Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military launched a violent coup to overthrow the country’s democratically-elected government in response to the landslide November 2020 electoral victory of Myanmar’s de facto leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy.
Creative artists, including writers, poets, filmmakers, painters, musicians, satirists, graphic artists, and others, have been among the vanguard of the public response to the coup, using their creative tools to denounce the coup, to defend the freedoms gained during the country’s 10-year political opening, and to call for greater change. They have built upon decades of creative protest in Myanmar, from the popular and outspoken pro-independence songs of the 1930s, to the elusive but subversive poetry of the 1970s and 1988, to the mocking satire of the early 2000s.
The military’s retaliation to this public response has been swift and violent.
PEN America’s report Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup explores the creative response to the coup and the military’s retaliatory crackdown, framing it within Myanmar’s long history of creative expression and protest. The report reflects extensive research, including a database of specific cases of repression and in-depth interviews with 21 creative artists that document their experiences and perspectives.
The coup’s immediate impact on the creative sector was devastating, with most galleries, art schools, associations, independent television channels, and other creative institutions closed down or forced underground. Yet, creative expression flooded the streets and digital space, often led by members of “Gen Z” who grew up during the political opening and who had no desire to return to the dark era that their parents so loathed and defied. Social media platforms abounded with illustrations, poetry, and music. Silent protests, satirical street theater, temporary public sculptures, and evocative graffiti filled public spaces.
Creative artists have used their work and influence to further the movement to resist military dictatorship, creating and disseminating art both on and offline. Meanwhile, creative expression unrelated to the coup has largely disappeared from the public discourse, as many creative artists have switched their attention to the movement at the expense of less publicly palatable non-political themes. Even so, artists also represent rapidly evolving social norms and advocacy for broader change through their work, in some cases pressing for a more tolerant Myanmar.
Vibrant creation has faced violent oppression, with targeted detentions and extrajudicial killings, alongside the military’s broader arbitrary crackdowns. PEN America has identified at least 45 creative artists who have been detained since the coup started, with many more being hunted and targeted for arrest, or forced to flee into hiding or exile. At least five have been brutally killed and many more have been subjected to abuse and torture. The third wave of COVID-19, exacerbated by the military’s mismanagement and attacks on healthcare workers, has further devastated the creative sector, with the loss of many artists, writers, musicians, and actors.
The military has attempted to prevent online communication and organization: repeatedly shutting or slowing down internet access, blocking websites, and trying to force telecommunications companies to ramp up surveillance—all of which have affected the ability of creative artists to access information, share their work, and speak and create freely.
Many creative artists have taken substantial measures to protect themselves and those around them, including, for some, relocation, and others, anonymity, ensuring that they can keep working while reducing the likelihood that their works will be traced back to them.
Some creative artists are struggling with mental health issues caused by the coup. Guilt that creative expression is never “enough” drives them onwards. Battling widespread insecurity and the constant fear of raids, they describe experiencing anxiety, depression, and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress.
Despite censorship, violence, and mental health struggles, creative artists interviewed for this report say they are resolute and committed to their evolving roles as both leaders and facilitators of the anti-military dictatorship movement. While many believe there is worse yet to come from the military, they also know that the vast majority of the public is behind them, and that their creative expression holds great social and political importance for the future of the country.
Based on the findings in Stolen Freedoms, PEN America puts forward a series of recommendations targeted at Myanmar’s military to end its repression of the people of Myanmar, including the creative community. PEN America also proposes recommendations for foreign governments and intergovernmental bodies, the international creative community, and donors to hold the military accountable for violations of creative expression, while simultaneously strengthening political, financial, and peer support for Myanmar’s creative sector that is adaptable and responsive to the changing situation in the country.
Get out of the Maze
By Ma Thida
No more at the junction of two roads.
No more at the fork in the road.
We are already in the maze.
We know the path is convoluted
but we are determined to walk.
Not missing our goal
like rodents follow
the smell of cheese
without having an experience of
what peace is.
We just follow the scent of blood
rather than curve those passages and
get out of the loop into the dead end
but the path tends towards the sea of blood
no more at the junction of two roads.
We are in the maze.
Flowers might be fallen
but Spring won’t be ruined.
We cry out in the roads
respect our votes
but our roads had been stopped.
Our votes had been chopped.
No more fork in the road.
We are trapped in the maze.
Fight or fright?
Passage to the prison?
Or to the tomb?
We can only choose the right not to fight.
Someone arrested this evening
the next morning the family received his dead body.
Why can we still choose to be frightened?
Many of us who were ambiguous
chose the path of armed struggle.
No more at the junction of two roads.
We are in the maze.
An eye for an eye
would make the whole world blind
but among intellectual blinds
An eye on the walls of a maze
could shoot you till death and
there are many eyes fixed
on this puzzled road.
There will be no branch
without a watching eye.
No more fork in the road.
We are in the built maze.
We still need to reach our goal
though we are forced not to choose the paths anymore.
We can still break down those unicursal walls.
Together we can still make the maze
into an organized space of certain future
with common interests and shared values.
We just need to be aware of
what this maze is, and
how we can turn it inside out.
Let’s get out of this maze
Together.1Ma Thida is a Myanmar human rights activist, surgeon, writer, founding director of PEN Myanmar, and former prisoner of conscience. She is currently Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. Ma Thida, “A Poem by Ma Thida,” PEN/Opp, November 5, 2021, penopp.org/articles/poem-ma-thida
On October 17, 2021, Kyar Pauk, the lead singer of the rock band Big Bag, auctioned his ukulele, decorated with his own artwork. The payment—$27,500—was donated to Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG).2The National Unity Government is a government in exile formed by a group of elected lawmakers and members of parliament ousted by the 2021 coup. “National Unity Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” National Unity Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, accessed November 22, 2021, nugmyanmar.org/en; “Who’s Who in Myanmar’s National Unity Government,” The Irrawaddy, April 16, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/whos-myanmars-national-unity-government.html In doing so, Kyar Pauk was risking the increased ire of Myanmar’s military, which had already issued an arrest warrant for him in April for “anti-state activities.”3“Auction for Myanmar Rocker’s Ukulele Breaks World Record,” The Irrawaddy, October 18, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/auction-for-myanmar-rockers-ukulele-breaks-world-record.html
Kyar Pauk is just one of a myriad of Myanmar musicians, singers, painters, sculptors, performance artists, writers, poets, cartoonists, and filmmakers who have used their art to express their hostility to the February 1, 2021 military coup and to support the anti-military dictatorship movement. They join a long line of creative artists who have played historic roles fighting for free and creative expression and independence throughout Myanmar’s tumultuous history.
PEN America’s report Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup explores both the considerable chilling effect the coup has had on the public expression of art in the country and—in defiance of this chilling effect—the outstanding outpouring of creative expression since the coup by those who refuse to be silenced. This report also offers a set of recommendations for supporting creative expression in Myanmar now and in the future. As today’s creative artists build upon and draw inspiration from what came before, the report uses a historical frame of reference, juxtaposing current realities with historic creative expression, from British rule and independence, to the nearly five decades of previous military rule, to the recent political opening—the last of which came to a calamitous halt with the military’s antidemocratic and unlawful seizure of power.4Bertil Lintner, “Is There a Way Forward Now for Myanmar?” Global Asia 16, no. 1 (March 2021) globalasia.org/v16no1/focus/is-there-a-way-forward-now-for-myanmar_bertil-lintner The report also places the current Myanmar movement within a wider regional context, linking it to the democracy and solidarity movements across South East Asia and beyond.
This is PEN America’s second report on free and creative expression in Myanmar. The first, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, was published six years ago, in the wake of the historic parliamentary election landslide that brought Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power.5Jane Madlyn McElhone and Karin Deutsch Karlekar, “Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar,” PEN America, December 2, 2015, pen.org/research-resources/unfinished-freedom-a-blueprint-for-the-future-of-free-expression-in-myanmar; Jonah Fisher, “Myanmar’s 2015 landmark elections explained,” BBC News, December 3, 2015, bbc.com/news/world-asia-33547036 It was the NLD’s second landslide victory in November 2020 that escalated its political standoff with the military, which the military then used as a guise for carrying out the bloody February 1 coup.6Rebecca Ratcliffe, “UN decries Myanmar ‘catastrophe’ as Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial looms,” The Guardian, June 11, 2021, theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/11/un-decries-myanmar-catastrophe-as-aung-san-suu-kyi-trial-looms
The report uses a historical frame of reference, juxtaposing current realities with Myanmar’s rich history of creative expression and artistic resistance, acknowledging the contributions of Myanmar’s past generations of creative artists and their tangible links with the present, and providing a framework by which to understand and analyze current expression and resistance. This juxtaposition of the past and present also sheds light on intergenerational perspectives and contemporary responses to the coup.
The report’s co-authors conducted a desk review of articles, media reports, and books addressing creative expression in Myanmar historically and following the coup, and then worked with two Myanmar consultants and other Myanmar-based partners to conduct qualitative research, including a database of specific cases of repression, a review of the current circumstances of 110 leading creative artists, and in-depth interviews with 21 visual and performance artists, writers, poets, and musicians. The co-authors also consulted expert observers of freedom of expression and Myanmar more broadly. Interviewees provided key examples of creative expression that are highlighted throughout the report.
While it endeavors to be inclusive and representative, a report of this length and nature can not fully capture the scale of creative expression in the post-coup period, or historically. It should therefore be viewed as a snapshot.
The sensitivity of the forms of expression discussed in this report, as well as the fact that many people were working underground or in remote locations with limited communications, presented challenges in terms of research and interviewing. PEN America has taken steps to ensure the security of all those involved, as well as heightened data protection for any information gathered, particularly identifiable private information. Only those individuals who have given PEN America permission to use their names, are playing public roles, and/or have already been publicly identified in the articles referenced in this report, are identified by name. As an additional step to protect interviewees’ identities, PEN America uses “they/them/their” pronouns for all individuals quoted within the report who have requested anonymity.
PEN America has taken care throughout to avoid any direct or indirect recognition of the legitimacy or lawfulness of the military coup. For the sake of clarity, the report places regulatory terms, such as law, in quotation marks whenever there are questions about legitimacy and lawfulness; for example, military-appointed “ministers” and military-adopted “amendments.”
Lastly, a note about the report terminology: PEN America generally uses the term Myanmar to refer to the country or population, except in the historical context section, where the terms Burma/Burmese are used interchangeably for the period prior to 1989, when the military regime changed the name Burma to Myanmar. The word Burmese is also used throughout the report to refer to the language.7J.F. “Should you say Myanmar or Burma?” The Economist, December 20, 2016, economist.com/the-economist-explains/2016/12/20/should-you-say-myanmar-or-burma; The majority of people in Myanmar, referred to as Burman (Bamar), are reported to make up approximately 60% of the population: Simon Roughneen, “Controversy marks start to Myanmar’s first census in three decades,” Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2014, latimes.com/world/la-xpm-2014-mar-30-la-fg-wn-controversy-marks-start-to-myanmars-first-census-in-three-decades-20140330-story.html The term “creative artist” is used throughout the report to refer to individuals engaged in creative expression, including literary writers, poets, visual artists, filmmakers, and singer/songwriters.
