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Interview with Myanmar cartoonists

July 1, 2021 in General

A military coup on February 1st of this year has returned the southeast Asian country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) back to full military rule. After the election in November 2020 was won by the National League For Democracy in a landslide victory, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, refused to accept the result citing voter fraud. Peaceful protest against the coup quickly turned deadly as people were killed and wounded by security forces. Anyone in opposition to the government quickly found themselves vulnerable to arrest, detention and torture. 

This is an interview conducted by Carol (The Surreal McCoy) on behalf of the PCO with two prominent members of the Myanmar Cartoonists Association who have had to flee their country for their own safety: Waiyan Taunggyi and Lagoon Eain (their pen names).

PCO members provided the questions and a fuller version of this interview will be available soon as a video on the PCO Youtube channel.

Waiyan Taunggyi

Lagoon Eain

PCO: Please tell us a bit about yourselves.

WT

Mingalarba (‘hello’ in Burmese). I am cartoonist Waiyan Taunggyi. I am from Myanmar and have been a cartoonist for over twenty years. I have been drawing cartoons for local media, NGOs, INGOs the United Nations and I also do commercial cartoons for businesses. Sometimes I teach basic drawing lessons for kids and adults. I especially do political cartoons and illustrations.

LE

Really, I’m an artist. I do painting, animating, sculpting and music. But I draw cartoons, especially political cartoons as a duty of citizenship. So I [have] created a lot of cartoons since 2010. I criticised governments, candidates and military groups. Since 2012, President U Then Sein wanted to arrest me because of [my] cartoons and now the dictator Min Aung Hlaing wants to arrest me in this military coup. So, our family is running from them.

Cartoon by © Waiyan Taunggyi

PCO: Before the coup were you able to draw your thoughts and opinions as freely as you liked or did you have to censor yourself? Were any subjects off-limits?

WT

I got what I deserved. However, there have been cases where the Burmese military has filed lawsuits under Article 66D.* The Burmese military has previously banned freedom of expression. So even if we make fun of the military, we have to [do so] indirectly with pictures of ancient Burmese Commanders.

[*’The Telecommunications Law was introduced in 2013 and since then it has been used repeatedly to restrict freedom of speech and expression. Defamation charges under Section 66 (d) of the law have been brought against reporters, politicians and social media users. Many people have been arrested for criticising the military, the government or merely posting on Facebook.’- The Burma Campaign UK.]

LE

I publish my cartoons on social media such as Facebook, some media websites and some  printed journals. Sometimes, other media are afraid to use my cartoons because of [lack of] freedom of expression. So, I published all of my cartoons on my own Facebook page. I always consider about justice. So, I don’t think about other opinions and censorship.

Cartoon by © Lagoon Eain

PCO: What role do cartoons have in the Myanmar Spring Revolution?

WT

Cartoons played a very important role in the Spring Revolution. My cartoons gave motivation to the people. I comforted sad people with my cartoons. When in the February revolution most protesters used my cartoons as a sign board. When protesting in front of Chinese Embassy, they printed my cartoon and used it. I was so glad when I saw them I even took a photo with them. Editorial cartoons against the Burmese Military Terrorists bothered them a lot. It was effective and they even threatened my life. I’m so proud to draw effectively and I believe editorial cartoons played an important role in Spring Revolution.

LE

I think that cartoons can entertain the civilians who are tired of this coup, can give motivation for fighting this military group. And then can show what is important during this time with a single picture. So I have a duty to draw.

Cartoon by © Waiyan Taunggyi

PCO: How have your cartoons been regarded by the military?

WT

The dictatorship might have thought I was loathsome monster and they use imposters online to criticise my work. I am certain that these coordinated attacks were an attempt to drag me down.  They really are afraid the power of pencils. They thought that cartoons were a propaganda machine used to make people hate them. Also, the military terrorists didn’t have a cartoonist who can draw high quality cartoons in response to our political activism.

LE

How military regard is not my business but I think they really hurt. Because they want to arrest and search me. 

Protesters in Yangon

PCO: Because there is so little free press and internet access is limited, how are artists getting their work out to the public? Is there an underground movement? 

WT

I was in Myanmar until the first week of April. I first hid in my brother’s house. However, after the dictatorship used the military to target and kill civilians who protested peacefully and even targeted people suspected of being against the regime, I thought if I stayed in Myanmar my life was no longer safe. I knew I would have to leave Myanmar to create my art freely. When I began to flee, I was in constant fear of being caught by the police and military and that they would discover my external hard disks /the tablet I draw because there’s a lot of anti-coup pictures.

I can sigh with relief when I arrived in the safe zone. I think I arrived in April second week to the safe zone with cartoonist Lagoon Eain. Then I send my cartoons to the media from the safe zone. Most Cartoonist in Myanmar would not dare to create cartoons anymore because their life is in danger. I feel it is my responsibility to draw anti-coup cartoons on behalf of my partner cartoonists. Now that I am in safety, I can send my cartoons to the journal who will print out weekly and spread it secretly to the people. Some protesters print out my cartoons as a stickers and they quietly stick to the army walls at night.

LE

About February first week, they closed [the] internet. I tried [to get] my cartoons published on fliers. And then I can publish again on social media with [the] help of VPN apps.

Cartoon by © Lagoon Eain

PCO: What materials do you use in your art? Digital or pen and ink?

WT

I draw [in] all mediums, but mostly create digital works. Previously, I used a Huion Tablet with a Windows Platform. However, when I fled from Myanmar, I took only an iPad. I currently draw with my iPad now.

LE

With my iPad and laptop.

PCO: How are you managing at the moment with the practicalities – money, food, shelter?

WT

Currently I’m ok for now, but I am not sure what to do when my savings run out.

LE

For practicalities, I get support from my friends.

Cartoon by © Waiyan Taunggyi

PCO: What is next for you? Do you think you will return to Myanmar?

WT

I want to live a place where I can create my art freely and safely and have human rights. Hopefully, when the revolution is over I can go back to Myanmar.

LE

We are in second county and we have the only choice to go to [a] third county. Really, I want to return [to] my country again. I love Myanmar. I want to live in this country, but now I can’t live in Myanmar. The military group want to kill me.