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The Spring Revolution – Myanmar

Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia

Listen to Spring, a multimedia artist and activist from Myanmar, describe her daily life amidst the ongoing protests unfolding in the country. She draws attention to the ways in which the military coup of February 2021 poses severe security risks and impacts the future of citizens, human rights defenders, and the artistic community at large in Myanmar.

This episode is part of Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia, a limited-run podcast brought to you by ARC, in partnership with the Mekong Cultural Hub and FORUM-ASIA. Throughout this series, ARC’s Asia Regional Representative, Manojna Yeluri, will speak with artists and cultural rights defenders about their experiences engaging with artistic freedom in their countries.

MANOJNA – So without further ado, here’s welcoming Spring. Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us today, Spring. I think to begin with, we’re very curious to know why you chose the pseudonym ‘Spring’? Does it have any special significance?

SPRING – Because we call this revolution ‘the Spring Revolution.’ Spring is the metaphor of this revolution. Also, in the early days of the protest, we combined all our names under the name Spring, so now it’s become very trendy. That’s why I have my real name, but in Myanmar we call it nway u, which means Spring.

MANOJNA – That’s wonderful and thank you so much for giving us that context. Of course, it’s been several months since the coup in Myanmar and the world has been witnessing what is happening in Myanmar. There are reports of the situation there, but would you please share with us how daily life has changed since the events of February 2021?

SPRING – When the coup started in February we went out on peaceful protests, so almost every day there were different kinds of campaigns. After one month, the military government started using real bullets. They thought that if they killed someone, we would be afraid and we would stop our protests. But they were wrong – the time for revolution became very high day by day, because the more we were seeing innocent people being killed, the more we became strong. We encouraged each other and we reminded each other that all we have is each other.

 So day by day, we awaken and we encourage each other to keep going even though you read that every day there are people who keep dying. You know someone, somewhere in Myanmar is dying, but we keep doing our resistance with different forms. Also how our lives have changed now is that even when you are in your own house, you feel insecurity – you are not safe. Wherever you go out, you can be arrested or detained for any reason – a lot of reasons.

Also, whenever I go out, I can sense the fear within the society. They create that fear in our society when they arrest the protesters, and also there are a lot of military trucks driving around all the time. Even in front of your house, you can see the military cars driving around you where you would not in your daily life – it’s not normal at all.

Somehow they are shooting the people into the head, not in the body. Because the thought is that they intentionally kill people – if you are shot in the head, then you die.

In our daily lives, we have to break down that fear. The more they create fear, we have to motivate ourselves and bring ourselves to again and again, not feel fear.

“They thought that if they killed someone, we would be afraid and we would stop our protests. But they were wrong – the time for revolution became very high day by day, because the more we were seeing innocent people being killed, the more we became strong. We encouraged each other and we reminded each other that all we have is each other. ”

MANOJNA – It sounds incredibly challenging. It sounds like even having a conversation about it does not do justice to what the people of Myanmar are enduring right now. I know that you mentioned that it’s not even possible to feel safe within your homes, but how are people able to still manage day to day? Are they able to meet outside? Are there restrictions on how many people can be seen together in public?

SPRING – I can only answer based on my experience and how I live here. If we need to meet, like those of my age, young people, then we have to be very careful and not look very crowded. If I have to go outside of the town, I have to manage how many people are going to be traveling with me. But also you have to be very aware of every situation, so if I had to go out of town once a week for my brother, so if on the way there’s a lot of checkpoints – they check your car, your license or if they suspect, they may ask you questions or something like that. So you have to prepare yourself emotionally because even though you are not doing something very dangerous, there’s this tension in your daily life.

MANOJNA – The international community needs to get a better sense of exactly these emotions, and what everyone is feeling in Myanmar, and I think this is the power of art and creativity – it has the ability to communicate these very intense emotions, these very strong messages, but in a way that is so accessible and so approachable.

 To that end, we know that the artistic community has been on the frontlines of the protests and the ongoing crisis and revolution in Myanmar. We also know that our artistic community has suffered tragic, tragic losses. And I think what we’d like to know is whether artists and creative people are still being targeted. Do they still feel vulnerable at this point?