Myanmar’s long history of creative expression
It is challenging, if not impossible, to capture the breathtaking scale of Myanmar’s long history of creative expression in a single report. Traditional art forms, known by the public as the “10 flowers” (pan sè myo), include metalwork, sculpture, and paintings, and can be traced back over a thousand years with close links to the development of Buddhism and Hinduism.8The others being goldsmithing, bronze-casting, floral motifs from stone, masonry, lathe-work, and lacquerware: “10 Myanmar Traditional Arts,” Myanmar Travel Information, accessed January 4, 2010, web.archive.org/web/20100104230600/myanmartravelinformation.com/mti-myanmar-arts/index.htm A comparatively long history of public literacy, driven by the desire to read Buddhist verse, enabled literature to flourish earlier than elsewhere in the region.9Juliane Schober, “Colonial Knowledge and Buddhist Education in Burma,” in Buddhism, Power and Political Order (London: Routledge, 2007), 57, academia.edu/879830/Colonial_Knowledge_and_Buddhist_Education_in_Burma Poetry has also played an important role for hundreds of years, including in the royal dynasty courts and in the resistance to the British.10“Why So Many Poets were Elected to Parliament in Myanmar,” Coconuts Yangon, December 4, 2015, coconuts.co/yangon/lifestyle/why-so-many-poets-were-elected-parliament-myanmar/ In 1873, when Lower Burma11J.F. “Should you say Myanmar or Burma?” The Economist, December 20, 2016, economist.com/the-economist-explains/2016/12/20/should-you-say-myanmar-or-burma was under British control and repressive laws constrained media and free expression, Upper Burma’s monarch, King Mindon, passed “Southeast Asia’s first indigenous press freedom law.”12“Chronology of the Press in Burma,” The Irrawaddy, May 2004, irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=3533&page=2 In 1906, Burma’s illustrious film industry got its start in the streets, with film projected onto large cotton sheets supported by scaffolding. The first Burmese feature film followed in 1920, as did documentaries of student and independence leader funerals, and the country’s longest civil war in Karen (Kayin) State.13Aung Min, “The Story of Myanmar Documentary Film,” The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation, December 11, 2012, guggenheim.org/blogs/map/the-story-of-myanmar-documentary-film; Zon Pann Pwint, “Family of studio founder to mark 90 years of movies,” Myanmar Times, January 23, 2012, mmtimes.com/lifestyle/1318-family-of-studio-founder-to-mark-90-years-of-movies.html
Fight for independence
By the early 1900s, creative expression became more politically engaged, subversive, and revolutionary. Following World War I, the nationalist poet U Maung Lun—whose pen name “Mr. Maung Hmaing” poked fun at Burmese who adopted English affectations such as putting “Mr.” before their name—called on Burmese to resist foreign influence and power.14“Thakin Kodaw Hmaing,” The Irrawaddy, March 2000, irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=1836 Promoting national pride, the independence movement adopted songs such as ‘Nagani’ (Red Dragon).15Aung Zaw, “Burma: Music under siege,” in Shoot the Singer!: Music Censorship Today, Volume 1 (London: Zed Books, 2004), 39, freemuse.org/news/myanmarburma-music-under-siege/ In 1915, a British railway official drew the first cartoon published in the country;16Tin Htet Paing, “Burmese Cartoons Celebrate Centenary in Rangoon,” The Irrawaddy, December 31, 2015, https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/burmese-cartoons-celebrate-centenary-in-rangoon.html shortly after, a 1917 cartoon by Shwe Ta Lay—critiquing British officials for wearing shoes in Buddhist pagodas—contributed to the rise in Burmese nationalism and demonstrated the power of political artwork.17Aung Zaw, “Pioneers of Burmese Cartooning,” The Irrawaddy, March 2, 2020, irrawaddy.com/from-the-archive/pioneers-burmese-cartooning.html; Jennifer Leehey, “Message in a Bottle: A Gallery of Social/Political Cartoons from Burma,” Asian Journal of Social Science 25, no. 1 (January 1997): 152, deepdyve.com/lp/brill/message-in-a-bottle-a-gallery-of-social-political-cartoons-from-burma-WmegN1ausH In the 1930s, the Khitsan poetry movement got its start at Rangoon (now Yangon) University and contributed to the independence struggle during British rule.”18Maung Day, “A brief introduction to the poetry of Burma,” British Council, November 7, 2016, britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/brief-introduction-poetry-burma; “Why So Many Poets were Elected to Parliament in Myanmar,” Coconuts Yangon, December 4, 2015, coconuts.co/yangon/lifestyle/why-so-many-poets-were-elected-parliament-myanmar According to Burmese writer and poet Maung Day, “Khitsan is sometimes translated as ‘testing the times’ and sometimes as ‘renewal of times.’”19Maung Day, “A brief introduction to the poetry of Burma,” British Council, November 7, 2016, britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/brief-introduction-poetry-burma
In 1947, months before the country’s formal independence, Burma’s first constitution guaranteed a right to freely express opinions and convictions. Writers, poets, painters, visual artists, musicians, cartoonists, and filmmakers experienced a brief, heady period of free and creative expression, with few restrictions and little harassment.20Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 17 Following independence, the Burmese press was considered one of the freest in Asia.21Aung Zaw, “Burma: Music under siege,” in Shoot the Singer!: Music Censorship Today, Volume 1 (London: Zed Books, 2004), 40, freemuse.org/news/myanmarburma-music-under-siege/ Yet as time passed, these freedoms were gradually curtailed by the government, and literary criticism and other forms of writing became increasingly politicized.22Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 17 In 1948, U Nu became the first democratically elected prime minister in Burma; in his memoirs, he revealed that he had really longed to be a playwright.23“Why So Many Poets were Elected to Parliament in Myanmar,” Coconuts Yangon, December 4, 2015, coconuts.co/yangon/lifestyle/why-so-many-poets-were-elected-parliament-myanmar
In 1962, when General Ne Win seized power in a military coup—the start of close to five decades of military dictatorship and censorship—free and creative expression suffered a deadly blow.24Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 18 By 1964, private publications were shut and editors and journalists arrested. While documentary filmmaking was largely used for propaganda, political cartooning provided critique and political commentary. Feature films continued to be produced and screened in cinemas across the country, yet by 1968 cinemas and production houses were nationalized, leading to a sectoral decline. Ne Win also sought to use music to serve his political agenda, appropriating songs and musicians and banning western music and dancing; yet given the rising popularity of rock and pop music in the early ’60s, there was resistance, especially from the younger generations. An underground music culture called “stereo” music emerged, with music secretly recorded and distributed.25Aung Zaw, “Burma: Music under siege,” in Shoot the Singer!: Music Censorship Today, Volume 1 (London: Zed Books, 2004), 40-42, freemuse.org/news/myanmarburma-music-under-siege/ Much of book publishing remained private, yet it was subject to the Press Scrutiny Board’s pre-publication approval. Censorship boards were also created for film, video, music, paintings, and book covers. In the 1970s and 1980s, monthly literary magazines became a prominent platform for writing, literature, and literary debate.26Jennifer Leehey, “Writing in a Crazy Way: Literary Life in Contemporary Urban Burma,” in Burma at the Turn of the 21st Century, ed. Monique Skidmore (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), 175–205 A new style of Burmese literature also emerged, “characterized by shifting and elusive meaning, which through its very shifting . . . captures something important about the subjective experience of everyday life under military rule.”27Jennifer Leehey, “Writing in a Crazy Way: Literary Life in Contemporary Urban Burma,” in Burma at the Turn of the 21st Century, ed. Monique Skidmore (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), 175–205 Meanwhile, writers and poets, who continued to meet in tea shops to discreetly discuss their works, were targeted and blacklisted.
In 1974, a new constitution granted freedom of speech, expression, and publication in line with the so-called “Burmese Way to Socialism”; publishers were forced to submit printed copies of their publications which were then censored, either by having pages ripped out or sections blacked out. Writers and poets adopted pen names and abstract, coded language. The line between poetry and activism blurred, and hundreds of writers and poets became political prisoners.28“Why So Many Poets were Elected to Parliament in Myanmar,” Coconuts Yangon, December 4, 2015, coconuts.co/yangon/lifestyle/why-so-many-poets-were-elected-parliament-myanmar
The 1988 student uprising is considered a key moment in Myanmar’s history. The “88 Generation of Students” who led the uprising—many of whom spent decades in prison—are held in high esteem. An estimated 3,000 people were killed and 3,000 more imprisoned. Ten thousand people fled the country, including many students, journalists, cartoonists, writers, and other artists, some to ethnic minority-controlled areas along the borderlands, and others into exile.32Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 21 The famous Burmese comedian and satirist Maung Thura, well-known by his stage name Zarganar, was arrested for participating in the pro-democracy movement and imprisoned until April 1990.33Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 22 Another satirist, writer, and supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, Maung Thawka, was elected president of the unofficial Union of Burmese Writers in 1988. When Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest in 1989, Maung Thawka was also arrested and died in prison two years later.34Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 22
In 1989, the SLORC amended the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, outlawing “sensitive” topics and increasing fines for violations.35Examples included democracy, human rights, politics, the 1988 uprising, government officials, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. Ibid, p.22 Leading writers, such as the chairman and vice-chairman of the Myanmar Writers Association, Ba Thaw and Win Tin, were arrested. Escalating production costs and censorship obstructed publishing. Ethnic minority writers and intellectuals were arrested or went underground, and fewer books were published in their minority languages. In 1989, the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs established a new censorship board, ostensibly to “protect” Burmese music from so-called foreign influences, and to “warn” musicians to be “patriotic and cooperate” with the state-controlled Myanmar Media Association.36Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 23 The film and video industry was targeted, with actors and directors arrested, the chairman of the Burma Film Society charged with treason, and actors and directors pressured to work with the official Motion Picture Organization. Following a performance at the NLD headquarters during the 1989 Thingyan New Year water festival, musicians and singers were also arrested. In May 1990, one month after being released from prison, Zarganar was rearrested after performing stand-up comedy about the Minister of Information at the Yankin Teachers Training College Stadium in Yangon.37“Zarganar: Myanmar,” PEN America, accessed November 22, 2021, pen.org/advocacy-case/zarganar Sentenced to five years imprisonment but released in March 1994, he was banned from using his stage name and from performing publicly or attending public events. Despite these sanctions, the military often invited him to appear on military television. He declined their invitations.38Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 23
Writers and journalists who fled the country in 1988 to the protected borderlands published magazines that featured young writers and cartoonists. Private monthly magazines re-emerged inside the country in the 1990s. Short stories were considered a popular and important literary genre, in great part due to their use of metaphors, allusion, and irony.39Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 24-25 Yet since all printed publications had to be submitted to the Press Scrutiny Board, there was pressure to self-censor. Prior to computers, censorship largely happened after printing but before distribution, so physical changes would need to be made to the printed copies or they would have to be scrapped at significant cost. Then, with the introduction of computers in the 1990s, pre-print censorship was introduced.40Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 24–25
During this time, documentary filmmaking was still nascent inside the country, yet under the tutelage of the the Yangon Film School (YFS) and the Alliance Française in the mid-2000s, a new generation of Burmese filmmakers emerged on the scene. Local punk and hip-hop bands also emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The anti-establishment punk rock songs performed by local bands such as No U-Turn and Side Effect became famous. The first Burmese hip-hop group, ACID, was founded in 2000 by Phyo Zayar Thaw and three of his fellow musicians, Annaga, Hein Zaw, and Yan Yan Chan. Band members had to submit their lyrics, demo tapes, recordings, and artwork to censors, and risked being targeted by authorities and arrested if they were deemed to promote democracy and social justice.41Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 27
Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis
In September 2007—in what became known as the Saffron Revolution—thousands of students, including prominent leaders of the ’88 Generation, monks, and other people of Myanmar participated in massive demonstrations across the country, calling for an end to military rule and for democracy.42“Saffron Revolution in Burma,” Burma Campaign UK for Human Rights, Democracy & Development in Burma, accessed November 22, 2021, burmacampaign.org.uk/about-burma/2007-uprising-in-burma The military regime arrested thousands of people, including many of the protest leaders. Despite the risks and strict media censorship, Myanmar activists found ways to post photographs and videos of the demonstrations online until the military shut off the internet.43“Saffron Revolution in Burma,” Burma Campaign UK for Human Rights, Democracy & Development in Burma, accessed November 22, 2021, burmacampaign.org.uk/about-burma/2007-uprising-in-burma Inspired by the Saffron Revolution protests, popular hip-hop artist Phyo Zayar Thaw co-founded the youth activist group, Generation Wave, using creative expression, including hip-hop and graffiti, to advocate for democracy. On March 12, 2008, he was sentenced to six years in prison for participating in anti-regime protests; five other members of Generation Wave received five-year sentences. Phyo Zayar Thaw later became an NLD MP.44Min Lwin, “Hip-Hop Performer among Latest Victims of Court Crackdown,” The Irrawaddy, November 20, 2008, globaljusticecenter.net/files/Article.HipHopPerformeramongLatestVictimsCourtCrackdown.TheIrrawaddy.Nov.2008.pdf; Namoi Gingold, “Generation Wave Celebrates 6th Anniversary,” The Irrawaddy, October 10, 2013, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/generation-wave-celebrates-6th-anniversary.html; “Junta arrests former NLD legislator accused of leading attacks on regime targets,” Myanmar Now, November 19, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/junta-arrests-former-nld-legislator-accused-of-leading-attacks-on-regime-targets Known for their satirical skits and jokes aimed at the military, the acclaimed a-nyeint comedy troupe, Thee Lay Thee & Say Yaung Zona, was asked to sign a document saying they would not make jokes on stage,45A-nyeint is a traditional form of theater performed in Myanmar that includes music, songs, dance and comedy; Myanmar Celebrity, “ဗိုလ်ချုပ် မွေးနေ့ နှစ် (၁၀၀) ပြည့်မှာ ဖျော်ဖြေခဲ့တဲ့ နှင်းဆီ အဖွဲ့ အပိုင်း (၂),” YouTube, February 12, 2015, youtube.com/watch?v=0d170zhm5sU but at a performance in Yangon in the wake of the protests, their jokes attacked the military’s crackdown on protesters. Although the recording of that performance was officially banned, it reached a huge audience outside of the country, as well as inside via VCDs (video CDs) that were circulated underground.46“From Rock to Romance,” The Irrawaddy, December 2008, irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=14749
One year later, in 2008, artists organized fundraising activities for the victims of the devastating Cyclone Nargis, during which 50,000 people—reportedly the largest concert audience the country had seen to that point—attended a benefit concert by the Myanmar band Iron Cross at the Thuwanah Sports Stadium in Yangon.47“From Rock to Romance,” The Irrawaddy, December 2008, irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=14749 While some artist associations were allowed to fundraise, others were banned, including the Mandalay pro-democracy comedy troupe, Moustache Brothers.48Brooten, McElhone, and Venkiteswaran, “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition,” in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 30
While the partial relaxation of censorship for creative works did create a new openness and a freer space for previously banned music, comedy, and traditional forms of satirical critique, bureaucracy and a restrictive legal framework continued to create hurdles that were at times insurmountable. Live music performances, for example, continued to require advance permits, a process that was blatantly wielded by the authorities to control musicians and their music. Performance art, live music, and live theater were always under threat from the vague Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which contained several provisions that could be used to arbitrarily close down events and criminalize organizers.56Brooten, McElhone and Venkiteswaran (2019), “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition”, in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 38–39 The film censorship board prevented politically sensitive films on issues of conflict and human rights violations from being screened,57“Maintaining a Reality? – Structures of Censorship in Myanmar,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, July 2, 2018, myanmar.fes.de/e/maintaining-a-reality-structures-of-censorship-in-myanmar/ while allowing others with violent, nationalistic, and discriminatory undertones.58Aung Kaung Myat, “Military Rule May Be Over, But Myanmar’s Film Industry Remains in a Tawdry Time Warp,” Time, August 22, 2018, time.com/5374231/myanmar-cinema-film-movies/ In 2016, after the NLD came to power, the film censorship board also blocked the film Twilight over Burma59“Twilight over Burma,” IMDb, accessed November 22, 2021, imdb.com/title/tt4265880/from being screened at the annual Myanmar Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi was the film festival patron.60Brooten, McElhone and Venkiteswaran (2019), “Myanmar Media Historically and the Challenges of Transition”, in Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019), 38; “About Us,” Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, accessed November 23, 2021, hrhdiff.netscriper.biz/about-us/ These regressions were in line with other rollbacks on free and creative expression and media freedom under the NLD.61“Scorecard Assessing Freedom of Expression in Myanmar,” PEN Myanmar Center, May 2, 2018, pen-international.org/app/uploads/2018-Scorecard-ENG.pdf
Creative artists often fell afoul of Myanmar’s myriad laws criminalizing expression, which were wielded against journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens for their online speech.62The range of repressive laws used to restrict and punish free expression are summarized in the following reports: Jane Madlyn McElhone and Karin Deutsch Karlekar, “Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar,” PEN America, December 2, 2015, pen.org/research-resources/unfinished-freedom-a-blueprint-for-the-future-of-free-expression-in-myanmar; Linda Lakhdhir, “Dashed Hopes: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Myanmar,” Human Rights Watch, January 31, 2019, hrw.org/report/2019/02/01/dashed-hopes/criminalization-peaceful-expression-myanmar These included the multiple criminal provisions in the Penal Code on defamation, sedition, incitement, and unlawful assembly. Threatening criminal laws also included the defamation provisions in the Telecommunications Law, which was regularly used to suppress dissent online.
