‘We Truly Believe That the Arts Can Change People’

By The Irrawaddy 30 May 2015

This week on Dateline Irrawaddy, we will be discussing how the over-exploitation of mineral resources has negatively impacted the environment. Cartoonist Ko Lai Lone, and Ko Saw Poe Khwar will join us for this discussion. Lai Lone recently organized a cartoon exhibition titled “For Who?” focusing on natural resource governance in Burma. Ko Saw Poe Khwar is a reggae musician who sings songs about the earth, the environment and peace. I’m Aye Chan Myae, editor of the Irrawaddy Journal, Burmese edition.

Aye Chan Myae: Ko Lai Lone, you organized a cartoon exhibition titled “For Who?” which focuses on natural resource governance. More than a dozen well-known cartoonists, including Saya Awe Pi Kyal [commonly referred to as APK] and Win Aung, exhibited their works. Could you tell us how this exhibition came about?

Lai Lone: I also work for a social organization called Spectrum. I’ve been wanting to emphasize the conditions of natural resource governance in Myanmar [Burma] together with like-minded peers. Mainly, we wanted to underscore the situation to foreigners from foreign companies and embassies rather than Burmese people, because Burmese people are already aware of the situation as it has been a topic that comes up a lot. So we organized the event, mainly targeting those who don’t know about it yet. Twenty cartoonists took part in the exhibition; each contributed three works for a total of 60.

ACM: I saw Ko Saw Phoe Khwar at the event. Ko Lai Lone invited you, right? Ko Saw Poe Khwar, you sing songs about the earth. What do you think about the exhibition and about the exploitation of natural resources?

Saw Poe Khwar: I think of it simply. I view the earth as a home. We enter into it and then we leave it. What shall we do for the earth while we are alive? We are guests. Likewise, our country is our home. What can we do for our home? There should be such an exhibition, because it sends us a message. Natural resources are related to peace. Just looking at the surface, it seems natural resources are not related to peace. But in fact, the two are related.

ACM: Ko Saw Poe Khwar, how long have you been involved in reggae music? Can you tell us a bit about the genre? I mean, rock has its own signifiers, and so does hip hop. What’s reggae all about?

SPK: Personally, I think there is a link between reggae and natural resources, because reggae musicians always say that reggae is not only music—it also has a message. In other words, it informs. Again, it gives us willpower and courage. Speaking of natural resources, education is of critical importance in natural resource governance. There have been many examples of people doing the wrong things because of ignorance. There are many cases of people cutting down trees or burning the forests for farming because of ignorance. Such things put the earth in harm’s way. Since reggae music gives a message, there must be a connection.

ACM: Speaking of education, I often see cartoon books by Ko Lai Lone. You have made some books about a young hunter named Key Marn, which educate children about the importance of the environment. Environmental education should be geared toward children because it’s harder to instill environmental awareness into adults. So there should be many such books. How did you come up with the idea to draw them?

LL: We truly believe that the arts can change people. For example, if you fall in love with a girl, you just can’t say “I love you” bluntly, you need to take a romantic approach to touch her heart. What I mean is that we need to touch people’s hearts. Arts, whether it’s a cartoon or a painting or music, should touch the hearts of people. No matter how much we read or how much we work, there won’t be real change unless our hearts are touched. My books are not only for children, but also for parents. I also intend to educate the parents through their children. I think it’s easier to attract attention with pictures. So far I have drawn seven cartoon books about environmental conservation.

ACM: Environmental conservation concerns everybody. We can’t neglect it just because we are not affected yet. We can’t say that because we are living here [in Rangoon] that the construction of the Myitsone dam in Kachin State would not concern us. I notice that Ko Lai Lone is from Chin State. Ko Saw Phoe Khwar is Karen and I am Bamar. This makes me think about the relationship between exploitation of mineral resources and the peace process. What do you think?

SPK: Some ethnic people have a natural [resentment toward Bamar people], which has led to negative consequences. To be frank, Karen people are taught from birth, in our history lessons, not to trust the government. We are largely racially brainwashed. While some are rational enough to distinguish between right and wrong, and to identify fact, some people don’t have that rationality. In the case of the latter, many good things are destroyed.

As I have said before, there are many cases of causing damage because of ignorance. Regarding peace, some people think that ethnic groups do not want to make peace because they don’t want to share their resources. For example, Kachin State has gems, and other ethnic regions have this or that resource. So some people think ethnic armed groups and the government are fighting for control of those resources, and they are concerned that the fight will drag on forever. But I don’t think the current fighting is related to resource sharing indeed. Many, many things have led to current situation, I reckon.

ACM: As far as I’m aware, only certain people in the leadership are greedy for mineral resources. It can’t be that the entire population is crazy about natural resources, since they are not the ones who get the benefits from those resources.

SPK: If the mineral resources got into the hands of those who can systematically manage them, I am sure the country would be prosperous. Everyone says that our country has vast deposits of mineral resources. As you have said, those resources are managed only by a handful of people, and that group of people only cares about themselves. It is wrong. They deplete our resources without understanding the consequences. When it comes to the exploitation of natural resources, it is the people who share the consequences.

LL: I am from Chin State, and we have a joke there. We don’t have valuable mineral resources. Taro, tubers, that’s all we have from the earth.

ACM: If there was peace in the country, and mineral resources got into the hands to those who can systematically manage them, they would belong to the entire country. Then again, if people across the country could share their resources, there would be peace.

SPK: Yes, these things are interrelated.

LL: Again, speaking of resources, there is another kind of resource—human resource. We don’t have a lot of mineral resources in Chin State, but the people are in real hardship. They have to migrate to other places for survival, and therefore their livelihoods are not secure. When we talk about peace, we are talking about stopping war, ending the fighting. But I think we should also be thinking about inner peace and peace of mind.

ACM: I really like the song “The World is Our Home,” which Saw Poe Khwar sang at the “For Who” exhibition. If you don’t mind, could you read some of the lyrics for us?

SPK: The intro is like this:

‘The world is our house. Yes, the world is our house.’

We know that the world is our house. We enter the world for a while and we are guests. I mean we get into this world and we do this and that and years elapse unnoticed. We forget that we are living in a house and we forget why we have come for. This is the main part of the song. And, the song ends like this: Will our house become infested, decay and collapse because of negligence under the influence of ego, ignorance, and greed? Shall we leave a bad legacy? Think about it and serve together the Mother Earth with your own awareness.

As I have said, the idea is simple.

ACM: It’s a really great song. We’re not all environmentalists, and we don’t all have a deep knowledge about the environment. We think simply and we take simple actions. You two are artists. Ko Lai Lone educates children with his cartoons and Ko Saw Poe Khwar writes songs about the earth with simple lyrics. Thank you very much for your participation in this discussion.