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Myanmar's artists fight back after coup

Nadine Wojcik
February 16, 2021

Art under a military regime? Artists in Myanmar definitely don't want that and are creatively fighting against the coup to bring democracy back.

A protester dressed as Batman
Myanmar protesters get creative with costumesImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

It's not easy to get Maung Sun on the telephone. Every day, he films on the street of Yangon, documenting the peaceful demonstrations. At night, he edits his footage and uploads it on social media websites. The videos are simply called "Day 1" or "Day 8" to denote the days after the coup and the turning point when people began staging protests. A couple of activists have tattooed the date on their forearms.

Filmmaker Maung Sun
Filmmaker Maung SunImage: Maung Sun

Maung Sun has found a quiet street to be in while he speaks with DW — the protests can get very loud. "The first thing that comes to my mind is the shock, because even though we had a feeling that a coup could take place, we never really expected that to happen in reality." Maung Sun's film Money Has Four Legs recently premiered in the Busan International Film Festival, one of the largest film festivals in Asia.

It's a gutsy film about censorship in his country. The film was actually slated to start in Myanmar after the pandemic-induced restrictions were lifted, but now, everything is upside down and freedom of expression is not the only thing at stake.

Artists after the coup

Maung Sun finds it encouraging to see so many young people taking to the streets and their innovate ways of protesting the regime. People are protesting dressed as spirits and in colorful costumes. Girls in gowns march on the streets, carrying placards that say, "I don't want a military regime, I want a boyfriend." Other participants include drag queens and body builders with naked torsos carrying pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Htein Lin knows what he's fighting for. The famous artist and performer had also participatedin the 1988 Uprising that was brutally crushed by the military. It is during this crisis that Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the former opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), emerged as a national icon and was put under house arrest for 15 years.

At the time, people had taken to the streets to protest against the tyranny of the military, which had been been ruling the former British colony for many of the years after it gained its independence in 1948.

The color of the NLD party, red, was banned and so were pictures of its leader. "In '88 we were fighting against what we had experienced — military rule and socialism — whereas now we are fighting for what we fear we will lose," says Htein Lin.

As chairman of the Association of Myanmar Contemporary Art (AMCA), Htein Lin is constantly in touch with many artists.

Every day, painters, performers, writers, musicians and supporters meet in front of the building of the High Court, blocking the street in front of it, sketching pictures of the protests and selling them. Proceeds from the sales go to the countrywide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Members of the AMCA, who founded the association only recently, were planning a press conference for February 1, the day the coup took place.

A military crackdown can be very hard and Htein Lin knows this. In 1998, he was sent to prison for almost seven years for political dissent, but that didn't stop him from pursuing his work as an activist. Lin, who is 54 now, painted in his cell, despite being forbidden to do so, using bowls and cigarette lighters to make paintings and monoprints on the cotton prison uniform. "This 2021 protest has a different dynamic, with fewer leaders, and a more organic nature. Every group — from the garment worker unions to gays to golden retriever owners clubs — is out on the streets."

Generation Z: a new self-confidence

"Those who lead this revolution are from Generation Z," writes Moe Satt, a performance artist who, like Htein Lin, is also a member of the AMCA. "They grew up with high technology. Generation Z is very smart. Generation Z knows well that normal revolution is not effective."

As a sign of protest, the youth quickly adopted the three-finger salute, a gesture from The Hunger Games, a fantasy book series about a dystopian world that has been made into a major motion picture. The salute has also become a symbol for revolt in neighboring Thailand, where people were arrested for displaying it.

Overnight, the gesture became a symbol of the protests. Many artists paint the three-finger-hand, sketch them on walls or project them on homes in the night.

Born in 1983, Moe Satt grew up under the military dictatorship. Thanks to the democratization and the opening up of his country, he is internationally famous and has been able to participate in exhibitions in foreign countries and even curate some himself. "I don't want my son to undergo the same thing. I don't want my son to grow up like us. I don't want my son grow in the age of fear," he says.

Nathalie Johnson also perceives this decisiveness of the artists. "They have no fear right now," says the American curator, who runs the Myanm/art gallery in Yangon. The project is very close to her heart and she moved to Yangon 10 years ago after finishing her art studies in Singapore.

Today, Myanm/art is one of the most important addresses for contemporary art in Myanmar. She points out that young artists in the country "know how to live under censorship. They know how to live under a military dictatorship. They just don't want to."

'Exceptional, experimental stuff'

The art expert is particularly impressed by the ways street artists are now integrating in their work cheeky and sharp criticism of the military and army general Min Aung Hlaing. "I have never seen this before in all my years here," Johnston says, explaining that there was always some kind of self-censorship. "It's not that artists didn't do things like this before, but it was much more coded."

Protesters in Myanmar display the three-finger salute
Myanmar's protesters flashing the three-finger saluteImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

In 2012, the government in Myanmar abolished only pre-publication censorship, which meant that journalists no longer had to submit their copies for approval before publishing them. Critical publications however, were still punished if they they were deemed to disturb public order. That is why criticism of leaders has always been very subtle, between the lines. "So I think they've discovered something. I don't know, almost like a new voice," adds Johnston.

Johnston's gallery is a creative meeting point. As a supporter of unusual talents, it means a lot to her to see how people are expressing themselves in a free and imaginative way.

She now recognizes in the streets the type of art she fostered in young artists: "And I'm super proud of them. I'm just thrilled with how Yangon has descended into a beautiful, creative anarchy," she says.

Arts and Culture - Friday, October 01, 2021


Adapted from German by Manasi Gopalakrishnan

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