On November 5, 2015, after publishing a poem on Facebook intimating he had a tattoo of the president on his penis, Maung Saungkha was arrested and accused of defaming Thein Sein, then president, under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. On May 24, 2016, he was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison, yet since he had already been detained for more than six months, he was released. Maung Saungkha was one of the first writers to be convicted and sentenced following the historic 2015 elections, and under Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law.63“Myanmar: Poet Maung Saugkha Released,” PEN America, May 24, 2016, pen.org/press-release/myanmar-poet-maung-saungkha-released/ He later was one of the co-founders of the civil society organization, Athan: Free Expression Activist Organization.64“About,” Athan, accessed November 22, 2021, athanmyanmar.org/about/
On April 12, 2019, award-winning filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was detained and later sentenced in August to one year’s imprisonment in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison. His crime: criticizing the military in his social media posts. Ko Ko Gyi was convicted under Section 505(a) of the Penal Code; 505(a) criminalizes making, publishing, or sharing “any statement, rumor or report” that encourages a member of the military “to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty.”65Charlotte Soehner, “Artist Profile: Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi,” Artists at Risk Connection, accessed November 22, 2021, artistsatriskconnection.org/story/min-htin-ko-ko-gyi As if the prison term alone was not vindictive enough, the military sought a sentence of hard labor knowing that Ko Ko Gyi was suffering from serious illness. On February 21, 2020, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was released from Insein Prison; the remaining charges against him under Section 66(d) were dropped. As soon as he was released, he called for changes to the Penal Code.66Charlotte Soehner, “Artist Profile: Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi,” Artists at Risk Connection, accessed November 22, 2021, artistsatriskconnection.org/story/min-htin-ko-ko-gyi
In October 2019, the military brought a case against poet Saw Wai for remarks he made at a political rally, and a court accepted the alleged military defamation charge under section 505(a).67“Saw Wai,” PEN America, accessed November 23, 2021, pen.org/advocacy-case/saw-wai/ In an unusual occurrence under section 505(a), Saw Wai was ultimately granted bail due to his age and compromised health, though the case continued.68Zaw Zaw Htwe, “Myanmar Court Grants Bail to Lawyer and Poet Sued by Military,” The Irrawaddy, February 3, 2020, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-court-grants-bail-lawyer-poet-sued-military.html Also in October, five performance artists from the group Peacock Generation were sentenced to imprisonment for “incitement to mutiny” after performing thangyat, a form of slam poetry.69The peacock is the symbol of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy. The charges were laid under Penal Code 505(a) which relates to inciting mutiny: “Myanmar: Satire performers who mocked military face prison in ‘appalling’ conviction,” Amnesty International, October 30, 2019, amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2019/10/myanmar-satire-performers-who-mocked-military-face-prison-appalling-conviction; “PEN America Condemns Sentencing of Five Myanmar Actors,” PEN America, October 31, 2019, pen.org/press-release/pen-america-condemns-sentencing-of-five-myanmar-actors/ Kay Khine Tun, Zayar Lwin, Paing Pyo Min, Paing Ye Thu, and Zaw Lin Htut were dressed in military fatigues and their chants mocked the authorities. The group faced a barrage of legal harassment for their performances. As they had performed in different locations, the authorities brought the same incitement charges under Penal Code Section 505(a) against them in multiple townships simultaneously.70Leila Sadat, “The Trial of the Peacock Generation Trope: Myanmar,” Clooney Foundation for Justice’s TrialWatch Initiative, August 2020, cfj.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Fairness-Report-on-the-Trial-of-the-Peacock-Troupe.pdf They were also charged and sentenced for online defamation after live-streaming the performance on Facebook.71“Myanmar: New convictions for ‘Peacock Generation’ members,” Amnesty International UK, May 18, 2020, amnesty.org.uk/resources/myanmar-new-convictions-peacock-generation-members Each charge added consecutive prison terms to their sentences, and they were only all released in April 2021, just before their parole date.72“Myanmar: More ‘outrageous’ convictions for satire performers,” Amnesty International, February 17, 2020, amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/02/myanmar-more-outrageous-convictions-for-satire-performers; “Nine activists among more than 23,000 freed as part of Thingyan amnesty,” Myanmar Now, April 17, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/nine-activists-among-more-than-23000-freed-as-part-of-thingyan-amnesty; During the same week, four other members of the group were detained on their way to an anti-coup protest
On a positive note, during this period some popular punk bands, including Side Effect, used their performances and influence to campaign against hate speech and persecution of the Rohingya, while others used hip-hop and other art forms to raise general political awareness among young people.73Hanna Hindstrom, “Myanmar’s punk rockers challenge anti-Muslim rhetoric,” Al Jazeera, November 3, 2015, aljazeera.com/features/2015/11/3/myanmars-punk-rockers-challenge-anti-muslim-rhetoric According to Side Effect’s lead singer Darko, his visits with Rohingya living in northern Rakhine State opened his eyes to their plight,74Bill Frelick, “‘Bangladesh Is Not My Country’: The Plight of Rohingya Refugees from Myanmar,” Human Rights Watch, August 5, 2018, hrw.org/report/2018/08/05/bangladesh-not-my-country/plight-rohingya-refugees-myanmar and the dangers of entrenched racism and hate speech.75Hanna Hindstrom, “Myanmar’s punk rockers challenge anti-Muslim rhetoric,” Al Jazeera, November 3, 2015, aljazeera.com/features/2015/11/3/myanmars-punk-rockers-challenge-anti-muslim-rhetoric Darko’s band also collaborated with the NGO Turning Tables on the song “Wake Up Myanmar,” which called for an end to military dictatorship and oppressive laws.76Hanna Hindstrom, “Myanmar’s punk rockers challenge anti-Muslim rhetoric,” Al Jazeera, November 3, 2015, aljazeera.com/features/2015/11/3/myanmars-punk-rockers-challenge-anti-muslim-rhetoric Another punk group, Rebel Riot, emerged in the wake of the 2007 Saffron Revolution; as a result of its 2013 songs, such as “Stop Racism” and “Fuck Religious Rules,” the band received online threats.77Hanna Hindstrom, “Myanmar’s punk rockers challenge anti-Muslim rhetoric,” Al Jazeera, November 3, 2015, aljazeera.com/features/2015/11/3/myanmars-punk-rockers-challenge-anti-muslim-rhetoric; The Rebel Riot, Fuck Religious Rules/Wars, Self release, 2014, Digital Media, therebelriot.bandcamp.com/album/fuck-religious-rules-wars
Compared to the previous period of repressive military rule, the political opening—during which Myanmar was governed by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) administration from 2010–2015, followed by the NLD’s first administration from 2016–2021—was marked by greater freedoms for creative artists and writers. When the NLD assumed power in 2016, expectations were particularly high. Yet despite calls from civil society, including free and creative expression advocates, the NLD failed to implement reforms, repressive legal structures remained largely intact, and criminal laws were used repeatedly to punish individuals for their creative expression and to chill free speech.78See for example, Free Expression Myanmar’s five year review of free speech reforms under the NLD, submitted to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review in 2020: “Reform abandoned?: 5-year review of freedom of expression for Myanmar’s 2020 UN Universal Periodic Review,” Free Expression Myanmar, accessed November 22, 2021, freeexpressionmyanmar.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/reform-abandoned.pdf; See also, for example, a package of case infographics produced by Athan on the NLD’s four years of reform for the 2020 World Press Freedom Day: “Analysis on Freedom of Expression Situation in Four Years under the Current Regime,” Athan, May 2, 2020, drive.google.com/file/d/1Suz4sCtyoiV6-W91rm7Bt_ZWMRszkTU1/view?usp=sharing As a participant in PEN Myanmar’s 2018 Scorecard Assessing Freedom of Expression in Myanmar noted, “People who freely express their opinions in this country are not safe.”79“Scorecard Assessing Freedom of Expression in Myanmar,” PEN Myanmar, May 2, 2018, p.5, pen-international.org/app/uploads/2018-Scorecard-ENG.pdf The legacy of the NLD’s first term in office was thus a deteriorating environment with regard to free and creative expression and media freedoms.
Immediately after seizing parliament, the military began stripping away judicial independence, ensuring its control over all three pillars of the state. The military suspended the supreme court’s power to enforce constitutional rights through the issuing of writs, and then replaced the majority of the judges who had been installed under the NLD with individuals from the military’s secretive tribunals.92Melissa Crouch, “The coup and the capture of the courts,” February 9, 2021, melissacrouch.com/2021/02/09/the-coup-and-the-capture-of-the-courts/; “Duty Termination from Justices of Supreme Court of the Union,” The Global New Light of Myanmar, February 5, 2021, gnlm.com.mm/duty-termination-from-justices-of-supreme-court-of-the-union/ It also preempted any claims on the legality of its coup d’état by appointing nine new members to Myanmar’s Constitutional Tribunal, a constitutional review body that the NLD had previously failed to establish.93“Appointment and Assignment of Chairman and members of Constitutional Tribunal of the Union,” The Global New Light of Myanmar, February 9, 2021, gnlm.com.mm/appointment-and-assignment-of-chairman-and-members-of-constitutional-tribunal-of-the-union/ The military has not yet begun systematically interfering with the lower courts, but those courts have little substantive power over the cases that they are hearing, and have mostly been slow or stalled since February 1.
After substantially weakening the independence of the courts, the military began changing the legal framework, including laws affecting creative expression. While military orders—issued under the spurious claim that the military had lawfully declared a state of emergency—are disguised as “directives,” “laws,” and “amendments,” they are best understood as a return to the previous regime’s system of rule-by-decree.94“Unlawful Edicts: Rule by Decree under the Myanmar Tatmadaw,” International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, March 15, 2021, icnl.org/wp-content/uploads/03.2021-LEGAL-BRIEFER-Rule-by-Decree-by-Myanmar-Tatmadaw.pdf From February 13–15, the military set about undermining due process and restricting some of the human rights that creative artists and others had gained over previous years. They first “suspended” legal safeguards on surveillance and court oversight of detentions, and restored a former military-era law criminalizing failure to inform the police of overnight guests.95The military “adopted” the Amendment of Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, suspending Sections 5, 7, and 8 for the period of the state of emergency. The privacy law was adopted by the NLD to establish safeguards in response to decades of intrusive surveillance and searches by Myanmar’s security services. The “suspended” provisions previously gave people some limited protection from invasion of privacy, surveillance, spying, and detention without court oversight: “Amendment of Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of the Citizens,” The Global New Light of Myanmar, February 14, 2021, gnlm.com.mm/amendment-of-law-protecting-the-privacy-and-security-of-the-citizens/; The military also “adopted” the Fourth Amendment of the Ward or Village Tract Administration Law to amend Sections 13, 16, 17, 27, 28, and 33. The amendment restored the crime of failing to inform local authorities of overnight guests, on penalty of a criminal record and a week in prison: “Fourth Amendment of the Ward or Village-Tract Administration Law,” The Global New Light of Myanmar, February 14, 2021, gnlm.com.mm/fourth-amendment-of-the-ward-or-village-tract-administration-law/ This enabled the military to detain individuals for longer than 24 hours without the need to present them before a court, a principle commonly known as “habeas corpus,” and reimposed the old fear of absolute military control over both public and private spaces.
