The Poet Parliament—an Artistic Administration Ready to Deliver?
By Matt Grace 26 June 2017
After Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) strolled to victory in the 2015 General Election, much discussion was dedicated to the demographic make-up of the country’s new ruling party. Analysis of the NLD’s new parliamentary body was often critical, characterizing it as both too old and too inexperienced (negative assessments individually, but uniquely damning together), and rightly condemning its decision not to run a single Muslim candidate for office.
One demographic oddity that did make positive headlines, however, was the election to office of 11 poets. In fact, the number of NLD MPs voted in on November 8 who defined themselves as poets was only two fewer than those who listed their profession as politician.
Although there is no doubt that the victory of poet and former political prisoner U Tin Thit over former Defense Minister U Wai Lwin was a sensational story, there is an argument that column inches dedicated to the number of poets in parliament gained more traction due to alliterative potential than newsworthiness. That being said, the phenomenon did highlight an artistic streak running through Myanmar’s new ruling party.
State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has regularly professed her affinity for the Arts and acts as patron to the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival and the Yangon Photo Festival.
Though at the time of the election, there were few who would have predicted his rise to prominence, President U Htin Kyaw also has literary credentials, being a published author of a book about his father Min Thu Wun, himself a revered poet and luminary of the Khitsan Sarpay movement of the 1930s, widely considered Burma’s first modern literary movement.
Add to this list U Zayar Thaw, a former member of seminal Burmese hip-hop act ACID and a Pyithu Hluttaw MP since 2012, and it is easy to see why the elections preceded a period of buoyancy in the creative sector borne of finally having some of “our own” in positions of power.
There has also been a distinct feeling that despite a lack of confidence in the NLD’s ability to bring about peace or narrow the economic divide while the military retains the power it does, the Arts is an area which could see significant development under a supportive government.
In recent months, I have spent a lot of time discussing support for public art initiatives in Myanmar, and although I can only speak for Yangon, there have been positive signs during the first 12 months of the new administration.
In December, the Yangon Region Government collaborated with the Institut Français de Birmanie to organize the inaugural Mingalabar! Festival, a citywide multidisciplinary celebration of the Arts, which included the largest free, public art performances in Yangon’s recent history.
In January, the Goethe-Institut was granted permission to install Wolfgang Laib’s “Where the Land and Water End” in the historic Secretariat building. The draw of such an internationally renowned artist coupled with the chance to enter such an iconic building went on to attract almost 20,000 visitors. And with my personal background in photography, it was especially pleasing to see the Yangon Photo Festival being able to move out of the Institut Français and present a weekend of exhibitions and projections (the theme of which was ‘Myanmar’s Diversity’) to large crowds in Maha Bandoola Park.
The Yangon Region Government has been rightly lauded for making the city’s parks and public spaces available for these events, but we should not overlook the fact that each of the examples above were initiated by foreign cultural organizations with far greater operational capacity than the vast majority of Myanmar’s independent artistic groups.
Established, internationally recognized events such as Beyond Pressure Performance Art Festival and Wathann Film Festival continued to organize essential programming for local artists, as did a plethora of small independent galleries and creative collectives. If the Yangon Region Government is truly interested in promoting public art, then one of its priorities must surely be assisting initiatives such as these so that they are able to operate on a level playing field with the logistical and financial might of new international events.
Wathann in particular is a perfect example of what the current administration should be striving for. In recent years, the Ministry of Information has provided the beautiful Waziya Cinema free-of-charge as a venue whilst financing has been sought from both international funding bodies and domestic commercial sponsorship, leaving the Wathann team autonomy to apply their knowledge and experience to curation and organization.
This marriage of government support, international funding, domestic sponsorship and local organization epitomizes the potential that Yangon has for the development of internationally renowned arts programs.
It should be an ideal time for the Arts in Myanmar: a government which is—on paper at least, and with notable exceptions which I will touch on later—supportive, a growing number of progressive domestic and international companies who recognize the economic potential of the creative sector, the simultaneous waning of a long period of censorship and growth of a long-restricted international market.
But most of all there is an impressive number of talented, experienced and capable artists and organizers who have already created spaces for art, virtually unsupported.
Lokanat Gallery, Pansodan Gallery, New Zero Art Space and many other established institutions were founded independently, by artists for the benefit of artists. Each of the institutions named above were also founded under one of the most repressive censorship regimes in modern history—one can only imagine the potential which could be unleashed by a supportive government. And yet on a local level, this has not yet happened.
Unfortunately, many local initiatives in Yangon that are presented under the banner of ‘art’ or ‘culture’ can be characterized more accurately as being about money, vanity, or a disturbingly misplaced understanding of what ‘art and culture’ actually is. Anyone who has visited ‘Myanmar Culture Valley,’ a conglomeration of chain restaurants opposite Shwedagon’s West Gate, can attest to this.
