Controversy unfurls as MP flags respect issue

A Yangon Region MP has generated controversy by complaining about people – in particular, Muslims – who refuse to stand for the national flag in cinemas.

By KYAW LIN HTOON | FRONTIER

A QUESTION IN the Yangon regional parliament has generated debate about showing respect for the national flag, including whether it should be necessary to stand when it is displayed in cinemas, and prompted concern that Muslims are being singled out for criticism.

The issue was raised by U Moe Myint (National League for Democracy, South Okkalapa-2), who said he had noticed that many people at cinemas ignore signs that ask them to stand for the national flag before screenings.

“I’d like to ask the Yangon Region government whether it intends to take action,” Moe Myint said on October 2.

In reply, Minister for Kayin Ethnic Affairs Naw Pan Thinzar Myo, speaking on behalf of the regional government, said that under the 2010 Union Flag Law the maximum penalty for showing “disrespect” to the flag is three years’ imprisonment and a K300,000 fine.

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Pan Thinzar Myo said the regional government would advocate respect for the provision.

However, rights campaigners and activists have criticised Moe Myint for raising the issue, saying a cinema is an entertainment venue and it should not be necessary to stand.

They also criticised Moe Myint for saying that most of those in cinemas who refuse to stand for the flag are Muslims.

The critics included Ko Moe Thway, president of activist group Generation Wave.

“Now is the time to question what vision the MP and the minister have for the country,” he said.

“Most democratic countries removed that practice a long time ago,” Moe Thway said of the standing requirement. “These conservative ideas shouldn’t still be entrenched in Myanmar.

“The authorities shouldn’t use this practice to motivate patriotism,” he argued. “If they want to keep on doing it, why don’t they also make people bow down to the flag before using the Internet, or before using Facebook?”

Moe Thway said he never stands for the flag in cinemas because he does not want the state to intrude while he is enjoying a leisure activity.

“However, even though I do not like this flag, I always bow to it at important ceremonies, such as those for Independence Day or National Day. I know I must respect it, whether I like it or not, but it should not intervene in my private life,” Moe Thway said.

Prominent student activist Ko Min Thway Thit was also disappointed that the matter had been raised in parliament.

“MPs should be discussing important issues that are affecting the daily lives of their constituents,” he said. “Cinemas are places where people come to relax. The only place to stand up and pay respect to the flag should be at state ceremonies.”

Min Thway Thit also said that the design of the national flag would benefit from an overhaul, because the star in its middle is associated with the Tatmadaw. He suggested it could be replaced with “a green peacock” to signify democracy. The peacock, particularly in its “fighting” attitude, has been a dissident symbol in Myanmar since the colonial era.

‘Insulting to the country’

However, lawyers agreed that citizens should respect the state, its symbols and laws.

Well-known lawyer U Robert San Aung said that while respect should be shown to the flag, he also understood the feelings of young people over the issue.

Robert San Aung said there had been incidents where the flag had been mistakenly hoisted upside-down at national ceremonies but no disciplinary action had been taken, which might have led young people to think they did not need to stand in cinemas.

U Zaw Min Hlaing, a member of the Myanmar Laywers’ Network, suggested that the law be changed to enable the police to impose on-the-spot fines for those who show disrespect for the flag at cinemas and other venues.

“Standing up and bowing to the national flag in cinemas doesn’t even take a minute, which is hardly disturbing anyone’s leisure time,” he said.

Moe Myint told Frontier his question in parliament came after he took his family to watch a movie at the Thamada cinema on Alan Paya Pagoda Road in downtown Yangon.

“We stood up for the national flag, but about two-thirds of the audience remained seated and some of them were talking. Most of them were Muslims,” he said, without specifying how he was able to differentiate between Muslims and members of other religions.

“We began this practice after independence and the way these people behave in cinemas is insulting to the country,” Moe Myint said.

His comments have disappointed members of the Muslim community, including Dr Thet Su Htwe, the founder of Strong Flowers, an organisation that provides reproductive health and sex education services.

Thet Su Htwe said she had been saddened by comments Moe Myint made in media interviews after raising the flag issue in parliament.

As a busy woman who is also involved in interfaith activities, Thet Su Htwe has little free time, though, if she can, she likes to watch the latest Bollywood movies.

“As a Muslim [of South Asian descent], of course, I like Indian movies, and most of the time when such movies screen here the majority of the audience is Muslim. However, I have never seen a Muslim remaining seated for the national flag,” she told Frontier.

“It is no problem for me to stand and bow to the national flag and in the times I have been to the movies, I saluted the flag every time,” she said.

Thet Su Htwe mentioned that state-run broadcasters MRTV and Myawady play the national anthem and show the national flag every morning on television.

“Do all the people who hear the anthem and see the flag on television every morning stand and salute?” she asked.

Ma Thazin Hlaing, an activist from the Muslim Youth Network-Myanmar, also expressed disappointment at Moe Myint’s comments.

“This issue should not be about blaming people based on race and religion,” she told Frontier. “Nowadays there are so many people, Muslim and Buddhist, of Bamar and other ethnic nationalities, who do not show respect for the national flag in cinemas. They may have their reasons but they have nothing to do with their race and religion.”

Thazin Hlaing said she is a loyal citizen who always stands and salutes the national flag “because I respect it”. However, she added she was “not so sensitive about this issue, so I also respect those who do not like to stand for the flag in cinemas.”

Some of Bamar Buddhist background, such as Moe Thway, Min Thway Thit and the poet and free speech activist Maung Saungkha, are steadfast in refusing to stand and salute the flag in cinemas.

Maung Saungkha said that, if the issue is to be debated in the Union parliament, discussion should include whether having to stand for the flag in cinemas should be abolished.

Min Thway Thit said, “Do they want all the people to salute the flag with feelings of annoyance or do they want the people of this country to salute the flag with respect and a deep love for the state?”

By Kyaw Lin Htoon

By Kyaw Lin Htoon

Kyaw Lin Htoon is a Yangon-based journalist. He previously worked at Myanmar Now, Mawkun and Myanmar Business Today.
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