In parallel to widespread detentions and arrests of creative artists, the military also attacked Myanmar’s already weak legal safeguards for creative expression, issuing illegitimate “amendments”—effectively military orders without any form of lawful legislative process—that added to Myanmar’s range of provisions used to criminalize speech. One of these “amendments” to the Penal Code added a new crime, Section 505A, of “spreading false news” with no definition of “false” and with provisions vague enough to be applied to creative expression.96The Penal Code amendment adds a new crime under Section 505A of “causing fear” or “spreading false news” with a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a fine: “Myanmar Ruling Council Amends Treason, Sedition Laws to Protect Coup Makers,” Irrawaddy, February 16, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-ruling-council-amends-treason-sedition-laws-protect-coup-makers.html; “15 February 2021,” The Global New Light of Myanmar, accessed October 1, 2021, gnlm.com.mm/15-february-2021/#article-title The amendment also introduced more serious punishments for a range of colonial-era crimes relating to expression, such as treason, sedition, and incitement to mutiny.97The amendment broadened Section 505(a), an already vague clause on incitement to “mutiny,” to criminalize encouraging disobedience and disloyalty to the military and government with a maximum of three years of imprisonment: “Myanmar Ruling Council Amends Treason, Sedition Laws to Protect Coup Makers,” The Irrawaddy, February 16, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-ruling-council-amends-treason-sedition-laws-protect-coup-makers.html; It also broadened Section 124, which relates to the pre-democratic crime of treason, to include several repetitive crimes of criticizing or hindering the military, with a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment. The military’s amendment of the Penal Code’s high treason provision, Section 121—which is punishable by death—is now so broad as to conceivably include creative expression: “15 February 2021,” The Global New Light of Myanmar, accessed October 1, 2021, gnlm.com.mm/15-february-2021/#article-title In a further attack on due process, the military illegitimately amended the Code of Criminal Procedure, stripping away basic legal rights to fair treatment by allowing warrantless arrests for serious crimes including treason and sedition, and making them non-bailable.98“15 February 2021,” The Global New Light of Myanmar, accessed October 1, 2021, gnlm.com.mm/15-february-2021/#article-title On August 3, the military also illegitimately amended the scope of Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law to include other crimes, some of which may encapsulate creative expression and could be used against creative artists. In a reversal of normal legal standards, the Counter-Terrorism Law places the burden of proof upon defendants, so that those charged with terrorism are essentially guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent.99The Counter Terrorism Law was “amended,” increasing the maximum term of imprisonment from three to seven years for the crimes of “persuasion” and “propaganda.” “Myanmar Coup Chief Amends Counterterrorism Law,” Irrawaddy, August 3, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-coup-chief-amends-counterterrorism-law.html On November 1, another illegitimate amendment to the Broadcasting Law brought back media-specific criminal laws such as imprisonment for running pirate radio stations, rolling back a decade of liberalizing reforms.100“Criminal media laws return, internet threatened,” Free Expression Myanmar, November 3, 2021, freeexpressionmyanmar.org/criminal-media-laws-return-internet-threatened/ These legal changes have collectively resulted in a return to a similar legal framework last seen under the previous period of military rule, in particular, the infamous Emergency Provisions Act, under which the military could detain people, including creative artists, indefinitely at whim.101The Emergency Provisions Act was adopted in 1950 and repealed by the NLD in 2016. It included the notorious Section 5(j) which was regularly used to arbitrarily punish those who express themselves: Wa Lone, “Myanmar repeals emergency law used for decades to silence activists,” Reuters, October 4, 2016, reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-law-idUSKCN1241JZ
For the past 10 months, the military has suppressed protests, free expression, and creativity in a giant show of disproportionate violence.102“Cities terrorised as junta escalates lethal violence against public on Armed Forces Day,” Myanmar Now, March 27, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/cities-terrorised-as-junta-escalates-lethal-violence-against-public-on-armed-forces-day As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, noted, “the generals have declared war on the people.”103Tom Andrews, “It’s as if the generals have declared war on the people of Myanmar: late night raids; mounting arrests; more rights stripped away; another Internet shutdown; military convoys entering communities,” Twitter, February 14, 2021, twitter.com/RapporteurUn/status/1361025118642843649 Yet despite—or perhaps because of—the crackdown, creativity has flourished as people in Myanmar have looked for new and innovative means to express themselves and to protest against the dramatic closure in the democratic and civic space.
People reacted quickly to the coup nationwide via a range of protest actions. Kyaw Zwa Moe, journalist and editor of independent Myanmar media outlet The Irrawaddy, indicated a few weeks after the coup that there were four key forces behind the movement: “Generation Z; the previous political generations, including the ’88 Generation guided by prominent student leader Ko Min Ko Naing; civil servants staging the civil disobedience movement, or CDM; and the elected NLD. The public is together with them.” While the demands are similar to those made by the previous generations, he adds that this is the most creative movement in the history of the country: “This uprising looks like a street performance with colorful costumes, stylish fashions, and weird wizards abounding. But we can all see how serious and determined these young people are on their mission to eradicate the military dictatorship and return to democracy.”104Kyaw Zwa Moe, “Defying Myanmar Military Regime in Harmony: Gen Z and Other Main Forces,” The Irrawaddy, February 13, 2021, irrawaddy.com/opinion/commentary/generation-z-forefront-uprising-myanmar-military-rule.html
Civil society, including the creative community, has played a leading role, and longtime professionals and budding artists alike responded with an explosion of creative expression and political art, from revolutionary songs, street graffiti, and body tattoos, to silent protests, murals, and poetry.105Robert Bociaga, “Myanmar artists draw on creative arsenal,” Nikkei Asia, October 6, 2021, asia.nikkei.com/Life-Arts/Arts/Myanmar-artists-draw-on-creative-arsenal; Emiline Smith, “In Myanmar, Protests Harness Creativity and Humor,” Hyperallergic, April 12, 2021, hyperallergic.com/637088/myanmar-protests-harness-creativity-and-humor/ On the first day of the coup, people in Yangon took to their balconies, yards, and streets to bang pots and pans—a traditional cultural expression to scare away evil spirits—every evening, and the protest quickly spread nationwide.106“Anti-coup protests ring out in Myanmar’s main city,” Reuters, February 1, 2021, reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-politics/anti-coup-protests-ring-out-in-myanmars-main-city-idUSKBN2A139S Artists joined them, projecting large-scale versions of their work featuring the three-finger salute onto buildings in Yangon every night.107Suyin Haynes, “Myanmar’s Creatives Are Fighting Military Rule With Art—Despite the Threat of a Draconian New Cyber-Security Law,” Time, February 12, 2021, https://time.com/5938674/myanmar-protest-digital-crackdown/ The next day, health workers, already busy dealing with COVID-19, kick-started a national civil disobedience movement, and teachers, students, factory workers, engineers, miners, civil servants, and large labor unions quickly joined in.108“Teachers, students join anti-coup campaign as hospital staff stop work,” Frontier Myanmar, February 3, 2021, frontiermyanmar.net/en/teachers-students-join-anti-coup-campaign-as-hospital-staff-stop-work/; “Myanmar Copper Miners Join Anti-Coup Strike,” Irrawaddy, February 6, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/myanmar-copper-miners-join-anti-coup-strike.html; Elizabeth Paton, “Myanmar’s Defiant Garment Workers Demand That Fashion Pay Attention,” The New York Times, March 12, 2021, nytimes.com/2021/03/12/business/myanmar-garment-workers-protests.html; Tint Zaw Tun, “Trade Union in Myanmar to prosecute those taking legal action against CDM participants,” The Myanmar Times, February 10, 2021, mmtimes.com/news/trade-union-myanmar-prosecute-those-taking-legal-action-against-cdm-participants.html Small street protests began on February 4 in Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay, followed by larger protests there and in Yangon and the military’s own city, Naypyidaw.109Kyaw Ko Ko, “Mandalay citizens protest against Tatmadaw rule,” The Myanmar Times, February 4, 2021, mmtimes.com/news/mandalay-citizens-protest-against-tatmadaw-rule.html; “There have been some minor protests against the military coup,” VOA News, February 3, 2021, burmese.voanews.com/a/myanmar-civil-disobedience-movement-/5762587.html; “Thousands of Myanmar protesters in standoff with police in Yangon,” Al Jazeera, February 6, 2021, aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/6/thousands-of-myanmar-protesters-face-off-with-police-in-yangon The protests were diverse, inclusive, and organic in nature, quickly growing to include hundreds of thousands of people, with vocal participation and leadership by the country’s youth.110Richard C. Paddock, “As Bullets and Threats Fly, Myanmar Protesters Proudly Hold the Line,” The New York Times, February 9, 2021, nytimes.com/2021/02/09/world/asia/myanmar-coup-protest-photos.html They were the country’s largest protests since the 2007 Saffron Revolution.111“Myanmar coup: Tens of thousands join largest protests since 2007,” BBC News, February 7, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55967959
The first days after the coup were largely peaceful, with very few members of the military visible on the streets. That changed on February 8, when police fired water cannons at thousands of peaceful protesters in Naypyidaw, and the military banned assemblies of more than five people and imposed a nighttime curfew.112“Myanmar coup: Police use water cannon on protesters,” BBC News, February 8, 2021, bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-55977478; “Myanmar junta imposes curfew, meeting bans as protests swell,” AP News, February 8, 2021, apnews.com/article/myanmar-anti-coup-protest-fd4252fbd800caa5d457de9dd65293b7 The next day the police began using lethal force, firing rubber bullets and live rounds at peaceful protesters and injuring at least six people.113“Six Protesters Injured After Myanmar Police Fire on Protest,” Irrawaddy, February 9, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/six-protesters-injured-myanmar-police-fire-protest.html The military also appeared on the streets, issuing arrest warrants for protest leaders and detaining at least a hundred protesters.114Michael Safi, “Myanmar: troops and police forcefully disperse marchers in Mandalay,” The Guardian, February 15, 2021, theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/15/myanmar-internet-restored-protesters-army-presence-aung-san-suu-kyi; “Myanmar coup: Troops on the streets as fears of crackdown mount,” BBC News, February 15, 2021, bbc.com/news/world-asia-56062955; Kyaw Ko Ko, “Protest crackdown begins in Myanmar, over 100 nabbed in Mandalay,” The Myanmar Times, mmtimes.com/news/protest-crackdown-begins-myanmar-over-100-nabbed-mandalay.html On February 19, 19-year-old student Mya Thwet Thwet Khine was shot by police while hiding in the street, making her the first “martyr” of the anti-military protests.115“Myanmar Student Dies 10 Days After Being Shot by Police at Anti-Coup Protest,” Irrawaddy, February 19, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-student-dies-10-days-shot-police-anti-coup-protest.html On March 4, 19-year-old singer, dancer, and tae kwon do champion Kyal Sin, nicknamed Angel, was shot in the head during a Mandalay protest. Prior to joining the protest, she posted her blood type on Facebook and left the note: “If I was wounded & couldn’t be back to good condition, pls do not save me. I will give the left useful parts of my body to someone who needs it.”116Yanghee Lee, “19 yr old Kyal Sin, Angel in English, left letter saying ‘If I was wounded & couldn’t be back to good condition, pls do not save me,’” Twitter, March 3, 2021, twitter.com/YangheeLeeSKKU/status/1367290454908104706
PEN Myanmar’s founding director and writer, Ma Thida, agrees that Myanmar’s older generations have had a very different response than the younger generations. “The older generations remember the past so they have concentrated more on security,” she said. “Many were imprisoned in the past because of their artwork, and so they know personally that creative expression can be dangerous. The younger generations don’t always have these memories or experiences. So, they are in some ways better equipped, and because of their age better prepared to cope with the future. But don’t give up on the older generation of artists. To be creative, they just need time to reflect, create, and to dig deeper.”136Interview conducted with Ma Thida on September 28, 2021 Tragically, the older generation was hit hard by the pandemic, with a significant proportion of older writers, poets, and other artists dying during the third wave of COVID-19 that followed the coup.137“Myanmar Mourns COVID-19 Deaths of Famous Artists,” Irrawaddy, July 28, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-mourns-covid-19-deaths-of-famous-artists.html; “Scores of Myanmar Artists, Entertainers, Succumb to COVID Virus,” Radio Free Asia, August 17, 2021, rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/lost-luminaries-08172021171230.html
Dr Jane M. Ferguson, a Myanmar specialist and lecturer in Southeast Asian history and anthropology at Australian National University, says that anti-coup rap and hip-hop music have also played a distinct role in the protest movement, attracting widespread local and international attention. She points to dozens of tracks by hip-hop artists living inside Myanmar and abroad that have been uploaded to social media platforms and streaming sites.138Burhan Wazir, “Myanmar rappers battle against the coup,” .Coda, March 17, 2021, codastory.com/disinformation/myanmar-hiphop-coup/ Ferguson adds that current anti-military hip-hop music was inspired by Myanmar’s historic thangyat satirical poetry, saying, “You already have this cultural affinity or propensity or skill to be able to come up with this form of rhythmic, rhyming poetry, which has always been political as well.”139Burhan Wazir, “Myanmar rappers battle against the coup,” .Coda, March 17, 2021, codastory.com/disinformation/myanmar-hiphop-coup/ Poets have also played a vital role in the post-coup period, speaking at rallies, penning poetry with anti-military themes, and inspiring protestors.
