Bagan villagers get tepid apology over offensive portrayal in ‘Kyun’ film

Poster for “Kyun”.

The makers of the controversial Myanmar film “Kyun” offered a tepid apology to the residents of a village situated near the ancient temples of Bagan over the film’s offensive portrayal of the residents.

“Kyun”, which translates into “slave”, depicts the residents of Mingalar Tharsi village as paya kyun (pagoda slaves) who clean and maintain Bagan’s temples and survive by begging for donations from visitors. Some of the “pagoda slaves” in the film are depicted as having leprosy, which is based on a not-widely held superstition that to quit being a paya kyun invites leprosy.

The residents of Mingalar Tharsi called for a ban on the film last month, claiming the depictions are based on antiquated understandings of how paya kyun live and fuel a false stereotype that will harm the prospects of children who come from the area.

“For the good of our children’s future, we are asking for a ban on the movie,” local painter U Myint Cho told the Myanmar Times last month.

In addition to a ban on screenings, the villagers also demanded that the film be removed from award competitions, not be released on DVD, not be released overseas, and not get English subtitles.

The villagers also demanded an apology from the producers, which they attempted at the Nyaung-U Township administration hall over the weekend.

At the meeting, director Nyunt Myanmar Nyi Nyi Aung said he intended for the film to shed light on the “unique cultural beliefs” of paya kyun, not to portray them in a negative light.

Lu Min, a renowned Myanmar actor and chairman of the Myanmar Motion Picture Association, said at the meeting: “Art tends to exaggerate reality. But I can promise you that it was never the intention of these artists to degrade the reputation of the locals here. This issue has escalated far enough, and we want to take responsibility.”

According to historians, people who devoted their lives to maintaining the temples in Bagan were held in high esteem during the Bagan Empire (849-1297), but as the empire declined and people joined their ranks in droves, they developed a reputation as a societal blight.

While some paya kyun remain in the temples today and beg from foreign tourists, they are not representative of the people of Mingalar Tharsi village, and contrary to their depiction in “Kyun”, they are considerably more integrated into society than they were a century and a half ago.

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