now you have a new generation of documentary filmmakers who are able to go to villages and document things like problems with land grabbing. So, they serve as an early warning system.”
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Canadian filmmaker Mila Aung-Thwin, whose father is originally from Myanmar, has been involved in the festival for several years now.
He sees firsthand how the appetite for film in the country can be used to push forward tolerance and change, in a human rights context.
“Film as a discussion, even for the filmmakers themselves to explore issues at a deep level, I think is fantastic but also I have seen here an appetite for films and using them to bring up issues that are very difficult to talk about otherwise,” says Aung-Thwin.
Despite the obvious strides the country has made towards improving human rights, it’s not enough.
Mon Mon Myat believes that festivals like this will continue to be important as the country transitions to a new civilian government in the New Year.
“I don’t think the change in [the] country can come immediately. Change will come slowly,” says Myat. “We have to not only push the government [but] also empower the people.”
There is certainly still a lot to change. There are continued human rights abuses in the country like land grabbing, detention without charge and the systematic ill-treatment of the country’s Muslim minority population, the Rohingya.
The plight of the Rohingya is seen by many as one of the most pressing issues.
“This group has essentially been disenfranchised and made stateless because of the 1982 citizenship act,” says Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch Deputy director for Asia. “Many of them have been pinned down in internally displaced persons camps since 2012 violence that was perpetrated against them by the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.”
Many live in internally displaced persons camps in Rakhine state, denied citizenship and, therefore, the rights that go along with that citizenship.
In desperate attempts to seek a better life, many risk their lives to be smuggled on migrant vessels into neighboring countries.
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Myat believes the film festival is doing a small part in pushing the human rights situation into a better direction by bringing a message of tolerance to the people.
“They need to know what is happening to other people, what happens in other areas and in other religions,” she says. “So, we just raise understanding amongst each other.”
Melanie de Klerk travelled to Myanmar as a recipient of the 2015/2016 Asia Pacific Foundation Media Fellowship.