RANGOON — Ahead of Burma’s weeklong Thingyan celebrations, performers in Rangoon have expressed dismay at what they say is heavy-handed censorship at the hands of divisional authorities, with at least one group set to defy government orders to tone down their act.
Thangyat, a traditional performance which mocks authority through satirical song, poetry and dance, was banned in 1989 after the former military government seized power. The practice was permitted to return in 2013, on the condition that Thangyat groups submitted the lyrics to their performances to state and regional governments ahead of time.
In Rangoon, the divisional government announced in March that all performances could only be conducted with permission from its Thingyan Songs and Thangyat Scrutiny Committee, with all performances to be submitted for review by Mar. 25. Performers this year said that authorities had been overly restrictive in its decisions compared to the previous two years.
“Our group had been heavily censored this year,” said Khant Min Htet, the leader of the 40-strong Red of Blue Thangyat group, which returned to the public eye in 2013. “They mainly removed lyrics about the education system, in which we put forward some criticism of education reforms.”
He said that they had also composed songs about the peace process, recent student protests and the suspended Myitsone Dam project, the last of which the committee had ordered to be removed from the final act.
Nearly two dozen Thangyat groups have been granted permission to perform during Thingyan festivities this month.
Than Myint, the chairman of the Thingyan Songs and Thangyat Scrutiny Committee, told The Irrawaddy that they would allow songs performed with “constructive intentions” but had rejected chants that could “disgrace the dignity of the government.”
“The main thing is not to bad-mouth the main objectives of the state, not to include usage that can offend individuals, groups, the state and religion, and we also rejected chants about ethnic minorities,” he said.
Hla Shwe, a leader of the Pyit Tine Htaung performance group, told The Irrawaddy that songs they had composed land confiscations, the army, violent crackdowns on student protesters by plainclothes thugs in Rangoon had all been removed by the committee—along with the use of the perjoratives “tayote” and “kalar” to respectively refer to Chinese and Muslim people.
“It proves that they don’t have transparency,” he said. “If they did, they wouldn’t need to scrutinize us. We Thangyat performers are highlighting the mistakes made in this country and the wishes of the people, along with spreading awareness among the public.”
Khant Min Htet said that his group intends to perform their original songs, despite the censorship order.
“How can we trust that the current government is democratic while they are censoring Thangyat songs?” he asked. “We will put the parts they removed back in the song and if they take action against us, we are ready for that.”
One of the oldest examples of Burmese folk art, Thangyat is frequently used to express public grievances. Even during the years that performances were banned, it was common for young revelers at Thingyan festivities to recite humorous Thangyat lyrics, which freely criticize everything from politics to social conventions.
Additional reporting by Tin Htet Paing.