An openly gay man who is the subject of a new documentary in Myanmar on Wednesday welcomed its inclusion in an ongoing film festival in the country, but warned that human rights violations still regularly occur in the former military dictatorship, despite its rapid transition to democracy in recent years.
The third annual Human Rights and Human Dignity International Film Festival (HRHDIFF) began Monday in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, featuring the world premiere of the documentary film “This Kind of Love,” about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activist Aung Myo Min.
It is one of three LGBT films among 65 short films, documentaries and animated features shown at the festival—a first for Myanmar, where homosexuals are often shunned and where same-sex sexual activity is punishable by fines and anywhere from 10 years to life in prison.
Aung Myo Min told RFA’s Myanmar Service that even holding a human rights film festival in Myanmar signaled a “development” for the country, where simply speaking about rights could lead to lengthy jail terms under the country’s former junta, which handed power to a quasi-military government in 2011.
But he said that this year’s HRHDIFF, which runs until Friday, is unique in that members of Myanmar’s LGBT community are being given a stage they had not previously enjoyed, and he expressed hope that the three LGBT films would help change popular misconceptions.
“Up to this point, LGBT people have been put into movies as comedic characters, but now films are being made about respectable and enviable efforts by the LGBT community—this is a good sign,” he said.
“I was worried that people would think the documentary is only concerned with a love of sexuality, but I was happy when the film came out because it was able to convey my love for my country and for human rights.”
Story of struggle
“This Kind of Love,” a 45-minute documentary by Jeanne Marie Hallacy, tells the story of Aung Myo Min’s struggles as a gay man and student activist living in exile following Myanmar’s bloody crackdown on the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.
Along with many other dissidents, Aung Myo Min fled to Myanmar’s remote border area near Thailand to join an armed resistance to the junta, but the young activist and his male partner were often ostracized by his peers, despite the democracy movement’s claim to promote human rights.
He eventually left for Thailand and began to focus on human rights awareness and advocacy, only returning to Myanmar after political reforms began in earnest and members of the exile community were allowed to return to their homeland for the first time in decades.
Aung Myo Min, who is also director of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, praised democratic changes that had allowed activists in Myanmar to hold a film festival in the name of human rights. But he added, “We sadly see human rights violations continuing in the country.”
“In ‘This Kind of Love,’ the director highlights discrimination against people who are working on human rights and the crackdown on the student movements,” he said.
“We not only need more chances to see human rights issues in films, but also to stop discrimination and crackdowns against students and activists.”
‘Beneficial for the public’
May Sabal Phyu, an advocate for women’s rights, told RFA that being able to view a movie about LGBT issues in Myanmar signified “change” for the country, adding that holding a film festival which includes a wide range of human rights topics is “very beneficial for the public.”
“Holding this kind of film festival is much more effective than providing human rights training [for people in Myanmar],” she said.
“It is also a positive change that we can watch films about sensitive issues that society in Myanmar still doesn’t accept very well.”
Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, a film director and organizer of the HRHDIFF, also praised President Thein Sein’s government for permitting the film festival to be held in Myanmar, but warned that it should not indicate an end to rights violations in the country.
“Since Thein Sein’s government has ruled the country, it has tried to show the international community that human rights violations have nearly disappeared in Myanmar,” he said.
“However, in reality, the human rights situation is getting worse, especially in the lead-up to the general election” slated for later this year.
Members of the audience expressed to RFA a desire to learn more about human rights from the film festival and how to exercise them as citizens of Myanmar.
Reported by Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.