Dozens of Hollywood celebrities have joined together to call attention to the repressive military regime in Myanmar and the plight of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent more than a decade under house arrest.
In more than 30 public-service spots that are being released online daily this month, actors and artists including Will Ferrell, Sarah Silverman, Ellen Page and Sylvester Stallone call for Suu Kyi’s release and the establishment of democracy in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
“A human rights crisis is happening right now in the Southeast Asian country of Burma,” Ferrell says in the first of the series. “Every now and again a single person or event captures the imagination and inspiration of the world. This moment belongs to Burma and to Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Myanmar has been ruled by military regimes for nearly all of the past 46 years. Suu Kyi’s political party won a landslide victory in a 1990 election and she was slated to become the country’s next leader, but the regime threw out the results and arrested her. Suu Kyi, who will turn 63 next month, is the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Most recently, the reclusive regime has come under harsh international criticism for refusing to accept foreign aid for victims of Cyclone Nargis, which killed at least 78,000 earlier this month and left hundreds of thousands more without adequate food, water or shelter.
The Web-based celebrity campaign, called “Burma: It Can’t Wait,” began May 1 but has been overshadowed by the cyclone, which struck Myanmar two days later. Organizers hope to raise Myanmar’s profile in the same way that activists have put Chinese control of Tibet and the Darfur genocide on the map.
Another goal of the project is to sign up a million new members for the U.S. Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based organization that promotes democratic change in Myanmar.
The videos can be found at uscampaignforburma.org.
Some of the spots are sketches that try to draw attention to the troubled nation by injecting humor, such as one featuring Jennifer Aniston and a recalcitrant Woody Harrelson, who refuses to leave his trailer. “I’m not coming out until Burma is free,” he shouts.
Others are serious, such as one directed by Anjelica Huston in which comedian Eddie Izzard praises the young people of Myanmar who led protests against the regime last year. “We must use our freedom to help them get theirs,” he says.
Huston said in an interview that she took part in the project to highlight the injustices of the regime. “I am particularly drawn to the idea of this small, extraordinarily beautiful country that has been suppressed in this terrible way for so long and the fact that the leader of the democratic party has been shut up under house arrest for 12 of the last 18 years,” Huston said.
The campaign has attracted such celebrities as director Judd Apatow, Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona, actor Joseph Fiennes, singer Sheryl Crow, action star Steven Seagal, actress Felicity Huffman and producer Norman Lear.
One 90-second video features Iranian artist Davood, who is shown in time-elapsed photography painting a portrait of Suu Kyi. Only at the end does it become clear that she is wearing handcuffs.
In another, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” star Eric Szmanda and alumna Jorja Fox play a card game called “Forced Labor,” in which he holds the cards of a Burmese soldier and she is dealt the hand of a civilian, who suffers rape, torture and murder.
“I don’t think I like this game,” Fox says.
“No one does,” Szmanda replies.
Szmanda, who visited refugees along the Thai border and briefly crossed into Myanmar last year, said he was stunned by the heart-wrenching accounts of civilians who escaped the regime.
“Something came over me while I was there. I didn’t feel a sense of pity, I felt a sense of urgency,” he said. “I had a chance to meet a lot of former political prisoners who are now living on the border of Thailand. It’s unbelievable what some of them had to do endure for nine or 10 years.”
Actress Rosanna Arquette, who appears in a spot condemning the destruction of 3,200 villages by the regime, said she was moved to participate in the project because of the plight of Suu Kyi.
“She has done so much and she is still a prisoner,” Arquette said in an interview. “And the world doesn’t really know. There are no Americans there to help. It’s really like a creepy secret.”
Jack Healey, the former head of Amnesty International who helped raise that group’s profile through celebrity concerts, had a key role in organizing the Burma project. He said one of his goals is to give Suu Kyi the kind of profile that Nelson Mandela had while he was imprisoned in South Africa.
“We want her to be the Mandela of her time,” he said. “Maybe by the end we will all know who she is.”
Fanista, a new “social commerce” shopping website, underwrote and produced many of the spots and offers customers a 10% rebate that they can donate to the U.S. Campaign for Burma.
In his spot, Stallone talks about his fourth “Rambo” movie, which was released earlier this year and casts the Myanmar dictatorship as the villain. The film depicts “atrocity de-mining,” in which civilians are forced to walk ahead of the army at gunpoint to uncover hidden land mines. The regime banned the movie.
“While it is flattering to be part of a movie that is giving the Burmese people hope and it is cool to say ‘I’m banned in Burma,’ these people need real hope,” Stallone says in the 80-second spot. “Let’s do something we can be proud about.”