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Burmese artists walk a thin line between art and politics

The motto for the latest film festival in Myanmar was quite unusual: free art, free thoughts, freedom. The country has been opening up politically, but does that apply to the art scene?

U Maung Maung Thein paints a landscape in his atelier

U Maung Maung Thein feels safe painting landscapes

Comfortably, the Burmese censor leans back in his cinema seat - pot-bellied and slightly sleepy after the filling lunch the producer paid for him. Suddenly he stares at the screen, wide-eyed he yells: "Ban that scene! Remove it! That makes the State look undignified. If people from abroad see it, they will think that beggars exist in Myanmar." "Everybody knows there are beggars in Myanmar," another censor replies. The former responds: "They can exist in real life, but not in this movie!"

"Ban that scene!" by director Htun Zaw Win is an astonishing work of art. In only 18 minutes the film puts censors on and accuses them of corruption. That is probably why the film won the audience award at the Art of Freedom Film Festival, which took place in Yangon in the first week of January. More than 50 films were shown – without having passed the censors beforehand. And that is probably the biggest surprise.

A painting from U Maung Maung Thein's atelier

Burmese artists have not been free to paint what they want

Forced labour for a joke

For decades the Burmese military reigned ruthlessly over the people of Myanmar. Every song, book or work of art had to be approved by censors. Those who criticised the government could be arrested, tortured and severely punished.

That is exactly what happened to the Moustache Brothers, a comedic trio from Mandalay, a city in central Myanmar: In 1996 the three comedians performed at a rally for opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi. Shortly thereafter, two of the three disappeared for years in labour camps in the countryside. Since their release the Moustache Brothers are no longer allowed to put on public shows.

Instead, they perform for a couple of tourists in a Mandalay garage every night; marked by age and grief – but undaunted nonetheless. "My 85-year-old mother," Lu Maw, one of the "Brothers" yells in his rattling, "sits outside our garage every night, watching out for our secret service. And when she sees them, she whistles." Then she whistles. The tourists laugh.

Old government, new shape

However, the new government – installed after controversial elections in November 2010 – tries to appear more democratic. On a few occasions, it has released political prisoners, among them popular comedian Zaganar. It has also slackened censorship laws and has invited opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi to hold talks with President Thein Sein. Myanmar seems to be opening up.

Nonetheless, Lu Maw remains sceptical. "You see this bottle of Mandalay Beer. Now I put a new label on it. Johnny Walker Red, for example," he says. "But, you know, inside it is still the same old beer, not Whiskey. It is the same with Burma: New bottle, old content."

Whether or not the changes will last, jazz guitarist Zeck is not so sure. "For us, it is very difficult to understand what is happening. We cannot assess reliable information. Therefore we cannot predict what is going to happen. But it is obvious that people need change," Zeck explains.

Mustache Brothers Par Par Lay und Lu Maw perform for tourists in Mandalay

Two of the Mustache Brothers Par Par Lay und Lu Maw in Mandalay

Criticism is lurking everywhere

Like every musician, 32-year-old Zeck files his song texts with the censorship board. His songs are philosophical. They deal with love, the search of oneself and one’s place in this world. They do not have much to do with politics. But even he was censored once - when he used the word "sword" in one of his texts. According to the censors the choice of words sounded too dangerous.

But not only words are considered a threat; even paintings are black-listed by the authorities. "There are many rules for the modern artists. That is why some people do not dare to paint what they really want to paint," 73-year-old painter and collector U Maung Maung Thein explains.

He points at one of his paintings depicting pagodas against a sunset. Thein is a landscapist, an impressionist. With that kind of art, he has never really had much to fear. "In other countries in this world, artists are free to paint whatever they want. Even in China the artists have a little chance to be free – and that is a very strict country. But this is not possible in Myanmar."

Testing the limits

Burmese artists walk a fine line when expressing themselves through art. Like in many other countries, the art scene in Myanmar flourished or withered depending on the political situation, the extent of exchange with other cultures and facilitation of the arts. Nowadays, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi seems to embody the latter.

According to her, "Artists help to create more beauty in this world. To open our eyes to aspects of our life that otherwise we may not have noticed. This is why artists are important. To imprison them for their beliefs and for their ideas is to make our world more narrow."

A giant poster advertises the Burmese rock band, Big Bag

The band Big Bag has helped create Myanmar's rock scene

Last fall, the politician asked Burmese musicians to write more political songs. In the last few decades, bands mostly borrowed Western melodies, and added to them their own lyrics. Now the country has its own pop and rock scene slowly emerging. Painters and filmmakers have started to stretch the boundaries of their freedom – as displayed at the Art of Freedom Film Festival, for which Aung San Suu Kyi delivered the opening speech.

"We want to test the limits of the state," Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, one of the organisers of the festival, explained in an interview. For now, the limits for artists are still quite strict. But that has just begun to change.

Author: Monika Griebeler

Editor: Sarah Berning

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