There is a flowering of creative activism blooming on the protest-charged streets of Myanmar. Alongside burning barricades and army raids, a new generation of Burmese artists are defining new ways for arts and culture to serve the pro-democracy protest movement. East Asian cultural workers are devising a creative cocktail that improvises, imports and reimagines images from Hollywood, music and memes to keep the fight against a military coup alive and inspired.
On 1 February 2021, citizens in the East Asian country woke up to announcements that the army was reinforcing its control of the state. The military, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, had unseated an elected government and placed its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, back under house arrest, along with other senior figures from the ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, justified the coup by alleging widespread irregularities in the vote won by the NLD in a landslide in November. The people, enraged, took to the streets. Among them, individual artists, creative collectives and collaborators began using their artistry to amplify national demands for democracy and the release of the elected civilian leaders.
Traditions of protest art in Myanmar are as old as the military’s propensity for repression. In fact, Myanmar’s military junta have long seen the arts as a menacing nuisance. It has imprisoned poets and painters, rappers and writers over the years. Reportedly, among the many people detained during the coup’s initial raids were a filmmaker, two writers and a reggae singer.
Among them was Ko Zayar Thaw, who won a parliamentary seat in a district once considered a military stronghold, and was a member of Generation Wave, a hip-hop collective that challenged the former ruling junta through sly lyrics. He served half a decade in jail for it. After his release, he joined the NLD when it contested a by-election in 2012.
The current power grab by the army and the people’s daring to claim it back through protest has reminded many of the 1988 pro-democracy movement. It has seen a new generation of activists reaching back to that history for songs with which to protest. In particular, three songs from the 1988 pro-democracy movement are finding new voices.
One is Blood Oath, written by singer and songwriter Htoo Ein Thin, a former student activist who went into exile after the 1988 uprising and joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front. The other is We Shall Not Surrender Till the End of the World, which is built around the melody of the 1977 hit song Dust in Wind by American rock band Kansas. Videos of protesters singing the song have gone viral. Another is Encourage Mi Nge, a song reported to have been used by many political prisoners to encourage one another while in jail. It is the work of legendary songwriter Ko Ne Win.
The Hollywood effect
Co-opting pop culture to keep the fires of revolution burning has proved to be a sustaining force in Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement. As the military crackdown became more murderous, protesters girded themselves to stand their ground with war chants. Barricaded behind homemade wooden shields, an assortment of students and nurses, creatives and other workers could be heard chanting “yibambe”, an isiXhosa phrase that loosely means “hold fast”.
A piece of South African struggle heritage found its way to the burning streets of East Asia through the Hollywood blockbuster Black Panther. It is itself a reworking of a popular protest chant sung in a call-and-response pattern. A person calls out, “Ayi hlale phantsi ’ibambe uMthetho [Let’s settle down and hold the line]”, to which people respond by repeating the calling phrase. This chant is used to calm tempers or for bolstering protesters in the heat of a protest march.
In another instance of protesters adopting Hollywood symbols to service real-life struggles, demonstrators in Myanmar have been using the three-finger salute. The hand gesture is taken from the Hunger Games films. Made by bending the pinky and the thumb while raising the ring, middle and index fingers, the three-finger salute has become a powerful symbol of resistance across the region.
It was used earlier across cities in Thailand. Thai protesters rallied behind the three-finger salute to demand a reformation of the country’s monarchy, a rewriting of the military-drafted Constitution, for Parliament to be dissolved and for fresh elections to be held. In response, the Thai military banned the use of the salute. It has now emerged as a symbol of solidarity by pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar.
The convergence of pop culture, arts and images of protest on the picket lines has a long history. In recent memory, the most spectacular assimilation of characters and symbols of protest drawn from Hollywood was with the 2005 film V for Vendetta. Its themes of anti-corruption have been drawn into various movements across the world.
The film was based on the 1988 DC Comics graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. It follows the story of a protagonist named V, a revolutionary who wears a Guy Fawkes mask in his campaign against the powerful and corrupt members of the ruling elite. His on-screen exploits have seen his plastic Guy Fawkes mask widely adopted as an anti-fascist symbol by groups such as Anonymous, the Occupy Movement, pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong and beyond.
As cultural workers across Myanmar became increasingly inspired to lend their voices to the cause, images of symbols projected onto large buildings started to appear at night across Yangon, the country’s biggest city. These featured a design of the three-finger salute, a dove of peace and the smiling face of the deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
In another tactic, graphic designers and painters have been using the internet to spread art against the military junta. Many who are part of online art collectives have converged on websites such as threefingers.org, where they have made their anti-coup designs freely available for download. This allows protesters to print them out as signs, stickers or T-shirts.
Myanmar and the meme
Creatives in Myanmar have also taken to the use of memes and subversive humour as tools of struggle. These images have also been lifted from their online impressions and used as printed signs and posters on the picket line.
These have featured familiar characters such as Pepe the Frog, which was adopted in 2016 as a symbol of the US far right. Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have also used it in their struggle. There have also been posters with the Doge and Cheems meme of two dogs noisily smacking each other with a baseball bat – though it has been increasingly adapted to make other kinds of statements.
The use of art in the struggle for freedom is as old as humanity’s claim to it. While blood colours the streets of Myanmar as the military kills protesters, a generation of artists is finding creative ways to voice its yearning to be free.