Activists to educate people in the US and Myanmar about the Rakhine crisis


Myo Win, founder of Smile Education and Development Foundation. Photo: British Embassy Rangoon/Facebook

Myanmar activist Myo Win and American filmmaker Jeanne Hallacy are on a major speaking tour in the United States this week with the aim to look behind the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State that has seen over half a million Muslim Rohingya flee to the safety of Bangladesh.

Myo Win is a leading human rights advocate in Myanmar who founded the NGO, Smile Education and Development Foundation.  Smile works on legal reform including the Inter-Faith Harmony Bill, the discriminatory marriage law and hate speech in Myanmar.

He is on a American speaking tour starting with an event with UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Myanmar, Professor Yanghee Lee in New York on the day she presents her report on the Rohingya to the UN.

He will also present the documentary film “Sittwe” he produced with director Ms Hallacy and speak at an event in the US Congress hosted by Congressman Eliot Lance Engel, the U.S. Representative for New York's 16th congressional district.

Myo Win told Mizzima that the trip is focused on advocacy and peace, to improve understanding of the Rakhine conflict as well as the Rohingya, using the 20-minute-long “Sittwe” documentary as a tool to look behind the curtain in Rakhine. 

“Some people in the US understand what is happening in Rakhine but the general public are not so much aware of it, and we aim to meet various people including students and politicians and high-level people in Washington DC,” he said.

Ironically, the message Myo Win and Hallacy are bringing to America applies to this country as much as it does in Myanmar and many other countries around the world.

There is a need for healing and education in the villages of Rakhine State but also on the streets of Charlottesville and Baltimore in the US.  

As Ms Hallacy told Mizzima, the Rakhine crisis has been international headline news for weeks, yet many Americans are bewildered or shocked by the story, given traditional views of Buddhists and stories coming out of targeted hate and discrimination.

“Hopefully we will deepen awareness of Burma’s fragile democratic transition,” Ms Hallacy said, adding that the tour including talks at Stanford and Harvard universities will provide the American public and also academia an insight into the situation and this could strengthen Smile’s work when they return to Myanmar.

But Ms Hallacy stresses that the US tour is a secondary objective of the film, “Sittwe” – a film that was banned by Myanmar censors.

“With all honesty, I do not think the censors who banned it watched the film,” said Ms Hallacy.  

Perhaps if they watched it at all, they only saw the opening, she said, which is unfortunate because the film was consciously made to try to create a level field to step back from the issue and really see through the eyes of youth, to depoliticize all of the complex factors that are part of this.

The aim was not to simplify that complexity but to step back and take one aspect which is youth and education with the view that as long as there are segregated youth then they will not live in the normalcy that can be had in integrated schools with daily contact which diminishes misinformation and misunderstanding, Ms Hallacy said.

This is the most fundamental step towards reconciliation and it begins with youth, she said.

The English-language version of “Sittwe” is designed to educate foreign audiences about the complexities of the Rakhine situation.

“Sittwe” gives voice to two teenagers separated by conflict and segregation in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Phyu Phyu Than, a Rohingya girl and Aung San Myint, a Buddhist boy. Filmed over two years, the youths share their ideas about mutual fear between their communities and the hope of reconciliation.

The main aim of the film project, however, is to help people in Myanmar understand the tensions and views of those caught up in the Rakhine crisis.

Myo Win and his foundation plan to tour with a Burmese-language version of the film, entitled, “Heal”.

As Ms Hallacy said, they have “edited the first two and a half minutes to provide a different opening – we softened the more hard-edged news footage and recut that specifically for a Burmese audience and the rest of the film remains the same with the hope that people will not turn away in the first moments of the film but sit through the 20 minutes to see the message.”

The US tour may gain press coverage, but the real mission will be launched by the Smile foundation across Myanmar.

“We have already identified six major urban areas where it is going to be shown, and Smile will be working with some of the partners they have, the civil society groups who are in those cities and towns – ranging from Taunggyi to Mandalay to Myitkyina and Yangon to Moulmein and Pa-an, as well as Sittwe. In terms of the Sittwe showing, we are going to have to see what is feasible,” said Ms Hallacy.

“But the more important reason why the film was made was for using it as a tool for creating a space for dialogue and open discussion about these issues in Burma,” she said, adding such advocacy has been recommended in the Kofi Annan commission’s report published on August 24.

The Burmese language version of the film will be used by Smile as a peace-building tool in facilitated discussions with youth across Myanmar addressing issues of intolerance, hate speech and social media and reconciliation.

As Myo Win said, the plan is to show the film in Myanmar – making a Myanmar version.

“The current version is banned. We have to make another name and change a little bit, then we can show that film,” he told Mizzima.

Myo Win stressed the importance of the rule of law in Myanmar.

“I think the rule of law is very important because people are understanding Rakhine people do not want Rohingya and therefore Rohingya should be pushed out, but that is not a democracy, not based on the rule of law, this is mob rule, where the majority affects the minority,” he said.

Ms Hallacy stressed this was a long-term project.

“Smile is on the ground and can plant seeds that will take root and if they are planted now. Maybe if we are working with middle school or high school kids now that will bear fruit in ten years, and really that is the purpose of the film,” she said.

 “It is important for citizens in Burma and in countries around the world to step back and see the progress that still needs to be made on these issues and the basis of any racism, hatred and intolerance of any group whatsoever, whether it is race-based, whether it is sexual preference based, whether gender-based, that is always rooted in fear. And fear grows without education,” said Ms Hallacy.

Director Jeanne Hallacy has lived in Southeast for decades producing stories about human rights and social justice issues. Her award-winning documentary films are used as agents for change. Her film titles This Kind of Love, Into the Current: Burma’s Political Prisoners, Mercy (meddah) and Burma Diary are distributed by Kanopy and Documentary Educational Resources. Hallacy directs the InSIGHT OUT! Photo Storytelling project training youth living in conflict and post-disaster areas in photography and digital media.

Producer Myo Win is the Director of Smile Education and Development Foundation in Rangoon founded in 2007 in response to rising intolerance and discrimination in Burma. Smile promoted interfaith harmony, religious freedom, peacebuilding and conflict resolution and advocated for legal reform including the Inter-Faith Harmony Bill focused on religious freedom, and combating hate speech and hate crime. Myo Win is trained in psychological first aid and has worked extensively on trauma healing and mental health post-disaster. Myo Win received a degree in Islamic theology and in 2004 completed a graduate degree in psychology from the University of East Yangon.

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