Camp Chindwin, our Southeast Asia Video Camp, brought together 40 video activists, citizen journalists, and filmmakers in Myanmar in May this year, and I'm still trying to digest all the excitement from finally seeing it happen, and the reflections I've had afterwards.
As an activist and artist from Singapore, I've been using video in my work for over 10 years now, while closely following social movements from across Southeast Asia through video. From the ongoing struggles of garment workers in Cambodia, to the tragic modern history of Indonesia and the Philippines, to the mass public demonstrations held in neighbouring Malaysia, video has always been central to how I've come to understand the region and found inspiration to work for change within my own country, which, as of this year, would have spent 50 years under one-party rule and a state-controlled mainstream media landscape.
Through my work with EngageMedia over the years, I've come to meet fellow activists from the region with similar concerns and doing similar things, which has helped me build strong ties of affinity that last till today. EngageMedia has organised three previous regional gatherings, namely, Transmission, an Asia-Pacific video and technology camp in 2008, and Camp Sambel I and II, which were Bahasa-language video camps in 2010 and 2012. And while we've built a good network of video activists, I wasn't able to know if we'd gotten to the point of building a movement ― something I began thinking more about after the second global convening of the global Video for Change network, where I was asked to present a regional report on the "State of the Movement" in Southeast Asia.
In many ways, Camp Chindwin is a key step we're taking from maintaining a network, to building a movement. And one of the reasons it came at the most perfect time is the prevalence and reach of online video (and other forms of media) today, alongside state propaganda and oppression.
During a discussion at Camp Chindwin, a participant shared that in his country, average citizens, even in their 50s, are so disillusioned with the mainstream media that they want to buy smartphones with mobile internet plans to obtain independent information. This struck a chord with most of the participants of the camp, in whose countries the mainstream media is predominantly state-run or subject to heavy censorship.
Although Internet penetration rates have been steadily increasing in Southeast Asia (and there are still places where you can't even get a phone signal), in the past two to three years I've noticed a marked increase in the number of people from low-income groups, including migrant workers, who've acquired smartphones and affordable mobile internet.
As more members of the public find it easier to access alternative information online, activists, filmmakers, citizen journalists, and independent media organisations have come to find it easier (or perhaps more encouraging) to focus on producing and distributing video content. The frequency and extent of the video content that we are able to share today has meant that we are that much more able to assess the impact of our work.
Eight years ago, my colleagues in the region surely knew how to produce the videos that they currently are, but the questions often were, "How long would it take to upload, and how long would it take for someone to watch it? How many people would actually watch this, and how would I know they did anything about it?". For most of us, gone are the days of publishing one video every few months to be viewed at 240p, and wondering what happened to it after.
In Myanmar, media organisations such as Irrawaddy have been producing video discussions on topics ranging from ethnic conflict to media freedom ― topics the mainstream media would never discuss in depth or in detail. Other organisations including Mizzima, Kamayut Media, and Democratic Voice of Burma have all been publishing several videos daily. This too, is a far cry from back during the time of the Saffron Revolution, where footage for the award-winning film Burma VJ had to be secretly shot and smuggled out of the country. Today, the film can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube from within Myanmar.
Of course, these developments also have to do with the recent "opening up" of political spaces, but that did not happen in a vacuum. Increased access to online content has granted the people here access to a freer market of ideas, the ability to hear everyone's stories and tell their own, and spurred many to participate in public action. These actions, which include forums, rallies, and demonstrations, are being continuously documented on video and being put back online, growing awareness and activity in an upward cycle. It's a movement.
Hot under the collar from the pressure of this movement, the governments of Southeast Asia, including monarchies, military juntas, political dynasties, and pseudo-communist regimes, are trying to find a balance between having absolute control and losing it entirely. They evidently still haven't found a delicate way to do it, as critical films continue to be banned, film screenings raided, online videos blocked and taken down, and video makers arrested.
And as video is still seen as one of the most threatening forms of media by authoritarian entities, I believe that video must also still be one of the most effective forms of communication for social change.
Most of my conversations with Video for Change makers at Camp Chindwin and beyond have reinforced my view that this entire region is now in a state of social and political flux, for better or worse. In countries where even a one-person demonstration is a chargeable offense, the Internet opens up a world of possibility. And we've got this powerful tool, video, which we now have much greater means to produce and distribute, so what are we going to do with it?
