By Joshua Carroll
Buddhist extremists in Myanmar threatened to burn down a cinema if it showed a documentary about two friends caught up in anti-Muslim violence, an organizer has told the Anadolu Agency.
Following online threats and phone calls to cinema owners, a human rights film festival was forced to cancel a screening of documentary "The Open Sky," which follows the lives of a Buddhist and a Muslim woman during clashes in the central town of Meiktila last year.
The violence left more than 40 people dead and displaced thousands, mostly Muslims.
The documentary was due to be shown alongside dozens of films at the four-day Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, which concluded Wednesday in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital and still its largest city.
Mon Mon Myat, a festival co-organizer, told AA Sunday that extremists had threatened to “start another riot in Meiktila” if the screening went ahead.
She added that two cinemas involved in the festival had refused to show the documentary after receiving phone calls from people threatening to set fire to their buildings.
“We don’t want to be a scapegoat for another potential riot,” she said.
Extremists also took to Facebook to post threats against the film’s producers and the festival organizers.
The mob violence in Meiktila in March last year lasted two days and claimed the lives of many children from a local Islamic school.
A film festival in Yangon showcasing human rights would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, before Myanmar began easing severe restrictions on freedom of expression. But the new freedoms, brought in by a reformist government that replaced the military junta in 2011, have also unleashed a wave of vitriolic hate speech against Muslims.
Mon Mon Myat said that the lead Muslim character in the film had her photograph taken at the closing ceremony, which was then posted on an anti-Muslim Facebook page.
David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Myanmar described the incident in an internet statement as "the latest case of growing anti-Muslim hate speech backed by threats of violence - often backed by Buddhist monks - that has driven communal tensions and even attacks in Myanmar since 2012."
Earlier this month, local monks urged a boycott on a mobile phone service provider setting up in the country because it is Muslim-owned.
Other examples, said Mathieson, include breaking up literary events and the denouncing of – and in one case physical attack on – United Nations officials for perceived Muslim bias.
"Ultra-nationalist monks have pushed a paranoid conspiracy narrative claiming that the small Muslim minority are threatening Burma’s Buddhist majority faith," he said. "[They] are now pressuring President Thein Sein and the parliament to consider draft laws to 'protect' religion and prohibit inter-faith marriage."
The United States and United Kingdom ambassadors to Myanmar released statements earlier this week condemning the threats against the festival.