Myanmar’s protest movement has also been inspired by the tactics, ideas, and symbols of regional protest movements.140“‘Power in solidarity’: Myanmar protesters inspired by Hong Kong and Thailand,” Reuters, February 9, 2021, reuters.com/article/uk-myanmar-politics-protests-idAFKBN2A913B A Hong Kong protest tactics manual was translated into Burmese and widely shared on social media.141“The HK19 Manual (၂၀၁၉ ဟောင်ကောင်လှုပ်ရှားမှု လက်စွဲ)” Google Document, February 9, 2021, docs.google.com/document/d/1ZrIiXypVUvPIRs9JG8AsU55FkLsz81pqZstKQcbsAHc/edit Myanmar protesters wore red ribbons and adopted the three-fingered “Hunger Games” salute.142“Milk Tea Alliance: Twitter creates emoji for pro-democracy activists,” BBC News, April 8, 2021, bbc.com/news/world-asia-56676144 First adopted in 2014 by activists in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement143“Hong Kong protests: What is the ‘Umbrella Movement’?” BBC News, September 28, 2019, bbc.co.uk/newsround/49862757 and in Thailand in the wake of that country’s 2014 military coup,144“Thailand: Anti-coup protests use ‘Hunger Games gesture,’ ” BBC News, June 2, 2014, bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-27667848 and then again in 2019–20 during the Hong Kong protests,145“The Hong Kong protests explained in 100 and 500 words,” BBC News, November 28, 2019, bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-49317695 the three-fingered salute has become a symbol of resistance and solidarity for democracy movements across South East Asia and has inspired much artwork.146“Milk Tea Alliance: Twitter creates emoji for pro-democracy activists,” BBC News, April 8, 2021, bbc.com/news/world-asia-56676144 The art collective Raise Three Fingers, for example, creates art about Myanmar’s political crisis and advocates for support and solidarity from the international art community.147Jackie Fox, “Myanmar pro-democracy artists vow: ‘We will win,’” Raidió Teilifís Éireann, May 30, 2021, rte.ie/news/2021/0528/1224494-myanmar-coup-four-months/ Myanmar activists have also connected with the Milk Tea Alliance, an Asian online pro-democracy movement.148“‘Power in solidarity’: Myanmar protesters inspired by Hong Kong and Thailand,” Reuters, February 9, 2021, reuters.com/article/myanmar-politics-protests-int-idUSKBN2A914L; “Milk Tea Alliance: Twitter creates emoji for pro-democracy activists,” BBC News, April 8, 2021, bbc.com/news/world-asia-56676144 On April 8, the first anniversary of the Milk Tea Alliance, Twitter created an emoji featuring an image of milk tea popular in Myanmar superimposed on three different types of milk tea colors, representing the places—Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan—where the alliance first formed.149“Milk Tea Alliance: Twitter creates emoji for pro-democracy activists,” BBC News, April 8, 2021, bbc.com/news/world-asia-56676144
On the first day of the coup, the military seized control of state-owned television and radio broadcasters, forced private broadcasters off the air, and shut down access to the internet in a bid for mass control of all media and information, including of the arts. It took longer for the military to gain control of the physical public and private spaces used for creative expression. Numerous demonstrations took place in the weeks following February 1, including some organized by groups of writers and artists who marched through the streets of Yangon holding banners. “In the first days of the coup, we could generally express what we wanted, but then artists started getting arrested,” commented one visual and performance artist.150Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 “We couldn’t sing what we wanted to sing, we didn’t have freedom of expression any more,” said a hip-hop musician.151Interview conducted with a musician (#8) on September 18, 2021 The military’s crackdown on creative artists was not a surprise; some believed that “the military feared art”152Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 and “was afraid of Kalaung [pens and writers].”153Writer (#17) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021 A filmmaker argued that the military placed no value on creative expression whatsoever, and saw no problem in silencing it altogether.154Interview with a filmmaker (#10) conducted on September 21, 2021
The military engaged in a violent crackdown on public and private spaces during and after the coup. The tactics used against nonviolent protests were disproportionate and often indiscriminate, harming everyone from peaceful street protesters to small children in their homes.155“Myanmar: 43 Children Killed by Armed Forces in Just Two Months Since the Coup Began,” Save the Children, press release, April 1, 2021, savethechildren.net/news/myanmar-43-children-killed-armed-forces-just-two-months-coup-began At times, entire neighborhoods were cordoned off, with soldiers conducting house-to-house searches, arrests, and other forms of harassment.156“Myanmar coup: Protesters flee after being ‘trapped’ overnight,” BBC News, March 9, 2021, bbc.com/news/world-asia-56329220; Helen Regan, “Myanmar coup: fears grow for Myanmar residents in areas sealed off by military and under internet blackout,” CNN, March 17, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/03/17/asia/myanmar-blackout-military-martial-law-intl-hnk/index.html According to a novelist, “No one was safe, everyone was in danger at any time.”157Writer (#11) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021 Those who attempted to bear witness also faced extreme risk. As one filmmaker noted, when the police and military began their violent crackdowns on peaceful protests, they actively targeted those documenting the violence: “Suddenly the shooting started and it became so risky to hold a camera.”158Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021
Members of the creative community have played a key role in civic action and have often been caught up in the violence. At least five poets have been murdered since February, with several killed during street demonstrations.159Hannah Beech, “Where Poets Are Being Killed and Jailed After a Military Coup,” The New York Times, May 25, 2021, nytimes.com/2021/05/25/world/asia/myanmar-poets.html; ”A student from an ethnic minority group was killed in Myanmar’s Junta custody,” ASEAN Now, October 20, 2021, aseannow.com/topic/1236168-a-student-from-an-ethnic-minority-group-was-killed-in-myanmars-junta-custody/ Poets K Za Win and Myint Myint Zin were killed in March when the military opened fire on protests in which they were taking part, while poet, politician, and charity fundraiser Sein Win was doused in gasoline and burned to death by an unknown perpetrator in May.160Rebecca Ratcliffe, “‘Revolution dwells in the heart’: Myanmar’s poets cut down by the military,” The Guardian, May 16, 2021, theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/17/revolution-dwells-in-the-heart-myanmars-poets-cut-down-by-the-miltary In the years preceding the coup, Monywa poet and former Buddhist monk K Za Win was a land rights activist who was critical of the NLD; in 2015 he spent a year in prison for taking part in a rally for education reform. In the wake of the coup, K Za Win was a leading figure in protests, defending the election results. Prior to his death, he wrote on Facebook: “Though I have different views than you, I’ll lay down my life for you all.”161Joe Freeman, “Poets Are Among the ‘Martyrs’ in Myanmar Coup Protests,” Vice News, March 10, 2021, vice.com/en/article/xgzj94/poets-are-among-the-martyrs-in-myanmar-coup-protests
Maung Thar Cho’s close peer, the writer and former NLD information officer Htin Lin Oo was also detained by the military that morning. Htin Lin Oo was previously sentenced to six months imprisonment in 2015 under Penal Code Section 295(a) for offending religious freedoms after criticizing Buddhist nationalism, and has now reportedly been charged under Section 505A for spreading “false” information.171“Tun Khaing v. Htin Lin Oo,” Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, accessed November 23, 2021, globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/tun-khaing-v-htin-lin-oo/ Like Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, Htin Lin Oo used social media to warn of his looming detention in a video, saying, “I’m not opposing the army. I’m opposing the dictators who staged the coup. All of us civilians have to rise up and revolt against the dictatorship.”172“How Myanmar’s junta used a coup to settle old scores,” Myanmar Now, September 12, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/how-myanmars-junta-used-a-coup-to-settle-old-scores
The prominent ’88 Generation leader, poet, and songwriter, Mya Aye, who had previously served two separate years-long sentences under the previous military regime, was also detained in the early morning of February 1 and has since been held at Insein prison, where he has suffered from a life-threatening infection.173The 1988 generation were students who led the pro-democracy movement in 1988. See above section for further information; Ko Htwe, “Mya Aye in Poor Health: AI,” Irrawaddy, May 6, 2010, irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=18397; Esther J, “Jailed 1988 veteran admitted to hospital with ‘life-threatening’ infection from wound,” Myanmar Now, November 5, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/jailed-1988-veteran-admitted-to-hospital-with-life-threatening-infection-from-wound Mya Aye, a Muslim, was kept incommunicado for several months before being charged with incitement of one community to commit a crime against another, for a 2014 email to a Chinese official criticizing ethno-nationalism in Myanmar.174“Veteran Myanmar Activist Faces Hate Speech Charges,” Irrawaddy, May 9, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/veteran-myanmar-activist-faces-hate-speech-charges.html
Targeted arrests of creative artists have continued since the coup. For example, writer, politician, and prominent activist Wai Moe Naing, also known as Monywa Panda, has been detained in Monywa Prison since April 15, when plainclothes individuals intentionally rammed their car into his moving motorbike, knocking him off and then arresting him at gunpoint, as captured on camera.175“Wai Moe Naing, prominent leader of anti-coup movement, detained in Monywa,” Myanmar Now, April 15, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/wai-moe-naing-prominent-leader-of-anti-coup-movement-detained-in-monywa Wai Moe Naing had taken a leading role in mobilizing anti-coup protest actions such as banging pots and pans.176“In Myanmar, Pair of Protest Activists Share Common Goal: Root Out Dictatorship,” Irrawaddy, April 9, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-pair-protest-activists-share-common-goal-root-dictatorship.html; Associated Press, “Noisy anti-coup protest reverberates in Myanmar’s largest city,” CBC News, February 2, 2021, cbc.ca/news/world/myanmar-military-coup-1.5895753; “Wai Moe Naing, prominent leader of anti-coup movement, detained in Monywa,” Myanmar Now, April 15, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/wai-moe-naing-prominent-leader-of-anti-coup-movement-detained-in-monywa In a sign of their vindictiveness, the military has charged him with incitement to mutiny under Penal Code Section 505(a), alongside nine other serious crimes, including treason, armed robbery, and even murder.177“Detained protest leader Wai Moe Naing meets with his lawyer for the first time, says mother,” Myanmar Now, May 29, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/detained-protest-leader-wai-moe-naing-meets-with-his-lawyer-for-the-first-time-says-mother
Preliminary data collected by PEN America and Myanmar-based partners indicate that there have been at least 59 confirmed cases of individual creative artists, including poets, literary writers, visual artists, dramatists, and singers/songwriters, whose rights have been violated since the 2021 coup.178“Freedom to Write Index & Writers at Risk Database Methodology,” PEN America, June 2021, pen.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/freedom-to-write-index-methodology.pdf. The professional designations of “poets,” “literary writers,” “dramatists,” and “singers/songwriters” are defined by PEN America’s methodology used in the Writers at Risk Database and Freedom to Write Index. Each person may have more than one professional designation, which are not exhaustive and also take into consideration how an individual defines their own professional identity, and how they are categorized by other organizations (in particular PEN International). Of this total, 5 people, all poets, have been murdered. At least 45 creative artists have been detained since the coup; more than half remain in detention at the time of this report’s publication. So far, a relatively smaller number of creative artists—at least 4—have been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment on a range of baseless charges; 1 of those artists remains in prison and is serving their sentence at the time of this report’s publication. Delays in the conviction and sentencing of other creative artists are due to judicial delays and are not a sign of the military’s indecision or potential leniency. At least 19 creative artists have been released from detention (some with restrictive conditions on their release), and at least 8 more are currently out of custody but remain at high risk of imprisonment, re-arrest, or other threats at the hands of the military. Numerous other writers and creative artists whose cases are not public are also in hiding or in exile, or remain under threat, as well.179Research conducted by one of PEN America’s Myanmar partners, the civil society organization Free Expression Myanmar (FEM), is in the process of verification but has potentially identified 300 cases of warrants, detentions, and sentencing of creative artists between February 1 and September 30, 2021. The data, which involves 10,000 cases overall, is a combination of eight other sources of data.