In that regard, aside from the all the brilliant sharing of skills and engaging discussions that I witnessed at Camp Chindwin, the most important aspect of the event was that it brought us all to ask that question, together, and to begin to realize where and how we fit in this hopeful or volatile time.
A breezy location along the Ayeyarwady River, Pyay is the most interesting stop on the Yangon–Bagan Highway. The city, whose glory days date back to the ancient Pyu capital of Thayekhittaya, was the venue of Barcamp Myanmar 2015.
Representing EngageMedia, I participated in Barcamp Pyay, which was held over July 11 and 12 at a Basic Education School and attended by over 3,500 people. The camp was teeming with crowds of attendees delivering speeches and taking part in lively discussions.
The morning panel on the first day of the camp addressed opportunities for youth leadership in development, mostly in entrepreneurship, open-source and civic engagement.
On that day, I conducted a session called 'How to Make Films on Low Cost Devices', where over 20 people attended. I delivered this topic with the Yangon Heartz organization, who are holding the first Smart Phone Film Festival in Myanmar. I also briefly introduced how to deal with digital security issues for videos.
Since the Barcamp is an unconference which doesn't make use of any slide presentations, I just used entries in my notepad to deliver the main contents of the talk. This unconference format worked really well to bring people and ideas together in a non-formal setting.
On the second day, I ran 'How to Subtitle Online', where Myanmar Barcampers asked a lot of questions because they've had no experience in using online subtitling tools like Amara. This was a very active session and our room was pretty noisy from all the excitement!
After my presentations, I took part in other sessions and led discussions on topics such as 'Google Maps for Businesses', 'Social Networks and Innovation', and 'Love Problems of Youth', which was of course very popular!
In this Barcamp, the organizers focused not only on technology, but also agriculture, civilization, archaeology and education. This made Pyay Barcamp very different from the other Barcamps we've had in the past, and made it much more memorable for me. You all can have a look at all of the fun activities on the camp's Facebook page.
So, would you like to join the next Barcamp in Myanmar?
In all of our events, we try to ensure the inclusion of gender perspectives. For starters, we push for a gender balance among the participants. We're not always successful however, since the film, video and even documentary industry, as any industry in public domain, is still dominated by men.
Our approach to Camp Chindwin, our Southeast Asia Video Camp, was no different from any other events that we organized in the past. But this time, we worked harder for the presence of more women film/video makers from the region by giving more exposure of our online application to women. And it paid off. Many great film/video makers in the region applied, and as a result we achieved a balanced gender composition.
Gender balance is always a good start, but applying gender perspectives in the work is a must, so that the women feel really present and own the space. While it is very important to treat gender issues as intersecting ones, having specific spaces to talk about women’s rights are needed.
With the open space methodology that we used, I offered two sessions specifically on gender. One was about what it means to be women filmmakers and the other one was on how to make films where women victims of violence were subjects. Both were discussions and experience sharing sessions.
The first session on women filmmakers involved women from Myanmar, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore. It struck me, yet didn't really surprise me, that the experiences shared were very similar from one country to another. There was a slight different experience from the Philippines however, where the women’s movement has advanced more, compared to the other countries in the region.
The discussion was mostly around the experience of being women working in the film industry, whether as directors, camerapersons or editors. Most of the women shared how difficult it is to get film project opportunities compared to their male counterparts. We were trying to understand the reasons as to why the people running the industry believe more in the ability of men than women, especially when the films were about or to be shot in conflict zones. The latter always used the excuse of protecting women, while never attempting to investigate other factors that often times give an advantage to women in such situations.
The session also discussed how we, as women filmmakers, often have to work harder to prove ourselves and show that we are as qualified as men or even more. We came to discuss strategies on how we could work and be treated equally as men. We tried to find out what works, what doesn't, and came to an agreement to build a network of women filmmakers in Southeast Asia to support one another and share opportunities that might rise in the future. A network that we are currently working to make a reality.
In June, our Crossroads video collection on migration was screened for the 15th time in Malaysia this year. The screening was hosted by the Migrant Ministry under the Kuala Lumpur Archdiocese Office of Human Development and attended by Malaysian parishioners of the Good Shepard Church.
Malaysia is one of the top destinations for migrant workers in Asia, where there are an estimated two million documented and two million undocumented migrant workers, according to a recent UN report. With limited coverage by the mainstream media and growing xenophobia, Crossroads screenings such as this one to an all-local audience provide good opportunities to foster empathy and understanding.
