Prospero Jul 17th 2017 by M.C. | MYANMAR
“Sittwe” and “The Venerable W.” present the festering relations between the Rohingya and Buddhists
EARLIER this month a man was killed in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, when a mob used bricks to beat him and six others. He was a Muslim Rohingya, they were Rakhine Buddhists. The incident was far from unique: clashes between the minority Muslims and majority Buddhists have become more frequent since October, when an attack on three border guards by Rohingya insurgents left nine police officers dead. But it does make “Sittwe” (pictured), Jeanne Hallacy’s latest documentary, more urgent. She hopes that the film will help people not only to understand the cycle of violence in the country, but to break it, too.
Animosity between Muslims and Buddhists in the country dates back to the 1940s, but tensions have heightened since 2012 when a Buddhist woman was raped and murdered—allegedly by three Muslim men. “Nobody knows if a Muslim or a Buddhist killed her,” says a protagonist in “Sittwe”, but communal violence in 2012 claimed at least 80 lives and displaced more than 100,000. Violence has reverberated throughout the country, but Rakhine remains the epicentre of the strife. Not only is it one of the poorest parts of Myanmar, it is also the home of more than 1m stateless Rohingyas, whom the Burmese authorities regard as illegal immigrants and thus treat with contempt.
Yet “Sittwe” does not present a one-sided picture. Ms Hallacy has chosen to focus her lens on two young characters on each side of the divide—a 16-year-old Muslim girl and a 16-year-old Buddhist boy—who live in displacement camps. Both saw their homes burn. Both take to the camera and tell their side of the story. Both are asked to envisage their future in Sittwe. The simple juxtaposition of the two testimonies, with just enough background for the viewer to understand the conflict, makes for a powerful 20-minute film. Ms Hallacy, who had been blacklisted from Burma in the late 1990s for smuggling Aung San Suu Kyi’s video messages out of the country, spent two years “bullshitting [her] way into camps” to capture footage.
If the two teens are given the same amount of attention in the film, they offer different perspectives. The Muslim girl sparkles, delivering messages of tolerance that could be taken directly from the Buddha’s tenets. The shyer Buddhist boy seems more receptive to extremist rhetoric. “We used to live together, but then [Muslims] got the idea of taking over and making this their own country,” he says. “They destroyed their own houses. Some Muslims even burn their own mosques.”
If this sentiment sounds familiar, it is because it is borrowed from Ashin Wirathu, a Burmese Buddhist monk and the spiritual leader of the country’s anti-Muslim movement. He is the subject of “The Venerable W.”, the last instalment in Barbet Schroeder’s “trilogy of evil” (his previous subjects were Amin Dada, a Ugandan dictator, and Jacques Verges, a lawyer renowned for defending war criminals). Mr Schroeder shows Wirathu firing out racist monologues and sermons to masses of devotees. Fragments of Buddhist scripture can be heard in the background, highlighting the contradictions between the inherently peaceful teachings of the Buddha and the bilious message of his so-called disciple. The film culminates with the incendiary monk atop a hill, watching the smoking ashes of a village where violence between Muslims and Buddhists has erupted. It is a powerful symbol of cause and effect, rather like the documentaries themselves. One focuses on the instigator of hatred, the other on its victims.
Though these films neatly complement each other, they are being received rather differently. “The Venerable W.” was shown with pomp at Cannes, while “Sittwe” was banned from the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival in Yangon. This year’s edition was dedicated to Ms. Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, with censors deeming the movie “religiously and culturally inappropriate”. Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, brands the decision as “ludicrous”. The ban, he explains, reveals the government’s authorities persistent bias against the Rohingya and the reluctance to present them as victims in any capacity. “The Rohingya have been put in a separate, untouchable category by the government, and any real discussion of their situation gets tarred with the same brush.”
“Sittwe” found an audience in Thailand instead. For Lia Sciortino Sumaryono, the director of Southeast Asia Junction, a non-profit organisation which hosted the screenings in Bangkok, the issue is relevant to the whole region. “Extremists movements are increasingly regionalised,” she says, pointing at the several contacts between extremist Buddhist networks in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and those of Islamist groups in the Philippines and Malaysia.
“The Venerable W.” and “Sittwe” offer some insight into a social and religious quagmire. Were the country open to talking meaningfully about relations between Buddhists and Muslims, the films could form part of the discussion. As it is not, acts of violence are likely to continue. Be the first to comment Reuse this content
Tags: Myanmar’s religious strife, Sittwe, The Venerable W., Aung San Suu Kyi’s video messages,