Many of the creative artists detained since the coup have faced spurious charges or sentencing under the aforementioned illegitimate amendments, in particular Penal Code Sections 505A, spreading false information, and 505(a), incitement to mutiny. Maung Yu Py, a well-known poet from Myeik, was detained on March 9 alongside several dozen activists and reportedly tortured in custody; in June, Maung Yu Py was sentenced in a closed makeshift prison court under Penal Code Sections 145 for unlawful assembly, and 505A, to a total of two years imprisonment, later reduced to a year.180Mark Frary, “Myanmar keeps it poets locked up despite prisoner release,” Index on Censorship, July 2, 2021, indexoncensorship.org/2021/07/myanmar-keeps-it-poets-locked-up-despite-prisoner-release/; “More than 30 youth sentenced in closed court hearing inside Myeik Prison,” Myanmar Now, June 10, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/more-than-30-youth-sentenced,”-in-closed-court-hearing-inside-myeik-prison Yaypu Sayadaw, a monk and poet, was arrested on March 11 and sentenced on April 10 under Section 505(b) to a 3-year prison term for supposed incitement to cause public fear, before being released 10 days later in a general amnesty.181“Myanmar Military Detains More Than 2,100 Since Coup,” Irrawaddy, March 15, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-military-detains-2100-since-coup.html; Myanma Platform, “Mogok Yepu Sayadaw who stopped the violence during the protest, has been released,” Facebook, October 18, 2021, facebook.com/346321042409048/posts/1516369262070881/
The military has also released some of those detained since the coup, with many let go in a general amnesty in October 2021. On April 6, the prominent satirist and film director Zarganar was arrested under unknown charges.182“Comedian Zarganar arrested by junta,” Myanmar Now, April 6, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/comedian-zarganar-arrested-by-junta; “Zarganar: Myanmar,” PEN America, accessed November 23, 2021, pen.org/advocacy-case/zarganar Zarganar has been detained for politically-motivated reasons at least five times in the last 30 years, and he criticized the coup in a Facebook post after the military first seized power in February. On October 18—following the announcement of the exclusion of coup leader Min Aung Hlaing from the ASEAN summit—Zarganar was released under the subsequent politically motivated general amnesty.183“Senior NLD Official, Prominent Myanmar Comedian Freed Alongside Activists, Journalists,” Irrawaddy, October 19, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/senior-nld-official-prominent-myanmar-comedian-freed-alongside-activists-journalists.html However, more than 100 of those released were quickly rearrested, excluding Zarganar, and several creative artists have remained detained.184“Myanmar Amnesty Ends in Tears as Regime Rearrests Political Prisoners,” Irrawaddy, October 21, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-amnesty-ends-in-tears-as-regime-rearrests-political-prisoners.html Regardless of whether individuals have been released, all of these detentions, targeted arrests, and sentencing of creative artists have created a serious chilling effect on freedom of creative expression.
Torture and other forms of abuse
Some creative artists have faced torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment or punishment while in detention.185Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021 At least two poets have died as a result, leading a punk musician to bluntly state, “They targeted and killed poets.”186Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 The poet Khet Thi was seemingly tortured to death after being taken from his home and into custody in central Myanmar.187“Torture Suspected in Death of Myanmar Poet Called a Voice of Resistance,” Radio Free Asia, May 11, 2021, rfa.org/english/news/myanmar/poet-05112021185408.html A prominent poet, Khet Thi, who wrote about the plight of the Rohingya, including the mass graves, had earlier proclaimed at an anti-military dictatorship rally that every protester was a Nobel Peace Prize winner.188Reuters, “Body of arrested Myanmar poet Khet Thi returned to family with organs missing,” The Guardian, May 9, 2021, theguardian.com/world/2021/may/10/body-of-arrested-myanmar-poet-khet-thi-returned-to-family-with-organs-missing; Rebecca Ratcliffe, “‘Revolution dwells in the heart’: Myanmar’s poets cut down by the military,” The Guardian, May 16, 2021, theguardian.com/global-development/2021/may/17/revolution-dwells-in-the-heart-myanmars-poets-cut-down-by-the-miltary According to his wife, after his detention his body was returned to his family with organs missing.189Reuters, “Body of arrested Myanmar poet Khet Thi returned to family with organs missing,” The Guardian, May 9, 2021, theguardian.com/world/2021/may/10/body-of-arrested-myanmar-poet-khet-thi-returned-to-family-with-organs-missing Lin Paing Soe, an ethnic Nepali student who led anti-regime protests in Naypyidaw and Mandalay and wrote poetry under the pen name Silencer, was killed after being detained on September 30, 2021 in a military raid.190“A student from an ethnic minority group was killed in Myanmar’s Junta custody,” ASEAN Now, October 20, 2021, aseannow.com/topic/1236168-a-student-from-an-ethnic-minority-group-was-killed-in-myanmars-junta-custody/; Naw Say Phaw Waa, “Students released from prison, some report being tortured,” University World News, October 22, 2021, universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20211022092939112 According to his friends, he was particularly targeted for torture because he was from a minority group.191“Ethnic Minority Student Killed in Myanmar Junta Custody,” Irrawaddy, October 19, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/ethnic-minority-student-killed-in-myanmar-junta-custody.html; “Daily Briefing in Relation to the Military Coup,” Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, November 24, 2021, aappb.org/?lang=en
The military issued an arrest warrant in February for writer and veteran protest leader Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, under Penal Code Section 505(b) for the crime of “inciting public disorder” following his criticism of the coup on social media.192“Veteran of 1988 uprising Ko Jimmy is in ‘intensive care’ at military hospital following arrest,” Myanmar Now, October 25, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/veteran-of-1988-uprising-ko-jimmy-is-in-intensive-care-at-military-hospital-following-arrest; “Myanmar Activist Ko Jimmy in Critical Condition After Arrest by Junta,” Irrawaddy, October 25, 2021, irrawaddy.com/news/burma/myanmar-activist-ko-jimmy-in-critical-condition-after-arrest-by-junta.html He evaded arrest until October 23, when he was detained during a nighttime raid on his home in Yangon. He turned up in intensive care shortly thereafter, having injured himself while running from military forces, but his wife and civil society groups say he was injured during the arrest and faced further abuse while in custody.193“Veteran of 1988 uprising Ko Jimmy is in ‘intensive care’ at military hospital following arrest,” Myanmar Now, October 25, 2021, myanmar-now.org/en/news/veteran-of-1988-uprising-ko-jimmy-is-in-intensive-care-at-military-hospital-following-arrest
In another example, an artist who wishes to remain anonymous reported being severely beaten with a baton until unconscious prior to being detained, and then beaten again once in detention.194Kristen Gelineau and Victoria Milko, “A monk, student, an artist: Tortured by Myanmar military,” Associated Press, October 28, 2021, apnews.com/article/myanmar-torture-military-prisons-insein-abuse-6302011d22e4a53280fb6c008fffa869 The military has openly displayed the result of its torture, publicizing on national television mugshots of an internationally-trained dancer, Khin Nyein Thu, who was badly tortured.195Sioban Robbins, “Myanmar: ‘We were always hearing those tortured sounds’ – claims of abuse and death in custody under country’s military rule,” Sky News, September 3, 2021, news.sky.com/story/the-student-a-politician-and-a-uk-trained-dancer-claims-of-torture-and-death-in-custody-under-myanmars-military-rule-12397750. Some of those who have been released from detention have also faced ostracism within their communities because of a well-founded fear of the military returning and exacting further retaliation.196Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 The grave, systematic abuse suffered by detainees has had a chilling effect on the creative sector.
The military’s attempts to censor public debate, including creative expression, have also extended online.197“Freedom on the Net 2021: Myanmar,” Freedom House, December 21, 2020, freedomhouse.org/country/myanmar/freedom-net/2021; Marta Losota, Matt Bailey, and Karin Deutsch Karlekar, “Myanmar’s Escalating Digital Repression–And Activists’ Digital Resistance,” PEN America, May 10, 2021, pen.org/myanmars-escalating-digital-repression-and-activists-digital-resistance/ Since the first day of the coup d’état, the military has sought to restrict information access and sharing, expression, assembly, and association by repeatedly shutting down access to the internet.
The first internet shutdown started at 8:00 a.m. on February 1 and continued for much of the day, temporarily concealing the military’s actions from the public.198“Internet disrupted in Myanmar amid apparent military uprising,” Netblocks, January 31, 2021, netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-myanmar-amid-apparent-military-uprising-JBZrmlB6 Based on the NLD’s 20-month-long internet shutdown in parts of Rakhine and Chin States in 2019–2020, senior military officials knew that near-total shutdowns were effective at silencing communications and were also relatively risk-free.199The military, perhaps as a sign of its wider miscalculation of public opposition to the coup, or maybe a proactive incentive to possible local allies, ended a 20-month internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States that had gained notoriety as the world’s longest. Started in June 2019 by the NLD administration which claimed it was needed to address the military’s national security concerns, the shutdown cut access for more than 1.4 million people. The military restored internet access in Rakhine and Chin States on February 2, 2021, but shut off all internet access nationally shortly after. “Freedom of the Net Myanmar: Assessment of online freedom in 2021,” Free Expression Myanmar and Freedom House, September 21, 2021, freeexpressionmyanmar.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/FOTN-2021.pdf When the internet was restored, it was limited and disrupted, making it more difficult for users to access data-intensive and creative content such as images and videos.200Andrea Januta and Minami Funakoshi, “Myanmar’s internet suppression,” Reuters, April 7, 2021, graphics.reuters.com/MYANMAR-POLITICS/INTERNET-RESTRICTION/rlgpdbreepo/index.html The military then shut down internet access at the weekend, when they expected the public to organize mass protests.201A second near-total day-long national shutdown was implemented on February 6, the first weekend following the coup: “Data network restored in Myanmar,” Telenor Group, February 6, 2021, telenor.com/media/press-release/myanmar-authorities-orders-nationwide-shutdown-of-the-data-network It also announced that, as of February 15, it would shut down all internet access nightly in a “digital curfew” that would obscure the military’s nighttime raids and increase fear among the public.202From March 9, the shutdown times for weekdays were changed from 1–9 am to 1–6:30 am: “Internet disrupted in Myanmar amid apparent military uprising,” Netblocks, January 31, 2021, netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-myanmar-amid-apparent-military-uprising-JBZrmlB6; A month later, it began a series of increasing, sustained shutdowns with a near-total shutdown of mobile data, public Wi-Fi, and fixed-wireless connections.203Mobile data was shut down on March 15: “Internet disrupted in Myanmar amid apparent military uprising,” Netblocks, January 31, 2021, netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-myanmar-amid-apparent-military-uprising-JBZrmlB6; Public Wi-Fi was shut down on March 18: “Internet disrupted in Myanmar amid apparent military uprising,” Netblocks, January 31, 2021, netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-myanmar-amid-apparent-military-uprising-JBZrmlB6; Fixed-wireless connections were shut down on April 2: Free Expression Myanmar, “IMPORTANT Fixed wireless will not be turned on in morning.” Twitter, April 1, 2021, twitter.com/FreeExpressMm/status/1377587527901708288
As the military had neither the expertise nor the authority to completely control the digital space, its only means of control was forcing telecommunications operators to block or hinder communications lines.204From the outset of the coup the military sought to capture and control the telecommunications operators, either directly as is the case with MyTel and MPT, or indirectly via the regulator, as is the case with many of the private telecommunications operators in Myanmar: “Intelligence Brief: Where does Myanmar stand today?” Mobile World Live, December 4, 2019, mobileworldlive.com/blog/intelligence-brief-where-does-myanmar-stand-today/ In addition to shutting down internet access, the military also ordered telecommunications operators to block websites and platforms such as Facebook, home to much of Myanmar’s creative expression. The first wave of orders between February and May repeated the “blacklisting” approach that the NLD had previously introduced, in which the military gave the telecommunications operators lists of IP addresses and websites to block. The first sites to be blacklisted included Facebook on February 4, and Twitter and Instagram on February 5.205“Directive to block social media service,” Telenor Group, February 3, 2021, telenor.com/directive-to-block-social-media-service/; “Myanmar anti-junta protests spread, Twitter and Instagram blocked,” AL Jazeera, February 5, 2021, aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/5/myanmar-orders-twitter-instagram-blocked-amid-anti-coup-rallies Wikipedia and mainstream media websites have also since been blacklisted, among many others.206James Gomez and Khin Mai Aung, “Myanmar’s digital regime foreshadows SE Asia,” Bangkok Post, March 15, 2021, bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/2083615/myanmars-digital-regime-foreshadows-se-asia In a sign of the military’s increasing concern about freedom online, they have since changed their approach from blacklisting to the even more draconian “whitelisting,” where telecommunications operators are required to block every website and IP address unless it is on an approved list. Accordingly, on May 25, the military ordered mobile telecommunications operators to whitelist 1,200 websites, including Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp, and to block access to the rest of the internet, including Facebook and Twitter.207“Myanmar allows Tinder but axes dissent havens Twitter, Facebook,” Nikkei Asia, March 25, 2021, asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Myanmar-Crisis/Myanmar-allows-Tinder-but-axes-dissent-havens-Twitter-Facebook
In the days following the coup, the military also attempted to “adopt” a repressive cybersecurity bill which would have given the military unconstrained access to all data.208“Six risks from Myanmar’s draft Cyber Security Law,” Free Expression Myanmar, February 14, 2021, freeexpressionmyanmar.org/six-risks-from-myanmars-draft-cyber-security-law/ However, due to negative public response—which importantly included the influential business community—the military resorted to amending an old law, sneaking into it many of the same draconian provisions criminalizing vaguely defined online behaviors such as spreading false information or damaging foreign relations.209The Law Amending the Electronic Transactions Law allows for the authorities to access personal data for vague reasons, and criminalizes “unauthorized” access to online material and disclosure of those materials with up to five years imprisonment. It also includes a definition of personal data that is very broad and could easily be used against the media to punish any dissemination of information about an individual. The military has also included a crime of creating false news online (Section 38(c)), with a maximum sanction of three years imprisonment, replicating their changes to the Penal Code in which they added the aforementioned Section 505A. “Myanmar’s new Electronic Transactions Law Amendment,” Free Expression Myanmar, February 18, 2021, freeexpressionmyanmar.org/myanmars-new-electronic-transactions-law-amendment/
Surveillance has also been ramped up as a tool to control the digital space. After the military unlawfully suspended Myanmar’s privacy law on February 13, it began ramping up its secretive digital surveillance capabilities. In 2020, the NLD administration had already ordered telecommunications operators to start setting up interception systems without proper safeguards against misuse and, after the coup, the military has simply taken advantage of these.210“Months before the coup, Myanmar army ordered intercept spyware,” Al Jazeera, May 19, 2021, aljazeera.com/economy/2021/5/19/months-before-the-coup-myanmar-army-ordered-intercept-spyware
Little is known about the scale of digital surveillance currently underway, other than telecommunications operators having a limited capacity to do keyword monitoring and live interception of calls, SMS messages, and data, including emails.211“Freedom of the Net Myanmar: Assessment of online freedom in 2021,” Free Expression Myanmar and Freedom House, September 21, 2021, freeexpressionmyanmar.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/FOTN-2021.pdf
