"Everyone in authority is fair game": Carol Isaacs on the cartoonists ridiculing the Myanmar junta

June 13, 2021
Carol Isaacs

Soon after the February coup in Myanmar, members of the Myanmar Cartoonists’ Association took to the streets to protest the return of junta rule. Images they had drawn of the three-finger salute were soon seen by Carol Isaacs, a London-based cartoonist known as The Surreal McCoy and musician with family ties to Myanmar. As a member of the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation (UK) she wondered what international cartoonists could do to demonstrate solidarity with protestors in Myanmar, and the Three Fingers campaign was born.

We recently spoke with Carol about the role of humour and satire in movements against authoritarian rule. Carol has been publishing cartoons—in the form of memoir, satire and otherwise—for more than two decades, and is the author or co-author of a number of works, including the graphic novel, The Wolf of Baghdad: Memoir of a Lost Homeland, published in 2020.

Photo courtesy of The Surreal McCoy

You have family connections to Myanmar. What does the situation there evoke for you, particularly the arrests and killings of poets, writers and others in the field of arts?

My last visit to Myanmar was over a year ago, just before the pandemic struck. I found the mood to be optimistic; people were looking forward to the future. The coup cruelly put an end to all that and it was desperately sad to see so many dreams crushed overnight.

On a previous visit a few years ago I was lucky enough to meet and interview the renowned veteran cartoonist APK. Even though direct censorship had ended in 2012, he was still wary. Having worked through previous years of military rule he understood the need to tread carefully. However, at that time he was more concerned that younger artists were unable to make a decent living from their trade and would end up leaving the country.

Fast forward to 2021 and a couple of cartoonist colleagues have had to flee Myanmar with their families, fearing for their lives—a different kind of exodus. Incredibly there doesn’t seem to be any let-up in their creativity, whether in exile or under duress. The resilience and bravery of the Myanmar people is nothing short of amazing and awe-inspiring.

Artwork by APK

Artwork by APK

Artwork by APK

We recently asked several Myanmar artists whether they thought art could survive a dictatorship. One replied that a dictatorship doesn’t just limit what you can write or paint; it “drowns an idea before it takes root”. How would you respond to that?  

There are also many artists continuing to work despite the coup, some having found new impetus to create work that reflects their current situation. And perhaps some ideas don’t drown but remain in a state of suspended animation until the time is right. Ko Khet Thi writes in one of his poems: ‘You try so hard to bury us underground, because you don’t know that we are the seeds.’

Ko Khet Thi

He was murdered by the junta in May—one of a number of poets who were killed. Not long before, he had written:

‘They began to burn the poets
When the smoke of burned books could
No longer choke the lungs heavy with dissent.’

Were you surprised at the attacks on artists? What does that kind of violence achieve for a regime such as this?

I’ve been told that political poetry has a long history in the country. Since poets are continuing to provide the battle cries of the resistance movement, they are therefore viewed as a threat by the junta who try to silence them with arrests, imprisonments and killings. There is also a long tradition of cartooning in Myanmar and the violence against artists whose only weapons are words and pens is particularly cruel and inhuman.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is the measure of a healthy democratic society. The Tatmadaw are only doing what all totalitarian regimes do—their very best to obstruct and deny it.

I’m interested in the subversive quality of humour. That’s something that Myanmar satirists, cartoonists and otherwise have used to powerful effect in the past. Can you explain what value the cartoon as an instrument of political action carries, especially in terms of its ability to convey humour?

The first rule of a great cartoon is that it always punches up instead of down. That is aiming towards those in power, rather than at the helpless and vulnerable. Which means that in the world of satire everyone in authority is fair game. The Myanmar military and their supporters are routinely held up to public ridicule and contempt by cartoonists and writers alike. Cartoons especially can be very effective, adding that extra layer of visual dimension to the words. The long-held idea that humour should ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’ also goes towards providing some much-needed escape and relief for those suffering under a cruel regime. The American writer Dorothy Parker even argued that ridicule was best used as a shield rather than a weapon—in other words, as a defence mechanism for the victimised instead of a tool deployed by those in power. Either way, the military junta seem to have very thin skins, and are easily offended by any kind of mockery or lampooning. Cartoonists in particular do that very well. Just look at all the images on placards and banners held at protest marches. Social media is also awash with them.

Artwork by Black Art (May 11, 2021)

Artwork by Harn Lay

Artwrok by Saw

Ridicule won’t topple a regime though. At what level, and for whom, can it be effective in a situation like this?

Ridicule can help draw attention to the actions of the junta in such a way that they become absurd and are viewed as entertaining. The political theorist Hannah Arendt once said, ‘The greatest enemy of authority, and the surest way to undermine it, is laughter.’ The satirists in Myanmar also need the rest of the world to know what is happening to their country and the use of ridicule is a powerful tool.

I remember a campaign launched years ago in which women posted their underwear to Myanmar embassies around the world, aiming to exploit a superstition held by the generals that proximity to female underwear would weaken their powers. Are people like these gold dust to satirists?  

Certainly. Some of the most powerful images coming out of Myanmar recently have been the lines of women’s everyday htamein (skirts) strung out across roads to impede military access. There’s an old Myanmar tradition that women’s clothes and undergarments bring bad luck to any man in close proximity and cause him to lose his ‘hpone’ (masculine superiority). The words ‘Our victory, our htamein’ have been seen on banners at marches, celebrating the use of a degrading superstition about women as a defence tactic.

Photo from Linn

The use of flash imagery and symbols appears increasingly central to mobilising anti-government protest movements, particularly in Asia. I’m thinking of the three-finger salute as one example. What is the force of such a symbol?

The three-finger salute has been popular not least because of its simplicity. After all, anyone can do it and it’s an easy way to show support without words. Adopted by democracy movements across Southeast Asia as an anti-authoritarian message and symbol of solidarity, it has become ubiquitous on social media. Young Myanmar activists who have grown up with the internet are using it to convey their own resistance to the coup and to make their plight resonate with international audiences.

Photo from the BBC

Why was that symbol chosen for the Raise Three Fingers campaign?

I had seen photographs of the Myanmar Cartoonists’ Association protesting on the streets of Yangon soon after the coup. They were holding up placards with their cartoon characters giving the three-finger salute. I thought that the best way to show solidarity and support to our colleagues was to draw a selfie giving the same salute so I asked members of the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation to contribute to a #threefingers social media campaign. This brought us to the attention of the Raise Three Fingers team and we have been in collaboration since then.