SPRING – When you say artists, there are different kinds of artists who come from different kinds of backgrounds. In the early times of the protests, there was the civil disobedience movement, or CDM, which was a very important part of this revolution, so the artists from the entertainment industry encouraged the civil disobedience movement and that’s why they became spotlighted.

Artists like poets – it’s really interesting, our government is really afraid of poets. Poets and cartoonists – they became very targeted.

Also I am from a multimedia background, and multimedia is not that popular in my country, but the international community really likes it, so we can do a lot of criticism through the art. But in Myanmar, that media is not so popular, so multimedia artists are not spotlighted yet – which is a really good thing for most of us because you have a low profile and you can do a lot. 

MANOJNA – Right, because the whole focus is not on you, basically. So what you mentioned about poets and cartoonists in particular, is there a reason why you think they’re being targeted more?

SPRING – Because they can really mobilize the public. Cartoonists really criticized recent situations, so I think that’s one of the reasons. Also with poets, they can really encourage through their poems, and I think now we have a revolution in 2021 but we did have a revolution in 1988 so they have a long story.

Our generation was born within these ten years and the multimedia artists, the younger generation artists, use different mediums to criticise. Poems and cartoons as well as the artists from the entertainment industry – they have a long story. For example, a very famous actor participated in the 1988 revolution and his son is participating in the 2021 revolution.

MANOJNA – That’s very strategic. And it makes sense because like you said, there is almost a new creative generation that has been born into Myanmar in this ten year period.

SPRING – We used to use this line, “Don’t act like the ’88 generation, we are the 2021 generation.” Don’t you think that we are like the ’88 generation – we are more smart. So something like this is what our generation uses like a call to fight back. So the way we use things, it’s different from the 88 generation. But now because of social media which is very open, mobile phones are very cheap now so we can all get the internet now. So when the revolution started, the artist and the designer – they really did get to participate in this military coup. So people said that this was the first time that the artist and general public became one, and were able to fight back to the military. Because we also have Facebook and every day we have a different poster, a campaign, a graphic – there’s a lot of activity on Facebook.

MANOJNA – With the situation as it is, we know that the number of safe spaces, physically and digitally online, are reducing and we also know that the creative community needs to interact with each other for it to be able to thrive and come up with new ideas to cooperate and collaborate. So how much of a problem is security now?

SPRING – We are really really concerned about our security. For example, whenever I need to attend a zoom meeting, they request that my face be covered. From my perspective, that is how we lost our identity. Some painters who paint about this revolution say that it is risky to keep all these paintings in their house. This is why they need some safe spaces – to be able to keep all these things. So we have way too much to pack, for almost ten years. When I started my art practice, I had a little experience of censorship and how we managed so after ten years, it’s like we’re going back to that experience again. For example, I use the video medium mostly and so I have a lot of footage and so I need to find a cloud or somewhere at an embassy, or someone who can host all my material because it’s so risky for this to be with me. I need to hide my hard drives or decide whether I should discard them or keep them somewhere else.

Also, now I am doing my own photo shooting. Before I would always bring my camera, it’s not a big one but I would still bring it with me and if I went out onto the street and took a photo – nobody cared. But now the situation has changed and so when you show your camera, you get scared and there’s so much doubt in the society. And for my personal security I have to use my phone to record, and I would actually like to do some filmmaking but you have to be very careful and manage a lot of things.

MANOJNA – You mentioned that there is a loss of identity because of all the hiding that you have to do in the interest of your security, and that a lot of artists have to do in the interest of their security. So that loss of identity must be creating a sense of loneliness and a sense of isolation also. Is it creating a sense of isolation? How are you and how are other artists like you coping with that?

SPRING – We talk about this with our friends, because personally, I have a lot of experience with losing my identity. Before this, you would like to be someone...you would create your profile. You show to the public who you are. Now, you have to hide as much as you can. You’re nobody at all and you know it makes you safe. When I talk to my friends, I’m told they also face the same problem.

And now what happens is we don’t have new friends now, in order to keep safe. So before you know who you are, if you know your identity, we can guess who you are, where you come from, what you are doing. Now you have to hide your identity. Even if you are highly educated, or you’re doing something really great, you still have to hide as much as you can.

