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Art As A Weapon

June 1, 2021
by 
Ma Yu

Two weeks after the military in Myanmar took power in a coup, a meme began circulating inside the country that riffed off a once-famous Batman and Robin meme.

In the first of two illustrations, Batman is replaced by the Lord Buddha, who slaps the face of Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing. The coup leader is shouting: “Protect our race, religion and prosperity!” to which the Buddha responds: “Shut Up!”, and aims his hand at Min Aung Hlaing’s face. In the second, the Buddha is replaced by a masked female protester. “State secrets, shooting orders, arrest warrants!” Min Aung Hlaing shouts. “Suck it!” the protestor responds.

“Protect our race, religion and prosperity!” to which the Buddha responds: “Shut Up!”

“State secrets, shooting orders, arrest warrants!” Min Aung Hlaing shouts. “Suck it!” the protestor responds.

Kool created the meme shortly after the Myanmar military took power in a 1 February putsch of the civilian government. The 33-year-old illustrator was born in Yangon and grew up in the era of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the regime that ruled until 2011. She understood, from a young age, the insecurity and violence of life under the military.

Various artists have long used illustration and humour to resist the oppression of junta rule in Myanmar. Kool started taking interest in drawing by reading the comic books of prominent satirical cartoonists and artists. One of these was U Pe Thein, who was widely respected for both his artistic talent and political convictions. His works were banned in 1988, after the military responded to a major uprising by killing some 3,000 protestors. Kool admired U Pe Thein; his political convictions, and his hunger to serve the people, began to be reflected in her work.

Kool’s early political consciousness was expressed through activism. But the 1990s and 2000s were an angry time for Kool. “In the past, I was always on the street and I wanted to vandalize all government property because I didn’t like the military government,” she reflects. When Myanmar came under pseudo-civilian rule in 2015, her desire to inflict damage on state property began to diminish, and her optimism grew. But those heady times for Myanmar were not to last. “As soon as military rule came around again, I got back out on the streets.”

Artwork by Kool

Since the coup, some 30 artists have been arrested and detained. Others have been killed after police and soldiers opened fire on lines of protestors. The rapid descent into a human rights and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar as a result of the coup has caused many people to revise their understanding of what in their day-to-day lives is important.

“Trying to be alive is first,” Kool says. “Not to be arrested is second.” With the regime posting wanted lists in state newspapers on which journalists, artists and celebrities regularly feature, Kool now feels the threat very closely.

She is part of a broader community of artists—illustrators, musicians, and more—that knows that any political movement will struggle to sustain its energy and spirit when faced with constant violence. Not everyone will have been shot, arrested or assaulted by Myanmar security forces, but many will know someone who has. This alone is enough to instil fear in protestors and—so the military hopes—potentially force the civil disobedience movement into a state of submission. Kool, like others, has seen friends beaten and sexually assaulted by police and army. The violence has reached a point whereby several of her colleagues see no choice but to lower their public profile.

The fear of a loss in momentum for the CDM is therefore understandable.

Htet, a musician and artist, produces work directly intended to inspire and sustain the movement’s spirit of defiance. “When I was creating a piece titled ‘Freedom from Fear’ [a phrase made famous by Aung San Suu Kyi in the 1990s], I wanted to encourage others to put their chest out and their chin up and escape from their fears,” she says.

‘Freedom from Fear’ by Htet, a musician and artist

Despite the brutal crackdown and the ever-present threat of arrest and violence, Myanmar artists are determined to continue utilising the weapon they know best. “I’m not very good at running, so instead of exposing myself to violent crackdowns, I choose protest art instead,” Htet says. She has created instrumental versions of protest songs, while the proceeds from a number of works she has sold have gone to supporting protestors. “This is what I can do as an artist to resist the military. Others have given their lives so why should I give up?”

For Kool, threats, anxiety, fear—these should never be allowed to dent the spirit of a resistance movement, especially given the knowledge of what would happen were the protestors to retreat and the military cement its control of the entire country. In that scenario, those life-limiting emotions would become part of day-to-day living.

Artwork by Kool

Artwork by Kool

Kool continues to believe in art for change. “I think the movement is moving to another phase. Art is one of the key factors that can motivate or inspire the people of Myanmar. For me, seeing people marching and chanting the slogans is quite motivating. And I will never be tired of creating art for those brave people.”

Kool’s works are among those featured on Raise Three Fingers, a campaign hub founded by artists and creatives in Myanmar to bring the global art community together and highlight the unfolding human rights and humanitarian crises caused by the military coup.

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Follow Kool's work on Behance