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Every Friday some of the world′s leading advocates for freedom of expression write for the Norwegian weekly Ny Tid’s Voices Without Borders-column. Our columnists are: Parvin Ardalan (Iran), Nawal El-Saadawi (Egypt), Irshad Manji (Canada), Elena Milashina (Russia), Orzala Nemat (Afghanistan), Marta Roque (Cuba), Blessing Musariri (Zimbabwe), Tsering Woeser (Tibet), Malahat Nasibova (Azerbaijan), and Nyein San (Burma).
RANGOON, BURMA: On March 7th, the important Burma VJ – a documentary film about the September 2007 uprisings against the military regime in Rangoon – can win an Academy Award (an «Oscar») as «Best Documentary Feature of 2010».
But here in Burma, the government is not celebrating. Just four days after Burma VJ on February 2nd was nominated to the Oscars in the USA, the best known film Award in the world, a dramatic comedy film was chosen as the best movie in the Myanmar Film Academy Award ceremony, held in in the country’s new capital, Nay Pyi Daw, on February 6th.
Burma VJ (directed by the Danish Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller, and partly funded by the Norwegian Freedom of Expression Foundation, Ny Tid added info) was filmed by Burmese clandestine journalists during the 2007 monk uprising, but it is still very difficult to find in Yangon.
«Only a few people who have satellite dishes know about Burma VJ, and not every family could afford it. We should be proud of those journalists who are reporting under high risk.»
This is what a business man, who regularly watches DVB TV (Democratic Voice of Burma) and listens to exiled Burmese radio stations, recently told me. He spoke on conditions of anonymity.
To find Burma VJ here in Rangoon is rather difficult. We live in a closed authoritarian country where the exiled media is «an enemy to the state». But at the same time, pirated movies and illegal copied CDs are widely available in the streets of Rangoon, the former capital of Burma.
This market becomes a threat to the Myanmar film and music industry. The Mayor of the city told local reporters that Yangon City Development Council is going to issue licenses to vendors, in order to convince them to rather sell copyrighted CDs and DVDs.
In contrast, a large part of the public in Burma has already become addicted to foreign TV series – as they have been broadcasted in state-owned TV channels for more than a decade.
The dinner time of the TV audience in Burma has changed to 8 pm at night, when the news is airing. The reason? Because the Burmese public has fell in love with Korean TV series, which largely occupies prime time TV programmes of the state-owned stations.
It has been very common to see in Burmese households that mothers, while comforting their child’s hunger for dinner, says: «Could you please wait until advertisements come? Let me finish watching this part!»
The state-owned television channels in Burma have been airing foreign TV series with Burmese subtitles since 1998. Starting with Oshin, a Japanese soap series, and Silk Prince and the Soul of Martial Arts, a Chinese soap, foreign TV series became very attractive to the local audience.
Korean TV series and movies with Burmese subtitles are the most popular in the country, and those films are now flying the pavements of downtown Rangoon, where the venders openly showcase pirated DVDs/VCDs and sell with a very cheap price: less than half a dollar.
«In the past, we had to watch only the short episodes of the TV series, inserted with many commercials, but we have no choice as we are addicted to them. Now things have changed. You can buy any series you like from the street vendors, with a reasonable price,» says Ma Thiri, 20, a regular customer of pirated Korean soaps.
It is not unusual that state-owned stations are making money with the commercial advertisements inserted in the Korean episodes. The TV stations here added several commercial advertisements even in a live show of the Burmese film academy award ceremony in the beginning of February.
«It is disgusting that the station cares only for money, not for the audience. It would be better if they didn’t broadcast this ceremony as a live show,» Win Win, a 19-years-old high school student, tells me.
Making money out of commercial advertisement is one of the main reasons for broadcasting Korean episodes in the Burmese TV media, but it doesn’t end at that extent. It also sparks Korean life style and culture to the audience all over the country.
The Burmese audience, of all different ages, are not only addicted to the Korean movies, but also to their culture, life style, and food. Audiences are interested in learning Korean language, imitating the fashion of Korean stars, and their hairstyles, too.
Through the soaps, the teenage audience has been trying to imitate the lifestyle and fashion of Korean actors and actresses.
A girl, a bit jokingly, tells me: «You should say ‘I love you Opah (darling)’, then get into his arms. That’s how the Korean actresses act in the films,» she says. I meet her at a café on the pavement in the busy downtown of Yangon.
«The style of the girls has become very modernized these days, and their behavior is also a lot more opened up,» says U Ko Lay, who is concerned about the new generation of the Burmese youth.
Although it is not unusual for women to be drinking and smoking in other countries, it has been very rare among women in Burma. But the culture is changing now. Burmese women are getting used to see other women drinking wine, beer and alcohol, and smoking cigarettes, which they copy from the Korean soaps.
52-years-old Daw Tin May, who is living in the delta area where the cyclone «Nargis» struck in May 2008, has no more tears to watch Korean TV series.
«It is so painful to see some Korean and Chinese soaps, as they are based on very tragic stories. I suffered a lot of pain in the storm, as I lost family members and properties. I can’t afford to watch Korean series anymore now, because I don’t want to feel that pain again».
Zin Mar, 25, an employee at a trading firm, complaines about the negative impact the Korean TV series have on her job: «A big amount of money was cut from my salary for being late to work several days, as I was watching Korean soaps till late night.»
Making a comparative analysis, Ma Thiri, a Korean film fan, says: «The stories of Burmese movies are rather monotonous; the only difference would be in the title, but the plots are similar. You can easily predict how the story would end by only watching the opening scene. Korean soaps are not like that.»
An official of the Burmese Motion Picture Organization reportedly said that the Burmese film industry could not produce TV series like the Korean ones, because of the high production costs and their rather small and limited budgets.
Apart from that, any film, music or TV product is required to be submitted to the notorious «Film Scrutiny Board» (FSB), just as print media is required to pass the Press Scrutiny Board before the production begins. The Scrutiny board restricted making a ghost film in 2010. Especially FSB restricts any media product which touches the country’s political climate.
Media freedom is of course the main obstacle in producing a quality film in this country.
If you are asking someone who is going to buy a pirated DVD/VCD from a street vendor in Rangoon, «Have you ever seen Burma VJ?», many of them will say «No», even though they have watched the film secretly. Answering «Yes» means inviting a risk to people living under the military regime, because there are many examples of people being threatened with long imprisonment sentences if they are affiliated with the exiled media outlets.
But if you are asking someone about the current Korean TV series, it might result in a very fruitful conversation, even among strangers.
This column was written exclusive for the Norwegian weekly news magazine Ny Tid, nytid.no/en, and an earlier version of it was printed in the end of February 2010.