Obituary: Myanmar’s Defiant Cartoonist Harn Lay Dies

By The Irrawaddy 9 February 2022

Harn Lay, who came to prominence with The Irrawaddy’s satirical editorial cartoons targeting Myanmar’s previous military regime, died of liver cancer on Wednesday. He was 59.

The ethnic Shan artist graduated from the Yangon School of Fine Arts in 1982. He entered politics in 1987 when the Burma Socialist Programme Party led by military dictator Ne Win abruptly demonetized banknotes. When the nationwide pro-democracy movement in 1988 was crushed, Harn Lay joined the Shan United Army before fleeing to Thailand.

In Chiang Mai, he joined The Irrawaddy in 2003 as an illustrator and cartoonist. Myanmar politics made him a cartoonist, Harn Lay said.

At The Irrawaddy, his editorial cartoons specialized in satirizing anyone involved in Myanmar politics at the time: from the country’s then dictator Senior General Than Shwe, to the UN envoys to the country, to ASEAN ministers, attracting instant attention from readers at home and abroad. His work also reflected the day-to-day situation in Myanmar under the regime at a time when his local counterparts inside the country were muzzled by the junta’s notorious literary censorship.

Later, his editorial cartoons in The Irrawaddy were compiled into two volumes titled “Defiant Humor.”

For his artwork, Harn Lay received a Hellman/Hammett grant in 2010. Marcia Allina, the coordinator of the grant program for Human Rights Watch based in New York, told The Irrawaddy that Harn Lay was selected without debate by the selection committee, made up of widely respected writers and editors because “the message [of his art] is so clear, and he is a perfect example of someone who was targeted for expressing ideas that the government wanted to suppress.”

Collections of Harn Lay’s editorial cartoons in The Irrawaddy

When Myanmar was under democratic transition after 2011, Harn Lay came back to the country. Believing cartoons can’t fix a political system but can reflect what happens at the time, he contributed his work to local publications. Unsurprisingly, every prominent political figure and issue at the time—from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to then President U Thein Sein to China’s encroachment on the country to the Rohingya issue—turned out to be his subjects.

Born U Hla Myint Thein, Harn Lay was a pseudonym given to him by veteran journalist Kyemon U Thaung.

“To me, art is for impression and cartoons are for expression,” Harn Lay once said. He called cartoonists revolutionaries. True to his word, when the latest coup came to Myanmar last year, he busied himself with satirizing regime leader Min Aung Hlaing and his associates, defying the military dictatorship with his cartoons until his death.

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