By Barun Roy
If the mind is without fear, creativity will bloom — or so is the hope among Myanmar’s writers, musicians, artists and journalists as the country takes another momentous step towards a democratic future. After June, it has been announced, the government will no longer censor creative or journalistic works before they are published or shown in public, as was the practice through decades of oppressive military rule. There will, of course, be a press council to act as a post-publication watchdog, but no more pre-publication nightmares.
Signs that the much-welcomed “Myanmar Spring” isn’t just a passing phenomenon have been visible for some time. Two years ago, when opposition leader U Win Tin – who co-founded the National League for Democracy (NLD) with Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988 – turned 80, his book on his 19 years of imprisonment in the infamous Insein jail couldn’t be published at home. Friends and followers sneaked the manuscript out and had it printed in Bangkok and released on the internet. Today, copies of the book, A Human Hell, are freely available at NLD’s Yangon headquarters.
Last January, at the Art of Freedom Film Festival in Yangon, 54 films were shown without having to go through the censors beforehand, and one of them was an 18-minute skit called “Ban That Scene,” a scathing satire on the previous censorship regime. It bagged the top prize at the festival, which Suu Kyi opened and helped organise along with popular comedian Zarganar. Myanmar had never had a festival like this before, and if it pushed the limits of expression – the films dealt mostly with subjects like the plight of the poor and life in general under military rule – there have been no known reports of reprisals.
One after another, the barriers of fear seem to be breaking down and, alongside political change, a cultural revival is clearly in the air. Last May, poet Saw Wei, who had once been arrested on a charge of criticising the state in the guise of a Valentine’s Day poem, came out with a collection of his satirical works that couldn’t be published earlier. Another writer, Min Khite Soe San, says he has more than 70 previously suppressed novels that publishers are now keen to print. According to Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, chairman of the Modern Book Centre, books on Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, previously banned in the country, are now importable. So are books on history and politics, like River of Lost Footsteps and Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads by Dr Thant Myint-U, an acclaimed historian and academic who lives abroad and is the grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant.
River of Lost Footsteps, published in 2006, is a personalised account of Myanmar’s history while Where China Meets India, published last year, discusses Myanmar’s strategic importance and future role in the context of its two giant neighbours. In a recent newspaper article, Chairman Thant Thaw Kaung of Myanmar Book Centre has said his agency plans to import more books on politics and history “to help open people’s eyes”.
The impact of Myanmar’s new gains in freedom is also felt in its artistic scene. Long used to painting censor-safe pagodas and Buddhist themes, artists are increasingly venturing into real life and colourful abstractions. Last February, Yangon had its first-ever exhibition of urban graffiti art, held at an under-construction condominium, where 17 local artists joined 11 others from elsewhere in Southeast Asia to paint blown-up commentaries on social issues. That itself was a big surprise.
With more foreigners visiting the country, new galleries are opening in Yangon. One established gallery, New Zero Art Space, has started an artist-in-residence programme in which visiting foreign artists share ideas with local artists and art students. A New York gallery owner, Richard Streiter, recently brought home nine portraits of Suu Kyi to sell to US buyers. “What would have been controversial even only a year ago is no longer problematic,” he says. “This is an opening, and a big opening.”
Indeed. Yangon now even has an all-girl music band called Me N Ma Girls – a play on the words “Myanmar Girls” – which released its first album last December. In April, the five-girl group, hailed by The New York Times as an attempt to push the limits of artistic acceptability in a socially-conservative country, performed at the country’s annual Water Festival as President Thein Sein watched. And last month, a media centre, called House of Media and Entertainment, a brainchild of comedian Zarganar, opened in Yangon with plans, among other things, to encourage Myanmar’s emerging breed of documentary filmmakers.
While it’s all still like testing the water and a lot will depend on how the balance of freedom and responsibility works out in the future, for now hope grows as the “Myanmar Spring” begins to take on new colours.