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Camp Chindwin: Building a Video for Change Movement in Southeast Asia

By: Seelan Palay

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 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 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.