So we don’t know each other. And we don’t trust each other. So if we don’t trust each other, we crash. So even though we do need democracy, we would like to give space for others, but we cannot and we can only give space to our primary contacts, in order to be safe. That is how slowly we already have trust issues in our community, so now it’s really that we are repeating the same problems.

“Before this, you would like to be someone...you would create your profile. You show to the public who you are. Now, you have to hide as much as you can. You’re nobody at all and you know it makes you safe. ”

MANOJNA – Thank you so much for sharing that personal insight with us, Spring. Like we’ve been discussing, artists and particularly artist activists have been very prominent in the protests in Myanmar. As an artist and activist yourself, what role do you think you should be playing in this ongoing situation? 

SPRING – It’s a really good question and one that I have been asking myself as well. For me, I have always been doing what I really love to do. I only kept focusing on what I am interested in. But in this crisis, I cannot keep doing what I love to do because it’s not useful now in this crisis. So in the early days of the protests, I participated as a citizen - I am not creating anything, because I would like to experience things, and if I am creating then I cannot keep experiencing things around me.

MANOJNA – I imagine that it is very similar to the loss of identity you had mentioned earlier. Because like you said, it’s rethinking the use of what you love to do and then redirecting it in many ways. Do you feel like the artistic community is able to cope with these stresses and is able to continue to keep showing up and participate in this revolution as much as they want to? Or do you think that things are getting a bit difficult now?

SPRING – It depends on what kind of medium you are using, and what kind of artist you are. Now I am trying to explore what I can do as an artist and how I can use art as a medium in this crisis. I am not sure about other artists, because we have different art practices and so also our art practices are based on different philosophies and situations. I’m very curious about political art and I’m used to doing a lot of socio-political art, and I like it. But now, I experience all this myself, physically and emotionally and I am experiencing all this crisis myself and I am trying to learn how the human imagination is useful in this crisis.

“Now I am trying to explore what I can do as an artist and how I can use art as a medium in this crisis.”

MANOJNA – Many artists at risk, who find themselves vulnerable in many socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural situations – this is exactly what they’re trying to convey to the international community. My question to you is, what do you think the international community and civil society organizations can offer help to artists such as yourself, who are trying to establish change in your country – What can we do to help?

SPRING – Honestly, I am really tired of asking for the help of the international community. Not our friends, but at a government level, I am really tired. I don’t expect any help from them at all. So at my friends level, you or my other friends, citizen to citizen - we have a personal connection, so they always show their emotional support. It’s really important and they are doing something in their place to support us and show their love, to say we care about you.

Also now we are facing a double crisis – the third wave of COVID is coming and it’s really bad. There are a lot of people who are dying. We are running out of oxygen or the mask prices are being hiked, hiked three times and so ordinary people cannot even buy masks. So if you would like to help, then there is a lot of opportunity for you to help in terms of finance. For sure we need the money.

I am very curious about art’s role in society right now. Because people don’t usually care. But I think even art’s role is very important in this crisis, but I’m so curious about how we can support this creativity and now me and my friend, we’re talking about doing a project where we can support other creative people by encouraging them to use something from their daily life. We need creative skills. So if you have some knowledge or resources, we can create a collaboration relying on that. We have to keep fighting, and we have to keep the resistance going but also we have to keep our education going, we have to keep learning. Most of the people are doing what they can.

We care about each other a lot now, not just in a political sense but even in our daily lives. We care about each other, we talk to each other every day with kindness.

We share our money, we share our salary, we share our compassion to each other and we protect each other as much as we can. We don’t know each other but we already protect each other as much as we can. So at the same time, there are a lot of beautiful things happening but we don’t have the time to feel it because we are always struggling with our daily life.

MANOJNA – The day to day that you are experiencing, and yet you have brought so much hope into this conversation and you are incredibly brave for having agreed to have had this conversation with us and we very deeply appreciative of this. Thank you so much, Spring, for being so honest with us.

SPRING – Thank you. I got a space to share all this. It really has helped me to release as well. Thank you so much.

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