Open Letter | In Solidarity With Artists and Cultural Actors in Myanmar
On 1 February 2021, Myanmar military forces, also known as Tatmadaw, declared a state of emergency and seized power in Myanmar through a coup d’état. They detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the National League for Democracy, and handed all executive, judicial and legislative powers to the head of the Tatmadaw. The following months have witnessed a crackdown on civil liberties and rights in Myanmar, often through institutional violence and force.
The citizens of Myanmar have been subject to multiple human rights violations. According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Burma, around 3151 individuals have been detained or sentenced by the military forces. Further, the statistics note 726 killings as well as 813 arrest warrants. There has been a systematic repression of the freedom of movement, freedom of expression, right to assembly and association as well as the freedom of the press in Myanmar. Limitations were also placed on social media as well as the free use of the internet.
The actions of the Tatmadaw have also had an impact on the rights of artists and cultural actors, including the right to freedom of artistic expression. Since February 2021, Freemuse has documented more than 25 instances of violations against artists in the country.
The use of lethal force against unarmed protestors has had grave consequences in Myanmar. On 3 March 2021, two poets, Myint Myint Zin and K Za Win were killed by the military forces. Zin and Win actively used their art to show solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, and their unwarranted murder by the military authorities is a deplorable action undertaken to silence any protest or dissent.
The very first day of the coup saw the immediate arrest of three writers Than Myint Aung, Maung Thar Cho and Htin Lin Oo, along with filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi. On 21 February 2021, renowned Burmese actor Lu Min was arrested for having allegedly "incited" civil servants to join the civil disobedience movement. As an offence that is punishable by imprisonment for up to two years, this arrest may have a chilling effect on the expressions of other artists and other cultural institutions.
Through issuing arrest warrants against individuals working in the fields of literature, film, theatre, and music, the Tatmadaw’s policy of clamping down on artistic freedoms is evident. The arrest of satirist and comedian Zarganar on 6 April 2021, who has been a longstanding critic of the military regime, is illustrative of the despotic exploitation of authority and power in Myanmar. Among those arrested from the music community are singer Saw Phoe Khwar and music producer U Kyi Win. Singers Anegga and Lin Linn are believed to be on the run and in hiding.
To expand further on the filmmaking community, around nine artists have been arrested including director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, actors Ye Tike, Paing Takhon, Phway Phway, Ko Ye Dike, and Myanmar academy awards winners Eaindra Kyaw Zin and Pyay Ti Oo.
In addition, among the 100 professionals from the filmmaking community, against whom the Burmese military has recently started to issue daily arrest warrants under section 505(a) of the Penal Code, are actor & model filmmaker Htoo Paing Zaw Oo, actress Thet Mon Myint and directors Wayne, Ko Pauk and Na Gyi and the actor Pyay Ti Oo. This has contributed to many artists and filmmakers going into hiding.
There are also several cases of unlawful detention and instances of brutality against the creative community that are undocumented and have not been publicized due to the sensitive safety concerns of those involved. Many artists are also under surveillance, with their digital activities being monitored by members of the regime.
Art and culture are the backbone of democracies. They help amplify political dissent, giving voice to the marginalized and the oppressed. Artistic work has a strong subversive value and helps challenge institutions of power and authority. It is crucial that the rights and freedoms of artists and other cultural actors be recognized and upheld.
The use of disproportionate force and arbitrary detentions against protestors, including artists, for participating in the civil disobedience movement violate the basic tenets of international human rights law. We condemn the violations of these rights in Myanmar and stand in solidarity with the artistic community and cultural actors in the country.
Artists at Risk Connection, PEN America