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One of the country's most popular rappers, J-Me avoids political statements in his music. But his lyrics, he says, reflect the concerns of Myanmar's young. (Adam Dean)

Myanmar's Young Artists and Activists

In the country formerly known as Burma, these free thinkers are a force in the struggle for democracy

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Editor's Note, April 3, 2012: The election of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—the face of her nation’s pro-democracy movement—to Parliament opens a dramatic new chapter in Burma’s journey from oppressive military rule. Her supporters,  from young artists seeking freedom of expression, to a generation of activists long committed to the struggle against the ruling generals—believe that a sea change is overtaking their society. We wrote about her supporters in March 2011.

The New Zero Gallery and Art Studio looks out over a scruffy street of coconut palms, noodle stalls and cybercafés in Yangon (Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. The two-story space is filled with easels, dripping brushes and half-finished canvases covered with swirls of paint. A framed photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was released from seven years of house arrest this past November, provides the only hint of the gallery’s political sympathies.

An assistant with spiky, dyed orange hair leads me upstairs to a loft space, where half a dozen young men and women are smoking and drinking coffee. They tell me they’re planning an “underground” performance for the coming week. Yangon’s tiny avant-garde community has been putting on secret exhibitions in spaces hidden throughout this decrepit city—in violation of the censorship laws that require every piece of art to be vetted for subversive content by a panel of “experts.”

“We have to be extremely cautious,” says Zoncy, a diminutive 24-year-old woman who paints at the studio. “We are always aware of the danger of spies.”

Because their work is not considered overtly political, Zoncy and a few other New Zero artists have been allowed to travel abroad. In the past two years, she has visited Thailand, Japan and Indonesia on artistic fellowships—and come away with an exhilarating sense of freedom that has permeated her art. On a computer, she shows me videos she made for a recent government-sanctioned exhibition. One shows a young boy playing cymbals on a sidewalk beside a plastic doll’s decapitated head. “One censor said [the head] might be seen as symbolizing Aung San Suu Kyi and demanded that I blot out the image of the head,” Zoncy said. (She decided to withdraw the video.) Another video consists of a montage of dogs, cats, gerbils and other animals pacing around in cages. The symbolism is hard to miss. “They did not allow this to be presented at all,” she says.

The founder and director of the New Zero Gallery is a ponytailed man named Ay Ko, who is dressed on this day in jeans, sandals and a University of California football T-shirt. Ay Ko, 47, spent four years in a Myanmar prison following a student uprising in August 1988. After he was released, he turned to making political art—challenging the regime in subtle ways, communicating his defiance to a small group of like-minded artists, students and political progressives. “We are always walking on a tightrope here,” he told me in painstaking English. “The government is looking at us all the time. We [celebrate] the open mind, we organize the young generation, and they don’t like it.” Many of Ay Ko’s friends and colleagues, as well as two siblings, have left Myanmar. “I don’t want to live in an abroad country,” he says. “My history is here.”

Myanmar’s history has been turbulent and bloody. This tropical nation, a former British colony, has long worn two faces. Tourists encounter a land of lush jungles, golden pagodas and monasteries where nearly every Burmese is obliged to spend part of one year in serene contemplation. At the same time, the nation is one of the world’s most repressive and isolated states; since a military coup in 1962, it has been ruled by a cabal of generals who have ruthlessly stamped out dissent. Government troops, according to witnesses, shot and killed thousands of students and other protesters during the 1988 rebellion; since then, the generals have intermittently shuttered universities, imprisoned thousands of people because of their political beliefs and activity, and imposed some of the harshest censorship laws in the world.

In 1990, the regime refused to accept the results of national elections won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) Party led by Aung San Suu Kyi—the charismatic daughter of Aung San, a nationalist who negotiated Myanmar’s independence from Britain after World War II. He was killed at age 32 in 1947, by a hit squad loyal to a political rival. Anticipating the victory of Suu Kyi’s party, the junta had placed her under house arrest in 1989; she would remain in detention for 15 of the next 21 years. In response, the United States and Europe imposed economic sanctions that include freezing the regime’s assets abroad and blocking nearly all foreign investment. Cut off from the West, Myanmar—the military regime changed the name in 1989, though the U.S. State Department and others continue to call it Burma—fell into isolation and decrepitude: today, it is the second-poorest nation in Asia, after Afghanistan, with a per capita income of $469 a year. (China has partnered with the regime to exploit the country’s natural gas, teak forests and jade deposits, but the money has mostly benefited the military elite and their cronies.)

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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