Although blocks on internet access may not have had a significant impact on all artists’ creative processes,212Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 for some, “it has a huge effect and is akin to blinding us.”213Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 According to a visual and performance artist in their late fifties, “The internet shutdown will have a tremendous impact on younger artists because the internet is an integral part of their creations.”214Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 The visual and performance artist adds that it has also affected creative artists’ communications with each other and with their audiences: “It has an effect on my networking and the business side of art, including working with art galleries and museums.”215Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 Another visual artist in their thirties commented, “I cannot publish or share my art if there is no internet.”216Interview conducted with a visual artist (#1) on August 31, 2021 One punk musician noted regretfully, “The internet shutdown makes life very difficult for us.”217Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 Another musician added, “We need internet access to work with each other, produce songs, and distribute our music to our fans.”218Interview conducted with a musician (#8) on September 18, 2021
The military’s surveillance has had a chilling effect on online creative expression. According to a documentary filmmaker, “A poet published a poem online about the police. The police called the poet and demanded that the poem be deleted, and if it wasn’t, they would come and detain the poet. We don’t know how the police found the poem online.”219Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021 A novelist summarized the growing feelings of anxiety: “I feel that my mobile phone is insecure, social media is insecure, and we’re being held captive by the military. Now, if I see a stranger, I suspect they’re a spy.”220Writer (#11) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021
Longer-term impact on artists and creative expression
Risk mitigation and self-censorship
After the coup, many creative artists necessarily began focusing on their level of personal risk and survival. A visual artist popular for anti-military illustrations explained: “I’d been living in my comfort zone with nothing to care about, and then suddenly I had to think about and take responsibility for my actions.”221Interview conducted with a visual artist (#1) on August 31, 2021 Another visual artist with a strong youth following stated: “I know that artists have always been repressed in Myanmar, but since the coup I’ve had to increasingly check myself to avoid bringing trouble upon myself and my family.”222Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021 Referencing the military in particular carries new threats: “Expressing anything about the revolution against the military has gradually become more difficult,” stated one hip-hop musician.223Interview conducted with a musician (#8) on September 18, 2021 “It’s obvious when the military becomes more concerned about certain subjects because they go out and arrest people. For example, pointing out the military’s failures has become even more sensitive than before,” added a visual artist with experience creating viral anti-military content.224Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021 Any reference to the military leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, attracts particular military interest, according to an older visual artist: “Artists have to avoid talking about Min Aung Hlaing for a while.”225Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021
At the same time, creative expression that does not address or recognize elements of the coup has largely disappeared.226Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021 As a leading visual and performance artist explained, “Most creative expression is related to the coup because this is a revolution against the military, and we’re living in the heart of the conflict zone.”227Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 This has also led to social pressure to avoid expressing positivity, happiness, and joy. According to a visual artist well-known among Gen Z, “I loved to create beautiful things but I can’t do so any longer. Happiness has become a controversial feeling. If you get married, people will ask you how you can get married during the crisis.”228Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021 A documentary filmmaker agreed: “You can’t make positive or beautiful expression anymore because you will attract criticism.”229Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021
Many creative artists have taken measures to protect themselves in order to continue creating, including conscious self-censorship. One visual and performance artist, who also runs an art festival, noted: “Self-censorship has awoken inside me, and, much like in the past, it will become commonplace.”230Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 Some have chosen to stop publishing their works altogether. “I’m creating what I want, but I don’t dare to share my works with others,” explained one visual artist with experience under the previous military rule.231Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 A well-connected filmmaker noted that this is a common phenomenon: “All artists are doing some form of art but many are not going public because of the risk from the military.”232Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021 Original artwork must be hidden, said a visual artist who produces highly respected illustrations: “I keep the drawings I really like in a hiding place that they can’t find easily.”233Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021 Creative processes must also be hidden. A filmmaker documenting the coup described their changing processes, “Before March 2021, I worked in public but since then I’ve had to work secretly, changing locations regularly.”234Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021
Other creative artists are continuing to publish, but are doing so anonymously or using a pseudonym.235Interview conducted with a musician (#8) on September 18, 2021 A hip-hop musician said that they take no risks, even when working under a pseudonym: “I don’t stay in my regular place when I’m releasing a song just in case they somehow track me down.”236Interview conducted with a musician (#8) on September 18, 2021 Adding extra door locks at home constitutes the bare minimum of physical security.237Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021; Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 Some creative artists have joined local neighborhood security groups.238Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021; Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 A minority of creative artists have moved to safer places in order to keep publishing their work openly.239Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021; Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021; Interview conducted with a musician (#8) on September 18, 2021 In a few cases, creative artists have escaped after their names ended up on arrest warrant lists published on the military’s daily television broadcasts.240Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 In other cases, they have fled because the military was doing house-to-house inspections to see if guests were staying and to find out who they were.241Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021 As a visual artist responsible for viral coup illustrations stated: “Many artists are staying in safehouses, some have gone to the border areas [under the control of ethnic armed organizations], and others have gone abroad. We don’t know where they are and we don’t ask either. Choosing to leave is not a problem, because we can then see their creative works.”242Interview conducted with a visual artist (#1) on August 31, 2021 But deciding whether to try to seek safe harbor elsewhere is very difficult. As a visual artist popular among youth elaborated, “I need to think about how I can continue. Should I use a pseudonym, move to a border area, or go abroad? If I do, can I show my work and will it even be relatable to other people?”243Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021
Digital self-protection was kick-started immediately after the coup, when creative artists began seeking out digital security information and sharing tips.244Interview conducted with a musician (#8) on September 18, 2021 And, despite the military’s attempts to control the digital space, many have found ways to safeguard their work and communications online. At first, many joined encrypted communications platforms and abandoned the previously predominant Facebook Messenger, which had been blocked by the military.245Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021 Later, as military roadblocks became more common, some creative artists adopted dummy devices which were empty and could be safely carried around in public, or used software that hides phone apps.246Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 Others readied themselves to hide their digital history; as one illustrator and visual artist described, “If something happens to me, I am ready to factory-reset my iPad.”247Interview conducted with a visual artist (#1) on August 31, 2021 Meanwhile, many artists were taking advantage of online cloud services to safely store their works.248Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021 “We’ve uploaded all our music to YouTube, Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes, and Facebook, so if the military seize our hard drive we have nothing to lose,” said a punk musician and singer-songwriter.249Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021
Closed creative spaces
The military’s actions have forced many, if not all, of Myanmar’s creative spaces, institutions, and support organizations to shutter their doors and take down their online presence. According to a filmmaker, “The entire creative sector has collapsed, and there are no longer galleries, arts businesses, or journals.”250Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021[\mfn] The collapse has affected both independent and military-aligned entities, with one heavy metal musician noting with poorly disguised glee, “Even the military boot-lickers are suffering.”250Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021[\mfn] State-controlled institutions have also disintegrated; as a documentary filmmaker put it, “All the members of the government’s film and music regulatory boards resigned after the coup because they didn’t want to serve the military.”251Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021
Independent creative spaces and institutions such as galleries have shut their doors.252Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021 “It’s such a depressing time since art galleries in Yangon have closed down,” reported a leading visual artist.253Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 An arts festival organizer and visual artist said that even if a gallery were to open, they would not be able to show what most people are currently interested in: “No gallery would take the risk of exhibiting works with a political message.”254Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 There are “no upcoming exhibitions,”255Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 and many artists either have no short-term plans to exhibit in Myanmar,256Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021 or are thinking about how to show their works abroad.257Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 Many creative artists have also closed their studios and moved their works into storage.258Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 Performance art of any kind has become almost impossible, except within the confines of the home and without an audience.259Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 The launch of a new institution, the Association of Myanmar Contemporary Art, has been postponed indefinitely. One visual artist associated with the institution described how “we had planned to ask the government for a venue and funding for the association, but if we ask for space now, they will just give us a bullet and a three-by-six-foot space [for burial].”260Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 All arts magazines have stopped publishing.261Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 As one publisher of an arts magazine stated, “When we thought about it, we realized it was impossible to continue and we had to close.”262Writer (#12) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021
The music and film sectors have also disappeared. “It’s a very difficult situation for musicians, as most music studios have now closed,” said a musician with experience of running musicians’ associations.263Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 Another musician stated, “Some musicians have stopped creating music because the studios have closed, and they can’t make money.”264Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 Some studios have come under direct attack from the military; as one punk musician recalled, “The military kicked down the door and ransacked our place.”265Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 Performing outside is also impossible “because the military are everywhere with guns,” said a hip-hop musician.266Interview conducted with a musician (#8) on September 18, 2021 Many musicians were already living in economically precarious situations prior to the coup, and that has now worsened according to one: “Musicians are selling their instruments because they need money.”267Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 One heavy metal musician commented that they have disbanded as a result, saying, “the music business isn’t good. We are struggling and can’t pay our rent.”268Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 Musicians’ dire situations have also been compounded because Joox, a Chinese-owned mobile app that many musicians used to share their music in Myanmar, does not allow “political” content, and, as a result, is being boycotted by Myanmar users.269Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 Cinemas were already closed by the NLD government prior to the coup due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Since the coup, even the largest film production houses have closed down in trepidation of the future of moviemaking.270Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021 Film festivals have also been cancelled, film studios shut, and top filmmakers have left the industry seeking business opportunities elsewhere.271Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021
The effects of the coup have also impacted the broader creative sector. One internationally-renowned visual artist said that most arts educators have disappeared, and that “there were only four arts universities and colleges in the country before the coup and all are now closed. Their staff joined the Civil Disobedience Movement.”272Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 Civil society organizations that previously provided training to various types of creative artists have also had to stop their activities; as one visual artist and illustrator recalled, “Our projects stopped after the coup. We couldn’t travel, couldn’t train people. I lost my job, and the boss left Myanmar.”273Interview conducted with a visual artist (#1) on August 31, 2021 The private sector has not fared any better. “In the past I was hired to make posters and animations, but the agency I worked for ended my contract and closed down,” another visual artist and illustrator recounted.274Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021 The loss of livelihoods and closure of spaces to display work and network has further isolated members of the creative community, placing significant burdens on individuals’ resilience and ability to survive the crackdown.
Many creative artists reported feeling survivor’s guilt that their peers had been caught but they had not,288Writer (#21) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021 or guilt that their creative expression was an inadequate response to the military when compared to the actions of others.289Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021 Almost all creative artists said they were experiencing long periods of exhaustion.290Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021 One writer explained, “I felt tired and became overwhelmed with feelings of disgust with myself.”291Writer (#14) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021 Another writer and novelist said, “Writers have run out of energy and feel lost.”292Writer (#13) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021 The sense of exhaustion was closely related to feelings of being overwhelmed, demotivated, and facing a “creative block.”293Interview conducted with a visual artist (#1) on August 31, 2021 One award-winning musician commented: “Everything’s in chaos. We’ve lost our way. We can’t concentrate because our minds are completely occupied by the military dictatorship.”294Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 Another experienced visual artist stated: “There are very few people who can create right now because everyone is demotivated by the coup.”295Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 A punk musician doing research among their peers added: “I’ve met many artists since the coup and they all say they can’t concentrate, and that they’ve lost their creative mood. Even cyclists are saying they no longer want to cycle.”296Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 A writer and novelist added: “Flowers are no longer beautiful. The birds are no longer pleasant and sound noisy.”297Writer (#11) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021 Some artists were concerned that while creativity can be a form of therapy,298Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021 the levels of demotivation and exhaustion among their peers had lasted a long time,299Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021 and there was a risk that “their ability to create might not wake up.”300Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021
Yet few creative artists have reported taking steps to protect their mental health in the wake of the coup; for many, it has not been a key consideration for self-protection. One of the few interviewees who had taken steps noted that they had “prepared mentally for the possible bad things that could happen” to them.301Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021 For the majority, other forms of self-preservation—physical security, financial sustenance, and their physical health during the pandemic—have taken priority.
