Three Myanmar artists on how art survives a dictatorship

May 21, 2021
May Yu

Since the 1 February coup in Myanmar, dozens of artists—filmmakers, cartoonists, painters, poets and more—have been detained by the military. The coup and its aftermath has transformed the landscape for public art: many within the artistic community in Myanmar have been forced underground, while others who once produced art for personal reasons— to relax, or as a means of therapy—have found themselves shifting towards more political forms as a result of their exposure to state violence and persecution.

Yet, despite the chill that recent events have sent through the community, Myanmar’s artists are no stranger to using the art form as a mode of resistance to tyrannical rule. It is thus of little surprise that Myanmar’s military sees art produced independently as a form of opposition—and as a threat.

The Raise Three Fingers (RTF) campaign began as a response to the coup and the military’s suppression of creative thought and expression. Artists across the globe have offered their interpretations of the now-famous three-finger salute, first seen in the book and film The Hunger Games, and since taken up by activists in countries across Southeast Asia as a show of solidarity against authoritarian governments that are failing to provide their populations with basic rights and protections.

Here, we spoke to three Myanmar RTF founders and artists whose lives and work have been radically transformed by the coup.

We put to them a simple question: Can art survive a dictatorship?

Nyan Kyal

Nyan Kyal is co-founder and director of the Pencell Animation Studio. His award-winning first film, “I Wanna Go to School”, was released in 2015. A second film, “My Life I Don’t Want”, came out in 2016. He is one of the founders of Raise Three Fingers and Art for Freedom (MM).

"I heard the news about the coup and immediately expressed my feelings through my art. I contributed to the movement with my arts, I supported the people with my art, I shared my thoughts through my art. I do this in any medium: online and printed paper; on walls and roads, in pictures and in videos. I do this however much the junta is trying to stop us. Art exists in our hearts. Our creations originate from our feelings and our thoughts. Art is playing a big role in this Spring Revolution.

But of course, our artists are in danger. The junta can unlawfully destroy our work, detain us or even kill us. We have to run and hide. We have to take action so that we can keep creating without being tortured by the junta—the terrorists. Most artists can’t even put their pen names to their art, let alone their real names. They have to be anonymous. I have been unlawfully issued a warrant for my arrest for breaching 505a, which targets critics the junta. Their forces are after me. Although I’m hiding, I’m not safe at all. Anything can happen in a split second.

But whatever happens to the artists, art won’t die. It will always exist. Art that is used to fight for freedom and justice will remain. I call for every artist in this revolution to keep creating, to keep using soft power to fight until justice prevails. And thanks to all the artists, both locally and globally, for sharing their warmth by fighting for justice alongside us."

Nobel Aung

Nobel Aung is art director of the Pencell Animation Studio, which he founded with his brother, Nyan Kyal, in 2017. He directed, along with Nyan Kyal, Myanmar’s first set of animated music videos, which set a new standard for Myanmar’s art and film industry. He is one of the founders of Raise Three Fingers and Art for Freedom (MM).

"On the night before 1 February I didn’t sleep. I was up making my new comic book series and, before I eventually went to bed, I checked my newsfeed. I was shocked. It felt as if my dreams were fading away. We’d already experienced many years of military dictatorship, but over the previous three to four years, it felt like various areas of life were getting better. Our dreams were starting to come true. But this coup took that from us. Do you think we will let that happen again? Absolutely not. I was repeating to myself: “Why did they do that? Don't they know it is 2021? Do they underestimate the power of this generation?”

So can art survive this dictatorship? No. Is art produced under unfree conditions really art? Or will artists just end up producing art that the junta allows—or that even serves their propaganda efforts—just so they can get ahead in life? If we let that happen, we will go back to the old ways. Art will be produced that confirms the junta’s worldview, and that reinforces its regressive ideas around nation, ethnicity, religion and otherwise.

During the dark period of junta rule, many great local comics and cartoonists, as well as publishing houses, were self-censoring, fearful that the junta would arrest them or revoke publishing licenses. It’s clear now, as it always has been, that the military doesn’t like us to tell the truth to the world.

But now is the time to end this. The world has heard us, and we will continue."

Nyi Maw

Nyi Maw began making films 12 years ago. Now freelance, he had been working at a Yangon production house as a commercial and documentary director.

"Every dictatorship wants absolute control over the people. To get there, they limit information, ideas and knowledge. They lower education, suppress culture and censor any means of self-expression. This was the reality of every youth that grew up in Myanmar in the decades leading up to the start of the transition. And it’s happening all over again right now.

What a dictatorship does to art is not only to limit what you can write, paint, rap or film. It goes much deeper. It drowns any thought or idea before it can even take root. When you live under constant fear and scrutiny, self-censorship becomes second nature.

This is where art dies. You take fewer risks. You work only within the limits you’re given. You scrap an idea before it takes shape because you already know the Ministry of Culture will put a red line through your script. What’s the point then? Couple this with extreme poverty and limited access to resources, and it doesn’t leave much room for art to flourish.

As someone who operates within the realm of arts, I fear for my passion, my livelihood, my future. The longer we live under oppression, the more we become numb to it and accept it as the norm. I fear for the worst-case scenario, that one day they won’t even need guns to control our thoughts anymore. It just becomes part of life. I know because I already lived it.

Nonetheless, I am hopeful that different forms of art will continue to emerge as a result of sheer courage and resilience. There is great merit to art born of hardship and struggle. And we will all appreciate it for its beauty. However, this is in no way the norm. We demand the utmost basic human right — freedom of thought. And we will not settle for anything less."