Yangon film festival pays tribute to Czech visionary Vaclav Havel

Source: Asian Correspondent / By Michele Penna /

Last week, pictures of a young – and eventually old – man were hanging at the Pasondan Art Gallery, in downtown Yangon. The black and white images portrayed him as he talked with friends, in a library, in prison and eventually as he became the first Czechoslovakian President to come to power after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

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Former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel. Pic: AP.

The man in question was Václav Havel, the writer and political leader who used to be the Kremlin’s thorn in the side at a time when the USSR was still a monolithic giant stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific Ocean.

Even though Mr. Havel passed away in 2011 – just as Burma (Myanmar) began experiencing some political reforms – and never met her, he and Aung San Suu Kyi were somehow close.

To begin with, it is hard not to see the parallels between the Czech intellectual and the Burmese democracy icon: both used to be political dissidents, both were jailed by authorities and both were eventually vindicated after years of harassment – even though Suu Kyi remains barred from running for president, whereas the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed Havel to actually lead his country.

Less known to the broad public is that it is partly thanks to Mr. Havel that Suu Kyi won her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, when he nominated her instead of running for the prize himself. “I never made a secret of the fact that had Havel not nominated me, he would have been the Nobel Peace prize winner,” the Lady would later remark.

Given this background, it is not all that surprising that the images of the old European freedom icon were part of the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, a three-day movie marathon running from June 15 to June 18 which saw dozens of documentaries and short movies being shown at movie theaters in Yangon.

The festival, now in its third edition, was founded in 2013 by Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, a filmmaker himself, and is part of the Human Rights Film Network, a partnership of 38 film festivals around the world.

“We are inspired by Mr. Havel, here he became famous after he supported the Lady for the Nobel Prize,” said Mon Mon Myat, the festival’s executive director, who told Asian Correspondent that the festival is trying to “put human rights on the table”.

Many would agree that there is an urgent need for that to happen. According to Human Rights Watch, the reform process which began four years ago has been reversing over the course of 2014.

Last week, a report by Amnesty International highlighted how journalists are still targets of harassment and sometimes violence.

“Despite the media reforms, journalists and other media workers in Myanmar face ongoing restrictions in carrying out their work. As these critics become more vocal and the authorities feel more threatened, they have increasingly resorted to tried and tested tactics to stifle dissent,” it wrote.

According to Mon Mon Myat – who claimed that the National League for Democracy (NLD) is not behind the festival, but said that Aung San Suu Kyi personally supports it – the consciousness of human rights is far too low in the country.

“We want people to be aware that there are human rights violations in Myanmar,” she told Asian Correspondent.

The festival covered plenty of social issues both inside and outside Burma, ranging from Jakarta’s victims of eviction to Iranian media workers and the troubles they face.

Among the documentaries about Burma was “Across,” a 90-minute video recording the challenges created by the Shwe pipeline, a China-backed project stretching all the way from Rakhine State in western Burma to Yunnan province in southern China.

The Shwe pipeline was hailed by Chinese media as an example of Beijing’s win-win cooperation with its neighbors, but the documentary unveiled a reality that is not quite as shiny as the businessmen and politicians involved would have you believe.

Poor compensation for local communities and environmental damage, for instance, marred the construction of the pipeline, prompting local communities and activists to protest.

“We do not say that we should not have this kind of projects, but we do not support abusing the citizens,” said Phyo Zayar Kyaw, Pyae Zaw Phyo and Kaung Sint, the three young filmmakers who were awarded the Václav Havel Library Award for best national documentary, one of the six prizes available to participants. “If similar projects are implemented in the future, they must not be like this one.”

The Vaclav Havel Center