Myanmar Arts Festival of Disabled Artists

Yangon, Myanmar

It is a pleasure to be here today and a pleasure to see so many people attending the opening of this first festival of arts for people with disabilities in Myanmar. Over the next three days, you will be experiencing a world you never knew existed; a world where blind painters, deaf drummers, and wheelchair dancers shine under the spotlight. They will show off their best artwork and put on their best performances. You may wonder how they accomplish these seemingly impossible feats. You may even wonder whether the performances are real? The answer, of course, is an emphatic yes! But only because these individuals believed in their untapped potential and most importantly had the courage and determination to confront the difficulties that arose from their disabilities.

Whether it is in charities, subsidies, or social services, people with disabilities in many parts of the world have been positioned at the receiving end. Having a disability automatically placed a limit on what they could and could not do, and for many this meant forgoing such important opportunities as education, vocational training, and employment.

But over the years, organizations for and by people with disabilities have been established all over the world. In Asia, The Nippon Foundation has been working with various organizations that aim to overcome the limitations facing the blind, the deaf, and people with other physical disabilities. In tandem with these various organizations, we are implementing projects to offer people with disabilities the tools to build their capacity for self-determination and realize their full potential.

Here in Myanmar, we are supporting the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative, or MILI, established in 2011 by three motivated young leaders with disabilities. MILI’s success has stemmed not from charity but the courage of the convictions of those with disabilities and their determination to follow through. The major event that changed their lives was the leadership training they received in Japan. They saw firsthand that with appropriate support, people with disabilities can live an independent life; and that if given equal opportunities for education, vocational training, and employment, they can be converted from beneficiaries to benefactors. This was a revelation for them. It was as if the ceiling of limitations had been lifted from their heads. Reaching this new potential and helping others to reach it as well became their mission. Since then, they have gotten many individuals with disabilities to join their initiative and The Nippon Foundation has been supporting their activities.

MILI is currently trying to set up branches all over the country and is busy training people with disabilities who will be able to manage these new posts. In the area of advocacy, the organization is conducting workshops for corporations and organizations in various sectors to give them new perspectives on people with disabilities. Furthermore, through this festival, MILI is reaching out to all people with disabilities in Myanmar, Asia, and the world.

The Nippon Foundation has supported similar festivals in Laos PDR, Vietnam, and Cambodia. We believe that these festivals are an effective way to boost the self-confidence of people with disabilities–both the artists and performers and those in the audience; to offer children with disabilities role models to strive for; and to offer society a new perspective on people with disabilities.

Next year, Myanmar will host the ASEAN Summit. On this occasion, The Nippon Foundation would like to assist the Myanmar government in holding the ASEAN Festival of Disabled Arts, as the summit’s official sideline event to unite disabled artists and performers from the ASEAN region and provide ASEAN countries with the opportunity to formally acknowledge the abilities of people with disabilities.

So ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be blown away because we will be uncovering the talents of Myanmar’s people with disabilities. It is my hope that the most outstanding performers will have the opportunity to make a performance and surprise the leaders of the ASEAN countries. In addition, we have guest performers from Japan: a group of deaf taiko drummers who are known to give the most sensational performances.

Let us make these three days the opportunity to embrace our diversity and realize the importance of an inclusive and barrier-free society where men and women, young and old, abled and disabled have an equal opportunity to participate and realize their full potential. To this end, the Myanmar government has been actively listening to the voices of people with disabilities to incorporate those views in its policies. This is a wonderful start. I hope that more voices from different groups of people with disabilities are able to come to the fore, providing various perspectives on building a truly inclusive and diverse society.