Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Will Myanmar Refugees be Sheltered or Stranded in Malaysia?

Fleeing from prolonged conflict and persecution in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities find themselves living as refugees in neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia alone, there are an estimated 150,000 refugees from Myanmar, with possibly a third of them being not being registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

In 2013, to highlight their stories and those of other migrant communities, EngageMedia began collaborating with Citizen Journalists Malaysia (CJMY) on Crossroads, an advocacy video project to teach migrant rights activists video production and distribution skills. 'In Search of Shelter' is part of the collection of 12 videos that were produced, and highlights the plight of the Myanmar refugee community in Malaysia.

In the video, asylum seekers share how they've united and combined resources to establish access to basic services like health clinics and primary schools for their children. However, they also face many hurdles related to the difficulties in getting registered as refugees with the UNHCR in Malaysia, such as how many of the teachers in the schools they set up are themselves arrested by the police due to their lack of legal status.

Malaysia, which has stated that it will not sign the UN convention on refugees, also does not have any legal framework for national asylum and does not distinguish between refugees and undocumented migrants, leaving refugees at constant risk of detention, deportation and abuse. An undercover investigation by Al-Jazeera in 2014 revealed that some refugees pay up to $1,000 for official refugee status in Malaysia, as part of an illegal trade allegedly involving the UN Refugee Agency itself.

At one of the community screenings of Crossroads we held in Malaysia, we found that 80 to 90% of those present have had personal experiences being harassed by the police or faced problems with permits and employers. One member of the audience pointed out that there have been incidences where even if they produce their registered refugee card or supporting letter, the document was simply torn up by the authorities that had approached them.

With continued reports on acts injustice and exploitation committed against refugees in Malaysia, it remains to be seen how its government and the UNCHR will effectively address this grave and growing situation.

Camp Chindwin participants showcase their talent and creativity during the Short Film Lab activity. The resulting videos are a mix of hilarious and serious videos that give a glimpse of the environment and feel of the camp.

One of the most fun activities we did in Camp Chindwin was to have a Short Film Lab in the morning of the third day. The participants were grouped into eight teams and were tasked to plan, shoot, edit and submit short films in two and a half hours. The teams were given carte blanche as far as the topics were concerned. The resulting films was a testament to the talent, skill-level and creativity that abounded in the camp. More than that, the short films gave a snapshot of what life and times in Camp Chindwin was like. Team 6 did a film about the participant's impressions on the camp, capturing footage as the other teams worked on their short films. One of the teams did a short feature interview with Ju Ju, the woman who cooked all the meals for the camp venue. The interview, which was conducted in Burmese, tackled how Ju Ju found herself working at the Bago Centre. The team even managed to subtitle the edited video into English within the time frame!Another team did interviews with the staff that the centre, focusing on the ecological values of the venue. Yet another team captured the "wild life" in Camp Chindwin with a short film about the insects at the venue. One team did a short silent action film about one of the camp "rules": if you're late for the sessions, you either sing or dance (or both). The use of stop motion animation, one of the expertise of one of the participants, was a clever way to get "dialogue" in.Using finger puppets, one of the teams paid homage to the the "unofficial" Camp Chindwin song -- The Banana Song.Group 2, shot and edited an instructional video on coffee-making entirely on an Android phone.

The last short film was about the "myth" (that the team invented and propagated themselves) about what it means to see a snake in Bago.

All of the short films were screened during the closing of the camp.

The Short Film Lab was such a fun exercise, and I'm really glad that we did it. It was much-needed break from the discussions and technical skill sharing sessions, and provided the participants another way to work together.

Camp Chindwin, our Southeast Asia Video Camp, brought together over 30 video activists, citizen journalists, and filmmakers in Myanmar in June 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 thesecond 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 theSaffron 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 which make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), 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.