An extensive discussion was held after the five selected films, which began with how the current system of oppression faced by migrants is unlikely to stop as it benefits many groups such as agents, enforcement officers and related business entities.
There was a question from the floor on whether the videos could be used as evidence or basis for police reports. It was explained by Fajar from migrant rights NGO Tenaganita that hard evidence such as documents, photographs and medical reports are needed, although reports can nonetheless still be lodged.
One of the audience members shared that she worked in a factory and even though all the workers there had legal documents, they were still harassed. And when they tried to lodge a police report, they were told that the online reporting system at the police station was coincidentally offline.
The discussion then shifted to refugees and asylum seekers, where Fajar explained the difference and overlap between migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees.
He added that although the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was allowed to operate in Malaysia, they are also in a weak position because Malaysia has not ratified the UN Convention on Refugees. This means that the country does not officially recognise or accept asylum seekers and refugees and so is not required by law to provide medical, educational or any other facilities to the tens of thousands who are currently stateless there.
More than 50 years on, a group of survivors revisit a prison camp in the Buru Islands. Buru is best known in Indonesia as a place where political prisoners used to be exiled and isolated because they were or were assumed as members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI/Partai Komunis Indonesia) during the New Order era.
The fall of New Order and the emergence of the Reformation Era in 1998 have triggered ex-prisoners to revisit the prison without fear. They tell stories of their suffering in silence, memories about loss, and unspeakable trauma while trying to recall the violence that happened in that different period. There are many accounts of people who lost their lives simply because they had the same name as someone the authorities were looking for.
Indonesian organisation Kotak Hitam Forum has been working to document these stories on video, and screening them to students in classroom settings to encourage better understanding and debate on history. One such story is that of Mia Bustam and Lekra, a social movement made up of artists and writers which was banned by the then President Suharto (view subtitled version here).
It's said that there are 224 prisoners who do not want to go home and remain living in Buru farming in paddy fields as it has fertile land, which shows that they are dealing with the past, ignoring marginalization and stigma. But some others, surely, wanted to go back to Java and other places in Indonesia.
In 1978, Hersri Setiawan, one of the ex-prisoners, was going to back home. He said, “Buru was a symbol of slavery, a symbol that I was not free. But I wanted to be free, whatever might happen on Java. However, Buru is a part of my life that cannot be taken from me.”
What is the state of freedom of the press in Myanmar, which is currently the 9th most censored country in the world? This and other questions are addressed by Irrawaddy Media, an independent media organisation covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia from a Myanmar perspective.
In this blogpost, we highlight three videos from Dateline Irrawaddy, their discussion programme which features members of Myanmar’s media landscape, civil society and government.
Freedom of Press in Myanmar
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has ranked Myanmar the 9th most censored country globally in 2015. Despite recent reforms, at least 20 journalists have been arrested since 2013 and 12 media workers are currently serving prison sentences.
This episode of Dateline discusses press freedom in the country with speakers U Kyaw Zwa Moe, Editor of the English edition of The Irrawaddy, U Ko Ni, High Court Advocate and Ko Myint Kyaw, Secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network.
Peace Process and Women's Safety
A discussion on the guarantee of women’s lives in civil war zones following the gang-rape and murder of two Kachin Christian school teachers in their church compound in the Northern Shan State.
The participating speakers include Ko Kyaw Kha, an Irrawaddy reporter and Moon Nay Li from the Kachin Women's Association in Thailand (KWAT).
The 2015 General Election
Myanmar’s next general election is scheduled to happen in late October or early November this year. Irrawaddy asks special guest speaker U Tin Aye, Chairman of the Union Election Commission (UEC), about the credibility of the upcoming polls.
View more discussions and special report videos from Irrawaddy Media here.
"I can't believe that I attended this camp. It's my first experience of a very creative camp", said Pan Myat Zaw, a journalist from Mizzima of Camp Chindwin, EngageMedia's Southeast Asia Video Camp in Bago, Myanmar.
The camp, which aimed to be a space for video activists and filmmakers from Myanmar to meet, interact and collaborate with video and filmmakers from the rest of Southeast Asia, brought nearly 40 people together in an interactive learning and collaboration environment for three days.
The participants were invited not only to learn from us, but to share their own experiences and discuss with others to understand our greatest challenges and opportunities. And to that end, the event was a great success, with the over 100 topics that were brought up.
