REVISITING CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY: Burma's struggle to overcome the negative past

The government film review committee's prohibiting the screening of a movie that portrays the disappearance of Saohpa Sao Kya Seng, who was traditional ruler of Hsipaw principality, have created an unusual uproar, as the tragic past have caught up with the guilt-denying regime's responsible functionaries of the present.

Actually, an Austrian lady Inge Sargent,  known also known as the Mahadhevi Dhusandi due to  her marriage to the late Shan prince or Saohpa of Hsipaw Sao Kya Seng, could have been just a normal love story, of a European lady living together happily ever after with a traditional Shan ruler. But instead part of the plot that becomes the central theme revealed the tragic, unexplained disappearance of the prince, who was taken away, more appropriately abducted, by the Burmese military at the Eastern Command gate, and transported to the military garrison town of Bathoo, when he was travelling from Taunggyi to Heho Airport to catch a plane to Lashio, and was never seen again since 1962 onwards any more.

It was said that General Ne Win, the military coup leader of 1962, had ordered his former aide-de-camp Colonel Hla Moe to apprehend him.

Government's reason behind the ban

According to the Reuters news, “Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess", directed by Austrian filmmaker Sabine Derflinger, was pulled from the opening night of the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival (HRHDIFF) in Yangon on Tuesday, after being rejected by the censorship board,” which called itself the “Film Certification Board”.

The film censorship board is made up of 15 representatives, mainly from the Ministry of Information’s Myanmar Motion Picture Development Department, and other different associations including the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization (MMPO), the Myanmar Music Association and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture. The military-controlled Home Affairs ministry is also represented on the board. (Source: The Irrawaddy – 15 June 2016)

An official from the Ministry of Information’s (MOI) 15-member film review committee told the AFP news agency that screening the film could cause difficulties. “We were worried and afraid that unnecessary problems could arise because of this (film) while we are working on achieving national reconciliation,” said Thida Tin, deputy chairman of MOI’s film review committee. In an interview with the BBC Thida Lin claimed that the film was banned for the sake of “national unity and also the stability of the country and of our people,” reported SHAN on 16 June.

According to the recent 15 June VOA interview regarding the banning of the film, “Although the Ministry of Information is headed by the new government, the majority working there are former military people and thus the idea to ban the film (might have been decided),” said Daw Mon Mon Myat, member of the Human Dignity Film Institute.

She said that their petition to review the ban to the concerned Minister was not successful, as he was unable to influence the censorship board's decision.

U Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office, told The Myanmar Times on 15 June that while he had not been part of the decision-making process about the film, he had “checked the censorship board’s report”. “[The board concluded that] Twilight over Burma was based on an insufficient history of Myanmar,” he said, clarifying that some aspects of the film have been significantly modified from the source material. As the country is trying to hold the Panglong Conference, to which Shan groups are invited, the board does not want the public to “misunderstand the military” and destroy any chance at national reconciliation, he said.

U Zaw Htay added that if the board had decided to cut scenes rather than censor the whole film, it would have been “nonsense”.

This episode is already a 54 years old tragedy and in fact should be able to reflect on it and learn from it. But instead, denial and failing to address the truth were what the responsible functionaries of the government have chosen to do, under the pretext of not wanting to rock the boat of “national reconciliation”.

Responses to the issue

The SHAN report of 16 June wrote that these claims did not sit well with Sao Kya Seng’s nephew, Khun Tun Oo, a prominent Shan politician and leader of the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD).

“It’s irrational that this film will destroy unity,” said Khun Tun Oo. “This film is based on a true story,” he explained.

“ The person portrayed in the film is still missing. No one knows whether he is dead or alive. He departed from his daughters since one daughter was only 5 and another was only 7.”

“It’s unreasonable that the film will damage unity. It is just an individual right. Thus, it means there are no rights,” Khun Tun Oo added. “Has there been any national unity? If there has not (been any unity), how can this film destroy unity?”

The DVB report of 15 June said that Charm Tong, a prominent Shan activist, also said the decision to ban the film was unfortunate, because failing to face the past would only make it more difficult to deal with ethnic tensions in the country.

“I think it should have been allowed. We must accept the fact that this is a true event in our history. In promoting national reconciliation and ethnic unity, we must accept the things that happened in the past,” she said. 

On the same day, Reuters wrote that Sai Aung Lwin, a prominent Shan journalist, said screening "Twilight Over Burma" was an important step in addressing the past.

"This film should definitely be allowed to be shown in public so that we can learn lessons from it for our future," he said.

The former Commander-in-Chief and patron of the National League for Democracy (NLD), U Tin U was said to be very eager to view the film, when he was giving an opening speech at the film festival. He said: “Twilight Over Burma is a very tragic and the lost of human rights for a human being that shouldn't have happened. This will be shown on how it had happened and it is very interesting for me,” according to the VOA recent report.

Call for justice and learning from negative historical past

While prominent Shan activists, journalists and politicians have voiced their concern to observe the negative historical past as it had really happened and should be made known to the public, the call for redressing, leading to repentance of the culprit might still be a little too early, according to a German term or notion of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, which could be roughly translated as “to  struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past”.

For according to the well known German political scientist, Professor Eckhard Jesse's principle or definition, the “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” term must observe that firstly, the crime committed has to be established, secondly its completion and thirdly democratization [process has to be achieved]. Only when the three aspects are present together will the term be worthy of the name and gain ground.


Theoretically, as Professor Eckhard Jesse outlined the struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past cannot materialize, due to the fact that the third aspect of achieving democratization process has not been materialized.

Besides, even though the second aspect of the crime completion could be established, specifically in the extra-judicial killing of Sao Kya Seng, albeit no official investigation has been conducted under the successive military regimes, the guilt acceptance of the perpetrators' organization – in this sense the Burmese military – is also simply not there, but only denial. As such, it is questionable if one could consider that this could be taken as being fully completed, in a true sense and ready for repentance.

Thus only the first aspect of the crime committed could be established from the three crucial aspects, as outlined by  Professor Eckhard Jesse.

From the artistic freedom of expression point of view,  it is definitely a minus point in a country eager to show the world that it is on its way, or at least trying,  to become a democratic society according to its principles.

Regarding political cost and pragmatic approach, what Igor Blaževič, a human rights campaigner, founder of One World—Europe’s biggest human rights documentary film festival—and jury member at HRHDIFF, told The Irrawaddy could be regarded as the only logical approach, where striving for reconciliation is concerned. 

“Banning the film does not help reconciliation,” he said. “Censoring the truth is harming reconciliation. Honest recognition about the [wrongdoings] which have happened before—and which are still happening—will do much more for reconciliation.”

As the denial to address the more than five decades old crime against humanity were met with disappointment and public uproar, a new unresolved well known case of the two Kachin teachers that were raped and murdered by the military last year, in northern Shan State, continues to trouble the Kachin and as well the other ethnic nationalities, which also urgently need to be addressed and redressed.

Short of guilt acceptance and eventual repentance still not in sight, the military should first dwell on abdicating from its self-employed saviour of the country, which the majority of the people have rejected all along, and changing its indoctrinated mindset that all non-Bamar ethnic nationalities' population are enemies and abstain from committing human rights violations on them. Then and only then, will we be in a position to talk about the “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past”, not before. 


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