Burma Cartoonists Share Strategies for Beating Censorship

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 31 October 2013

RANGOON — For a long time, it was tough to be a cartoonist in Burma. The job not only required artistic drawing skills, but also enough creativity to avoid government censorship.

Starting in the 1960s, from the socialist era through decades of military dictatorship, censors were a normal part of life for all writers and artists in the country, deciding which articles could be published and which paintings could be shown in exhibitions. After a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011, the censorship office closed down last year.

Now, for anyone hoping to learn about life under the former regime or the tactics employed to bypass the censors’ red pens, an exhibition in Rangoon is offering a few clues. The works of 70 cartoonists are on display, and each piece was pulled from a local weekly or magazine that published from 2000 through 2011.

“After reading these cartoons, you may have a sense of just how hard they were trying at the time, Yan Naung Oo, who organized the exhibition at the Culture Bridge Gallery, says of the cartoonists and their attempts to get their material published.

Cartoonist Kaung Htet said he and other artists “were watched under suspicious eyes.”

“Even though we worked hard to satirize in hidden message what was happening around us, many cartoons didn’t see the light of the day, thanks to censorship,” he recalled.

“Once we were scolded by a censorship official. ‘Don’t you have other things to tell, apart from the electricity shortages or crowded buses?’ he said. But sometimes we managed to avoid being censored by not showing or telling directly.”

The exhibition, called “Within Censorship,” focuses on cartoons from 2000 through 2011, but it also displays some works by great Burmese cartoonists from colonial times, including Shwe Talay and Ba Gyan, while the black-and-white works of more recent masters Pe Thein and Thaw Ka portray the hardships of ordinary people during the Socialist era. The rest of the cartoons are socio-political reflections of modern Burma, commenting on poverty and bureaucratic mismanagement, as well as the skepticism about the military regime’s transformation to a quasi-civilian government.

“We’ve heard that no one can control artists’ creativity, even during the harshest times,” Yang Naung Oo said. “These cartoons are some examples.”

“Within Censorship” Cartoon Exhibition
From Oct. 30 to Nov. 4.
Culture Bridge Gallery
# 31, Second Floor, Pazungdaung Township, Rangoon.
Tel: 09420763441, 09448015682