Various creative artists shared with PEN America that they had experienced a substantive shift in their own approach to their art as a consequence of the coup. Some creative artists regarded their new role as being primarily to motivate the public.312Poet (#14) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021 Others accepted, and in many cases embraced, not just being motivational, but taking on a more leading role as “activist artists.”313“Activist Art,” TATE, accessed November 23, 2021, tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/activist-art As a documentary filmmaker explained, “Before the coup, there were artists and activists. After the coup, most artists have become activists, even established artists and commercially-orientated artists.”314Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021 A well-known visual and performance artist concurred, “Artists have become aware that we can no longer be apolitical. We must work on current issues.”315Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 The same artist said there is a hope that the situation will be temporary: “Now artists are creating in a journalistic way, and I hope we can return to art after a year.”316Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 A poet explained that the public is encouraging them to become more outspoken: “Readers expect us to become more activists than authors, and I myself am changing and looking for a way to change my writing.”317Poet (#16) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021 Another poet and writer said that a new way of approaching art is emerging, declaring, “I’m not an activist, but neither am I completely a writer now.”318Poet (#18) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021
In some cases, creative artists have demonstrably shifted roles. “Some artists have felt making art is insufficient, and they’ve decided to take up arms against the military,” said a visual artist popular among youth.319Interview conducted with a visual artist (#3) on September 1, 2021 An older performance artist also noted, “Some poets have stopped writing poems and decided to fight, asking us, their peers, whether it’s okay if we keep on doing what we used to do.”320Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021 One award-winning musician reported that he had “taken up military training [from opposition forces] because I want to show my solidarity with the younger generation. But at the same time I’m creating songs to motivate them too.”321Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021
The coup has not only affected the current roles played by creative artists, but also their opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and therefore their work. Dissatisfaction and anger at the current situation have led to perceptible changes that have spurred creative responses.322Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 Some creative artists confirmed their own greater recognition of the extent to which the military harmfully shaped their opinions from an early age, including a heavy metal musician who said: “We were brainwashed as children.”323Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 Some of the creative artists interviewed were particularly concerned about the military’s propaganda that political thoughts of any kind were problematic and even deviant.324Interview conducted with a visual artist (#1) on August 31, 2021 One poet and writer remarked that while they had grown up under a violent dictatorship, brainwashing had meant that they themselves bore no strong feelings towards the military prior to the coup.325Writer (#18) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021
Several creative artists stressed that the coup has prompted greater self-reflection about social division and discrimination. Renewed and shared experiences of military brutality have led to increased camaraderie between societal groups, at least for now. An award-winning musician declared that, “I’m from a [historically marginalized] ethnic minority, but we’re putting that aside for now while we fight with our music for democracy.”326Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 A performance artist from a different ethnic minority group added that concerns about the forced assimilation of minority groups, known as “Bamarization,” are being set aside temporarily: “We need to set aside Bamarization until after we’ve won this fight, and then come back and deal with it.”327“Bamarization” is the forced assimilation of minority groups into the majority ethnic Bamar nation state, including through language and culture, which has been state policy since at least the 1960s when it was called “Burmanization”: Robert A. Holmes, “Burmese Domestic Policy: The Politics of Burmanization,” Asian Survey Vol. 7, No. 3 (Mar., 1967), pp. 188-197, jstor.org/stable/2642237. Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021 For ethnic groups, such statements may understandably point to a worrying repeat of past attitudes, namely a failure to tackle the ongoing repression and inequality experienced by Myanmar’s ethnic, religious, gender, and other minorities. Camaraderie among creative artists has nonetheless even extended to the Rohingya, who have faced repeated atrocities over recent decades. “Some people have greater empathy for the Rohingya now,” said an eminent visual artist.328Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 “In the future we will need to apologize,” added a heavy metal musician, referring to the history of systematic discrimination and oppression.329Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021
The future of creative expression in Myanmar
Despite pervasive censorship, insecurity, and multiplying risks, many creative artists believe that the military coup will remain the dominant focus for creative expression for the foreseeable future.330Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021 “It’s been months now and still nobody accepts the military. I don’t know politics. I don’t know about trade or deals with superpowers. But we artists will continue to say ‘fuck off’ to the military,” stated an award-winning musician.331Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 A visual artist responsible for some of the viral illustrations of the coup noted: “I expect artists to continue creating artworks that encourage people to continue the anti-coup movement.”332Interview conducted with a visual artist (#1) on August 31, 2021 Another filmmaker added,“We’re the only people who can fight for our country, so even though we’re depressed we’ve got to continue.”333Interview conducted with a filmmaker (#10) on September 21, 2021
Some creative artists believe that the arts will become “more powerful and therefore more dangerous” to the military, as has happened many times during the country’s history.334Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 They share a common expectation that new waves of creative expression will emerge from the terrible violence,335Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 and that these new forms of art will be more collaborative, engaging emerging generations of creative artists, and promoting more tolerant ideas.336Interview conducted with a musician (#6) on September 2, 2021 “Art under pressure is better,” said a performance artist.337Interview conducted with a performance artist (#2) on September 1, 2021
Not all artists are optimistic however. At the time of PEN America’s interviews, there was a common concern that the military had not yet begun to systematically prioritize the censorship of creative artists, because their concerns were elsewhere. As a visual artist with experience under Myanmar’s previous military rule put it,“They’re still focused and busy with their problems,” referring to the political opposition and armed resistance groups.338Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 A punk musician added during an interview, “We’re not their targets yet but we will become their targets later. If they win, they will repress us even more. They will threaten our lives and sentence us to long terms of imprisonment. These are their characteristics. They are brutal.”339Interview conducted with a musician (#5) on September 2, 2021 As a visual artist who lived through the previous military rule explained, the military may be delaying some forms of censorship but not changing their underlying authoritarian tendencies, saying, “We know what they can do, and they’re not kind enough to spare us.”340Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 As another visual artist with past experience under military rule noted, “Previous military censorship was more deeply ingrained, and everything we did was under surveillance.”341Interview conducted with a visual artist (#1) on August 31, 2021 Should the military turn their attention more fully to the artistic sphere, there would likely be harsher censorship, increased attempts to force creative artists to produce propaganda,342Interview conducted with a visual artist (#7) on September 2, 2021 permanent closures of more arts institutions,343Interview conducted with a visual artist (#4) on September 1, 2021 and more creative artists experiencing financial insecurity. As a writer and novelist ominously predicted: “I can say that writers and poets are going to be starving within a year.”344Writer (#13) speaking at a roundtable on September 27, 2021 There is a shared fear that if the military is able to quash the anti-military dictatorship movement and exert more control over the country, censorship and repression of the creative sector and of individual artists will only get worse.
Conclusion & Recommendations
The courageous leadership roles played by Myanmar’s creative artists—and particularly its rising generation of young artists—in resisting the military coup have been widely acknowledged and praised. Members of the creative sector have called for resistance, reform, and revolution, rejected the former status quo, and expressed their desire to build a new and more diverse, inclusive country. In doing so, these artists are building upon a long and storied history of creative, peaceful resistance to oppression and injustice in Myanmar—from British colonial rule and the struggles for independence, to decades of punishing and dictatorial military rule, to the recent political opening.
In the past year, creative artists have quite literally risked their lives—and some have given them—in order to make works of creative expression which give voice to the struggles, hopes, and demands of those who resist and reject the military coup. They have done so in contexts fraught with danger, and in the face of a military which has not hesitated to use every means at its disposal to silence expressions of dissent or collective action.
The outpouring of creative expression has also raised important questions about how the international community can best support besieged creative artists—whether in terms of physical security, mental health, or financial aid for individual artists and for the creative institutions that have largely been decimated—and to what extent donors and aid agencies are considering creative artists alongside their support for the media, journalists, and human rights activists.
Drawing from research and interviews with artists whose views are spotlighted within this report, PEN America offers the following recommendations:
To the Myanmar military:
While PEN America does not recognize the legitimacy of the military coup, it nevertheless reminds the military’s controlling State Administrative Council of its clear obligations on freedom of expression under national and international law, and calls for the following:
- Respect the outcomes of the 2020 general election and honor the will of the people of Myanmar to democratically elect their leaders.
- Cease the killing, harassment, arbitrary detention, and torture of creative artists, protestors, activists, and dissidents.
- Immediately end all violations of free and creative expression. Examples of such abuses include illegitimate legal amendments, criminal prosecutions, legal harassment, and treating perpetrators of crimes against free expression with impunity.
- Unconditionally release all writers and creative artists held in prison for exercising their right to freedom of expression, including, but not limited to, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, Than Myint Aung, Maung Thar Cho, Htin Lin Oo, Mya Aye, and Wai Moe Naing.
- Ensure freedom of expression online. End all internet shutdowns, discontinue internet whitelisting, and halt all requirements for telecommunications companies to conduct direct or indirect surveillance.
To the international community:
- Pursue all possible diplomatic means to insist on respect for the outcome of the 2020 general elections and uphold the will of the people of Myanmar.
- Proactively and persistently hold Myanmar to its international human rights obligations, including the obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to freedom of expression. Raise, both bilaterally and multilaterally, concerns about arbitrary detentions and killings, the use of torture, internet shutdowns, and surveillance. Press for the release of political prisoners. Avoid any form of legitimation of the coup.
- Prioritize support for civil society, including organizations, networks, and informal groupings, to rebuild creative communities, ensure their resilience, and strengthen creative expression.
- Encourage, empower, and support relevant international organizations, such as UNESCO, to more effectively achieve their mandate to assist and defend the creative community inside Myanmar.
- Provide refuge for Myanmar’s creative community through the efficient and effective provision of visas and/or protected status, and through support for intergovernmental organizations such as UNHCR and IOM. Seek out opportunities to elevate the work of Myanmar’s creative community through exchanges, exhibits, or other events and media.
- Ensure the safety of creative artists, activists, and others in exile from Myanmar.
To the international creative community:
- Prioritize support for Myanmar’s creative community and its art by showcasing the work of Myanmar creative artists internationally, engaging across borders with Myanmar creative peers, and offering them security and opportunities for exposure and collaboration via exchanges and residencies.
To the donor community:
- Provide financial support to sustain and strengthen Myanmar’s creative sector, including institutions, organizations, networks, informal groupings, and individuals.
- Ensure support is accessible and recognizes the diversity of communities.
- Ensure all forms of support—such as emergency funds, residency grants, and project awards—are pragmatic, secure from military surveillance, and responsive to the changing realities of Myanmar’s current context.
To the U.S. Congress:
- Pass the BURMA Act of 2021, which would impose sanctions for human rights abuses (including for violations of freedom of expression) and provide humanitarian assistance to dissidents and victims of the military.
- Pass the Protect Democracy in Burma Act of 2021, which would condemn the coup and instruct the secretary of state to submit a report to Congress on U.S. efforts to rally the international community against the military regime.
PEN America would like to thank all of the Myanmar writers, poets, musicians, singers, painters, sculptors, performance artists, filmmakers, cartoonists, and other creative artists whose work inspired this report, as well as the many Myanmar people who, since February, have been inspired to engage in myriad forms of creative expression, sometimes for the very first time. PEN America would also like to thank the creative artists who contributed their valuable time under adverse conditions to speak to the authors. The report was researched and authored by consultants Jane Madlyn McElhone345Jane Madlyn McElhone is an independent media and human rights consultant and researcher. She is contributing editor of Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change (2019, ISEAS) and currently co-curates the Myanmar Media in Transition 2021 Facebook page that tracks the state of media in post-coup Myanmar. Jane has done extensive research about the Myanmar media sector. Previously, she worked for the Open Society Foundations. and Oliver Spencer-Shrestha,346Oliver Spencer-Shrestha is a human rights defender with 15 years of experience working on free expression and law across South and Southeast Asia for a range of CSOs, INGOs, and IGOs. He also spent five years leading INGO human rights programs at the UN, the Human Rights Council, and worked as an expert to UN Special Rapporteurs. with assistance from consultant Mrat Lunn Htwann and a fourth consultant who also contributed to the report but wishes to remain anonymous. Dr. Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of Free Expression at Risk Programs, provided editorial guidance and oversight, and research and drafting support. PEN America’s local contacts in Myanmar also offered guidance and research support. The report was reviewed by James Tager, PEN America’s Director of Research, and Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs, as well as external reviewer and Myanmar media studies scholar Dr. Lisa Brooten. Free Expression Programs Coordinator Veronica Tien provided essential support with data analysis, references, and fact-checking, as did Free Expression Programs interns Daria Locher, Rosy Fitzgerald, and Jessica Flatters.