Monday, Nov. 6, Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies hosted a public screening of Sittwe, an 18-minute documentary on conflict and segregation in the Rakhine state of western Myanmar. After the film, Director Jeanne Hallacy and Producer U Myo Win held a panel discussion with Stanford Professors Larry Diamond and Clayborne Carson.
The panel provided context for the film, which spans two years of interviews with a Rohingya girl and Buddhist boy who both saw their homes burn down as a result of violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The teenagers explain their communities’ mutual fears of each other as well as their hopes for education and reconciliation between the groups.
“Children are not born hating one another on the basis of race, religion or any other identity,” Diamond said. “The mobilization of hatred, and the construction of hateful identity stereotypes is too often an extremely useful political strategy for acquiring power, maintaining power, deflecting pressures to surrender power and so on.”
Win, whose work in Myanmar revolves around interfaith cooperation between community members, described specific hurdles to resolving the Buddhist-Rohingya conflict. He could not answer political questions for security reasons, but he explained multiple injustices against the Rohingya, such as their exclusion from the list of 135 ethnic groups recognized in Myanmar.
“They are stateless, stateless within the state,” Win said.
Diamond criticized Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who he says should assume responsibility for the persecution of the Rohingya population by Buddhist nationalists and the Myanmar Army. He claimed that the need to end the Army’s crimes against humanity transcends the political needs of San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
“[The NLD] can’t excuse inaction by saying maybe it will hurt them at the next election,” Diamond said. “It just can’t be excused. The only way out of this is to confront it, to denounce it, to mobilize against it and to threaten consequences for it.”
According to Carson, many nations in the international community, to some extent, can relate to the discrimination shown in Sittwe. He explained how people in developed countries with established citizenship rights tend to lose sight of foreigners’ human rights.
“We as Americans should hardly be at a moral high ground here,” Carson said. “The human rights situation facing undocumented people in this country is a human rights crisis. We will be judged, and our leaders will be judged by how they handle this human rights crisis. We are not alone in the world in terms of facing these types of crises.”
For a democracy to function correctly, Carson said, all ethnicities must receive not only equal rights but equal respect. Travelling in Africa during the 2008 election, Carson said that he met locals who did not understand why Americans would elect the son of an immigrant as their president.
“That notion of entrusting your destiny to someone who is not like yourself is a difficult thing wherever you are in the world,” Carson said. “And that’s what democracy and diversity is all about.”
Win also acknowledged social media misuse in the United States as a reflection of tactics in Myanmar. He focused specifically on the role of fear mongering in stirring acts of violence.
“Social media is most problematic in [Myanmar],” Win said. “People who do not have much education use social media every day. They think all information from social media is real.”
At Yangon’s Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival in June, The Films and Video Censorship Board banned Sittwe, claiming cultural and religious sensitivities. So, Sittwe premiered at the Freedom Film Festival in Malaysia in September, where it received the award for Best Southeast Asia Short Documentary.
“The film has a Facebook page which we need to monitor daily because we’ve been besieged by hate speech and material that has to be deleted every day, including horrible images that are put there,” Hallacy said.
Carson expressed hope for the future of Myanmar but did not deny the difficulty of establishing a true democracy in any country. He said the driving forces behind injustice in Myanmar exist all over the world.
“In the United States, what I would suggest, is that we can never become complacent,” Carson said. “We have to be vigilant. We have to be aware of how quickly it can all come apart.”
Holden Foreman is a freshman events reporter at Stanford Politics.