Artists of Korea, Myanmar fight against junta

June 12, 2021
May Yu

First published in The Korean Times

In May, a video was uploaded on YouTube as part of a campaign led by a group of Korean rock musicians to call for solidarity with anti-coup protesters in Myanmar.

The video showed 12 musicians jamming remotely to a drum beat that was edited into a single track. The piece built over nine minutes before its crescendo, but it was a comment beneath the video that had particular poignancy.

The comment read, "Present-day Myanmar is South Korea's past. Present-day South Korea is Myanmar's future."

For many in South Korea, events in Myanmar since the Feb. 1 military coup there have stirred old, and painful, memories, symbolized by the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. Civilians took to the streets to fight against the then Chun Doo-hwan government. Chun rose to power through a military coup.

In Myanmar, the popular pro-democracy protests continued but this didn't stop the military's brutal persecution of the innocent people. Since the outbreak of the coup on Feb. 1, over 800 people have been killed, including 44 children, and over 4,000 have been arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). Activists have responded by using social media in particular to form solidarity with people outside Myanmar, to build pressure on the junta to stop persecuting civilians and resign.

Myanmar artists have played a pivotal role in using protest art to amplify the people's battle for democracy online using digital art, graffiti, music, videos and memes. A few days after the coup, a Facebook page called Art for Freedom (Myanmar) was created as a platform for artists to share their artwork in an open-source format for the public to use freely in protests and online.

At the same time, a group of filmmakers started Latt Thone Chaung (meaning three fingers in Myanmar), using their skills to document injustices taking place in the streets. They interviewed people in mini-documentary videos to tell the other side of the story, beyond what was being aired on national television.

Art for Freedom (Myanmar), Latt Thone Chaung and the Professional Cartoonists' Organisation (U.K.) founded Raise Three Fingers, a campaign hub calling on allies around the world to stand with artists and creatives in Myanmar. Using the iconic three-fingered salute, creative communities worldwide are returning and amplifying the people's plea for justice and freedom.

South Korean artists were among the first to join the cause. "Four decades ago, the citizens of Gwangju staged a protest against the military. The photo of a soldier clubbing a protester to death. A young child holding the family tight for protection. It was the sight of Gwangju at that time; it is the sight in Myanmar now" said Im Ah-Yong, an employee of the Gwangju Youth Creative Hub. The group in April launched the Peace Hand Gesture/Three-Fingers Salute workshop to support and express solidarity with the citizens of Myanmar.

In the same month, the presidents of 11 film festivals issued a joint statement condemning violence at the hands of the Myanmar military, which has killed more than 700 protesters since February. They also called for an immediate halt to the imprisonment of Myanmar filmmakers, four of whom have been detained.

Artwork by Gharliera, South Korea

The sense of shared suffering is strong in South Korea's artistic community. "We share the same pain," says Gharliera, a cyberpunk artist based in Seoul. "It's time not only for us but for many other people to know what is happening in Myanmar and to help." His focus however rests firmly on civil society, and not governments or institutions that have so far been unable to shift the Myanmar military's stance on the coup. The caption below one of his pieces ― an interpretation of the three-finger salute used by anti-coup demonstrators ― reads: "The U.N., U.S. and the international community are not interested in Myanmar's tragedy. This fact should be known more."

This theme has been picked up elsewhere in Korea. Soo, another digital artist, produced her own critique of the shortcomings of international institutions when it comes to political crises in Myanmar. Her artwork depicting an iMessage chat between Myanmar and the U.N. shows a notification that reads: "The internet connection appears to be offline," as a commentary on the lack of response from the international community as the Myanmar people struggle to get their message out amidst internet shutdowns.

"We have a similar history of fighting against military dictatorship," Soo said. "We know that it is not easy. It is not without blood, sacrifice or dedication. We know that democracy is not something we can get magically. We have to fight for it. I, and Korean citizens, want Myanmar's people to live in a free world, not under authoritarian rule."

In light of the historical similarities between the Gwangju Uprising and protests in Myanmar, Gallery Podonamu in Gwangju is hosting Raise Three Fingers' first international exhibition in support of the pro-democracy movement.

For gallery owner Cheung Hyun-joo, the exhibition is a show of solidarity with the people of Myanmar and hope for a better future. "Please listen to the voices of these artists through the exhibition and then act on how we can help to provide economic, mental and material support for Myanmar. The May spirit of Gwangju lives with this solidarity."


See all Korean artworks from our archive

"Democracy in Myanmar" by Choi Dae Ju 최대주

"Our support for Myanmar's Strugle for Democracy" by Park Tae Kyu 박태규