Myanmar’s Young Artists and Activists

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

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)
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Even in Yangon, there is only one hospital with an HIV/AIDS treatment facility. Eventually, Phyu Phyu Thin established a center in the capital where rural patients could stay. She raised funds, gathered building materials and constructed a two-story wooden building next door to her house. Today, a large room, crammed wall to wall with pallets, provides shelter to 90 HIV-infected men, women and children from the countryside. Some patients receive a course of retroviral drugs provided by international aid organizations and, if they improve sufficiently, are sent home with medication and monitored by local volunteers. At 379 Gayha, says Phyu Phyu Thin, patients “get love, care and kindness.”

In trying to close the shelter, the government has used a law that requires people staying as houseguests anywhere in Myanmar to obtain permits and report their presence to local authorities. The permits must be renewed every seven days. “Even if my parents come for a visit, I have to inform,” Yar Zar, the 30-year-old deputy director of the shelter, told me. In November, a day after Suu Kyi visited the shelter, officials refused to renew the permits of the 120 patients at the facility, including some close to death, and ordered them to vacate the premises. “The authorities were jealous of Aung San Suu Kyi,” says Phyu Phyu Thin. She and other NLD youth leaders sprang into action—reaching out to foreign journalists, rallying Burmese artists, writers and neighborhood leaders. “Everybody came out to encourage the patients,” Phyu Phyu Thin told me. After a week or so, the authorities backed down. “It was a small victory for us,” she says, smiling.

Ma Ei is perhaps the most creative and daring of the avant-garde artists. To visit her in Yangon, I walked up seven dingy flights of stairs to a tiny apartment where I found a waif-like woman of 32 sorting through a dozen large canvases. Ma Ei’s unlikely journey began one day in 2008, she told me, after she was obliged to submit canvases from her first exhibit—five colorful abstract oil paintings—to the censorship board. “It made me angry,” she said in the halting English she picked up watching American movies on pirated DVDs. “This was my own work, my own feelings, so why should I need permission to show them? Then the anger just started to come out in my work.”

Since then, Ma Ei has mounted some 20 exhibitions in Yangon galleries—invariably sneaking messages about repression, environmental despoliation, gender prejudice and poverty into her work. “I am a good liar,” she boasted, laughing. “And the censors are too stupid to understand my art.” Ma Ei set out for me a series of disturbing photographic self-portraits printed on large canvases, including one that portrays her cradling her own decapitated head. Another work, part of an exhibit called “What Is My Next Life?” showed Ma Ei trapped in a giant spider’s web. The censors questioned her about it. “I told them it was about Buddhism, and about the whole world being a prison. They let it go.” Her most recent show, “Women for Sale,” consisted of a dozen large photographs showing her own body tightly swaddled in layers and layers of plastic wrap, a critique, she said, of Myanmar’s male-dominated society. “My message is, ‘I am a woman, and I am treated here like a commodity.’ Women in Burma are stuck at the second level, far below men.”

Ma Ei’s closest encounter with the government involved an artwork that, she says, had no political content whatsoever: abstract swirls of black, red and blue that, at a distance, looked vaguely like the number eight. Censors accused her of alluding to the notorious pro-democracy uprising that erupted on August 8, 1988, and went on for five weeks. “It was unintentional,” she says. “Finally they said that it was OK, but I had to argue with them.” She has come to expect confrontation, she says. “I am one of the only artists in Burma who dares to show my feelings to the people.”

Suu Kyi told me that pressure for freedom of expression is growing by the day. Sitting in her office in downtown Yangon, she expressed delight at the proliferation of Web sites such as Facebook, as well as at the bloggers, mobile phone cameras, satellite TV channels and other engines of information exchange that have multiplied since she was placed back under house arrest in 2003, after a one-year release. “With all this new information, there will be more differences of opinion, and I think more and more people are expressing these differences,” she said. “This is the kind of change that cannot be turned back, cannot be stemmed, and if you try to put up a barrier, people will go around it.”

Joshua Hammer first visited Myanmar in 1980; he now lives in Berlin. Photographer Adam Dean is based in Beijing.


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