Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘Cartoonists Have Been on the Side of the People’

By The Irrawaddy 10 October 2015

Aye Chan Myae: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This year marks 100 years since comics were introduced to Burma. I have invited cartoonists to discuss what is needed for the artform to develop and the relationship between cartoons and journalism. Artists Maung Maung Aung and Win Aung will join me for the discussion. I am Irrawaddy editor Aye Chan Myae.

This year marks the centenary of the introduction of cartoons into Burma. Cartoonists have gone through various experiences in that time. U Win Aung, what is your view on the experiences of cartoonists in political, social and economic aspects in 100 years?

Win Aung: I don’t see Burmese cartoons having a smooth history in the later period of this timeframe. Burmese cartoons have a good origin story. Sayagyi Shwetalay started his cartoon work in the period of the independence struggle. Though Burma was at that time under colonial rule, there was a certain degree of freedom of expression. Burma then regained its independence, and in the time of Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, there was also freedom of expression. The most striking example is cartoons of Saya U Ba Gyan, and taking at look at them, one can know (that there was freedom of expression). Then there came the caretaker government, then the Revolutionary Council, and finally one-party dictatorship under the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). Then, the degree of freedom of expression cartoonists had enjoyed gradually decreased. Cartoonists had fewer things to draw cartoons about.

ACM: We have gone through the time of BSPP and its successor. Cartoonists enjoyed a good time at first. Then there were restrictions in the time of the BSPP. But, cartoon played an important part in every political evolution of Burma. Cartoonists took part in it. U Maung, things have changed very swiftly today and with the proliferation of social media, cartoonists can draw very freely. And there are lots of cartoonists. Whether people like their work or not, it is undeniable that the number of cartoonists has increased significantly. There are also many young cartoonists who draw for fun in this age of social media and democracy. U Maung, would you tell me about the situation of cartoonists and their freedom of expression in this age?

Maung Maung Aung: I have now written cartoons for around 45 years. In these 45 years, cartoonists have been on the side of the people, reflecting the economic, social and political situations of the country. Now, it seems that we get somewhat more freedom after years of restriction. So, more people are drawing cartoons. There are two types of cartoonist. The first are cartoonists who takes the art form as his life and the second are opportunistic cartoonists. There has been some impact on those who have continuously engaged in cartoon art with deep faith. There is an unwritten code of conduct among cartoonists, according to what we have learnt from our seniors. Previously, there were prohibitions on things such as mocking the poor and the disabled and making personal attacks. It is more important (not to do such things) in this democratic era. To an artist, democracy is like a double-edged sword. While it can be used to stab others, it can also hurt the artist. So, it is not true that cartoonists can draw as they please. They will have to take responsibility for their actions when the law of democracy flourishes for some time.

ACM: We journalists also have a code of ethics. Whether there is press scrutiny or not, we have to operate according to our ethics. Cartoonists have their own ethics. There should be ethics in any field of arts. What do you think of ethics among cartoonists, U Win Aung? Would you compare the code of conduct that respected cartoonists have previous observed and the situation at present?

WA: Mainly, what is important for a cartoonist is his faith. Cartoonists should make sure their creations reflect the life of people. Many say that cartoonists or journalists should not be biased, but must be neutral. It is wrong. They should have bias. They must. By bias, I don’t mean prejudice. If one side is right and another is wrong, which side they would stand for? Of those who oppress and those who are oppressed, which side they would stand for? They have to take a position. If a cartoonist has adopted a firm position and are to draw cartoons from that position, they have to think about ethics. As Saya Maung Maung has said, we are not supposed to write cartoons focusing on personal and racial feelings. For example, if the political system is bad, we can draw things about those who create that system, but we are not supposed to draw things about the personal lives of the creators of that system.

ACM: Cartoonists should understand that?

WA: Yes, they should understand and also observe it. Today, some have written dirty things. They use foul language in text. They should avoid personal attacks and foulness in illustrations and texts. I would like to give an example of a cartoon by U Ba Gyan. When the Pyitawtha Project came to failure, U Ba Gyan drew a cartoon about the corruption of the ministers of U Nu government. He used words such as ‘traitor’, ‘stooge’ and ‘fat cat’. He also used the word ‘goat bell’. Excuse me for being rude. By goat bell he meant the testicles of the goat which rock from side to side. He used subtle illustrations and texts. He used the word goat bell and covered that part of the goat with a piece of cloth in illustrating it.

ACM: Burma’s cartoon tradition has reached its centenary and there has been a struggle in its history. While there are cartoonists who value and devote their whole life to cartoons, there are also people today who draw without professional skills today. Some don’t even use pens—they use computers instead. It has become very easy to draw cartoons. What is your assessment of the quality of cartoons today?

MMA: It depends on the situations we have gone through. In successive periods, we are like a person standing at the edge of a chasm. Drawing cartoons does not provide a secure livelihood, but we can’t help drawing. I will continue working this job and I have to think about how to survive with it. Again, a cartoonist needs to have creative ideas and expertise. When we were young cartoonists, editors played a very important role. They asked us to change things if our ideas and illustrations were not good enough. We have passed through such an age and it was beneficial to us. In the past, it was very difficult to be a cartoonist. Without expertise, it was impossible to become a cartoonist. But today, it is easy to enter and get a place in the cartoon world, and different people have entered. This affects the cartoon world, decreases the quality of cartoons and cartoonists. The aesthetic quality of our tradition has declined.

WA: There are people who enter the cartoon field by drawing an issue without knowing the basics of art. It is editors who have to decide if their drawings are cartoons or not.

ACM: Cartoonists have to accept (rejection) if editors give them good reasons. Only then can the quality of cartoons be better. We have grown up in the company of cartoons and we love cartoons very much. I wanted to see cartoonists since I was a child. So, we want our children to love cartoons and cartoon characters. So, I think the cartoons must be of good quality.

WA: Speaking of quality, I would like to stress the important role of the editor. I’d like to give you an example. When U Win Tin (the late patron of the NLD and seasoned journalist) moved to the Hanthawaddy newspaper house to Mandalay and published the newspaper there as the chief editor, cartoonists emerged in large numbers in Mandalay. There were as many as 60. And there were lots of good cartoons. The period was even dubbed the Hanthawaddy cartoon era. So, a good editor can turn out many cartoonists. There remains many cartoonists nurtured by the Hanthawaddy newspaper. The role of the editor is very important.

ACM: Your discussion is very interesting. I wish cartoonists great success and progress, on the occasion of the centenary of Burmese cartoons. Thank you both for your contribution.