One of the sessions I’d like to highlight is the discussion on violence against women, which was a collaborative effort between Dhyta and myself from EngageMedia, and filmmakers Nway Zarche from Myanmar and Ilang Ilang from the Philippines. We talked about how violence against women is one the main social problems in Myanmar today, and one person pointed out that out that even if we promote women’s rights, women in Myanmar women still don't have a basic concept of what they are. We collectively agreed that we have to conduct some activities for awareness of women’s rights in the near future.
And in that spirit of collaboration, the participants of the various sessions identified problems and suggested solutions. One of participants from Myanmar, filmmaker Thet Oo Maung said, “It’s a great camp for networking. We can gain a lot of knowledge by sharing with each other. Our region faces very similar issues and people in Myanmar can learn a lot from the experiences of other Southeast Asians. After what I’ve learnt from this camp, I have to try doing many new things."
The favourite moment for the participants was the “Banana Dance” by Prakkash from WITNESS. As a result of him teaching us how to “dance like a banana”, a group of camp-mates produced a cute short film called, ‘Kwayy Zuu Banana’ (Thank you Banana).
Everyone agreed that this very fruitful event shouldn't be our last chance to meet and work together, as there are still many ideas from it that need to be implemented.
With best regards from Myanmar,
I just got back from the EngageMedia's Southeast Asia video camp, Camp Chindwin in Yangon, Myanmar. We spent three fun days together, making many new friends from all across the region, sharing lots of skills and experiences, and trying out new food!
The camp-site itself, Bago Center, was quite unique with a kind of forest-kampong (village) scenery. And it is run by communities that live nearby. The locals were very warm and hospitable, and they served us delicious Burmese food which was almost always a mix of natural flavours and healthy vegetables.
Camp Chindwin was run in an unconference style, where all participants get a chance to join and propose their own sessions for sharing or discussion.
In one of the sessions, we learnt about new and secure apps for video production from our friend Arul Prakkash from WITNESS. Another cool session was a 101 introduction to video making with Kim Buy and co-production that was held by Josep Laban, an experienced filmmaker from the Philippines. And these were just some of the many interesting discussions that took place!
Even though the camp has ended we still have so much homework to do, including maintaining and nurturing this network of Southeast Asian video activists in the hope that someday soon, we will get to meet again!
Warmest regards from Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia,
Upon invitation from the Not34 Film Club, Crossroads, our video collection on migrant rights was screened with local activists in Penang, Malaysia. Penang, a Northern state which is one of the top tourist destinations in the country, hosts a great number of migrant workers seeking work in the businesses and development projects there.
The screening focused on the films Polis Pao and Perangkap, both of which were produced by Muhammad Mundir, an activist from the migrant community and participant in the Crossroads project, who also traveled up to help facilitate the discussion.
Polis Pao is a comic recreation of migrant run-ins with the police in Malaysia, including a local businesswoman's perception of the whole situation, while Perangkap tells the stories of two undocumented women migrant workers who are sexually harassed by some errant members of the police force.
The Malaysian audience found much they could relate to in both films, as police corruption and the abuse of authority are issues locals have to deal with on a constant basis as well. The activists also expressed that the equal rights of workers, such as minimum wage, should be basis for advocacy by locals and migrants alike.
The Not34 Film Club is keen to partner with EngageMedia to screen more films on migrant and other human rights to widen the discussion on social change in Penang.
Over the past month, Marcel Simok, one of the participants in Crossroads, our advocacy video project on migrant rights in Malaysia, has been holding screenings of the collection across Sabah, East Malaysia.
His travels brought him to several remote locations in the vast island of Borneo, where he shared and discussed the content of the films with various communities.
The first event was conducted with a selected group of NGO activists who are working on issues related to the plantation workers there, many of whom are migrants from Indonesia.
Next was a screening to students, teachers and volunteers in a school that was independently built to provide education to the children of migrant workers in Sabah. This was was an especially interesting event for the audience as the film Marcel had produced for Crossroads, 'School of Hope', was about the story of the school itself.
The last screening was held in a common area in the hills where many migrant workers gather. A feast was served for the attendees, who expressed after during the discussion that they found much relation to what fellow Indonesians were going through in the Malaysian peninsula.
Education opportunities for children who had followed their parents abroad was the main issue brought up at all the screenings in Sabah, one that remains critical and unresolved.