Even projects put forward with the very best of intentions seem to be rooted more in idealism than in any understanding of the actual needs of the artistic community.
In December, it was reported that the waterfront between Pansodan Jetty and Sule Pagoda Road would be opened up by the Yangon Region Government and warehouses in the area converted into “art spaces for public recreation.” March 2017 was touted as an opening date. Although the plans were met with general approval from the wider public, many within the arts community opined that despite being presented as an ‘arts space,’ there had been worryingly little consultation with the local arts community. Six months on, there is no sign of any “art spaces,” or even access to the waterfront.
The lack of an inclusive planning process for what would have been a major investment in Yangon’s creative future, exacerbated by what seems like an increasingly premature and ill-advised public announcement, erodes confidence within the creative community that the government is striving for the same things as them. Good intentions are not enough—what is needed is a planning process that includes Yangon’s creative community from the outset.
The latest place to be touted as a future “cultural space” is an impressive proportion of the currently-under-renovation Secretariat building— 40 percent, according to an advisor to the project, Mr Vinod Daniel.
It has to be assumed that a large amount of that will be dedicated to museum space, but with the Secretariat occupying an entire city block, even with that taken into consideration, it could constitute a major contribution to Yangon’s available public space for the Arts.
The Thein Sein administration was very open about its desire for Yangon to emulate Singapore when it comes to economics and infrastructure, and Aung San Suu Kyi reiterated this aspiration speaking in Singapore just last year. Much credit for the surprisingly full program of public art in Yangon this year should go to Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, and one of his first international excursions after election to office was a study mission to Singapore.
The reason why this should be interesting to Yangon’s Arts community is that although most people associate Singapore with the economy and infrastructure that Thein Sein coveted, there are few countries in the world currently doing more to improve their standing in the international Art world.
In 2006, Singapore hosted its first biennale. In 2012, it announced a budget of S$274 million over five years to develop art and culture in the country, and in 2015, it opened the National Gallery of Singapore which now houses the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art.
Many will baulk at the idea of the Yangon Regional Government looking to Singapore for pointers on city development, but if Phyo Min Thein and the Myanmar Government really are looking to develop the artistic potential, which this city clearly has, there are worse places for them to be looking.
Right now, Singapore is desperately trying to claw back the cultural heritage it lost in the pursuit of economic progress—it is essential that the Myanmar government pays heed to the investment that Singapore is now making and realize that by supporting the Arts from the beginning, they can become regional leaders in the Arts without that kind of financial investment further down the road.
One major issue is that there are no clear indications of what the NLD government’s policies are when it comes to the Arts, and no government body who’s remit it is to work with contemporary practitioners in a range of mediums.
In most countries this responsibility would fall to the Ministry of Culture, who in Myanmar do control the State Fine Arts School and the National University of Art and Culture. Unfortunately for Myanmar’s progressive arts scene the curriculums at both of these institutions reflect the extremely traditional and conservative reputation the ministry has.
The NLD’s decision to combine the Ministry of Culture with the Ministry of Religious Affairs during a period of heightened nationalist rhetoric and religious intolerance (creating the current Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture), gives little reason to hope that they are planning on increasing their support for progressive self-expression through the Arts any time soon.
Currently the majority of creative organizations and events are obliged to work with the Ministry of Information, whose role is generally limited to content-checking and permit-issuing, and certainly not one of creative support.
If the Arts community in Myanmar is to take advantage of a new, amenable administration, they must push the NLD to create a coherent and inclusive policy for the Arts, which includes convening a body drawn from the Arts community who will be involved in the process of developing and enacting it.
Finally, and not an issue that can be adequately covered here but which cannot be left out of this discussion—if there is to be any real progress in the development of the Arts in Myanmar, there must be reassessment of laws currently being misused to arbitrarily restrict freedom of expression and an end to all lingering vestiges of censorship.
Just this week, a human rights leader in Pathein was charged under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act for live-streaming a play in which his son was participating—a satirical drama called “We Want No War”—so that his friends were able to watch it.
The Myanmar Army also sued nine students involved in the production for defamation, two of whom are now awaiting trial. Days later, an 18-minute documentary called “Sittwe,” which depicts young people affected by conflict in Rakhine State, was banned from being shown at the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, the same festival which lists State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi as its patron.
There is no inherent necessity for art to be political, but it is essential that political and social commentary through photography, filmmaking, performance or any other form of the Arts is not restricted. In a country which has endured years of repression and control, it is inevitable that there will be times when the two overlap—this is exactly the reason why the country now has 11 poets in political office.
It is clear that a slew of poets, a rapper, and a leader who is patron of a few festivals is no reason to consider the current government of Myanmar advocates for the Arts, but with 115 former political prisoners currently serving as elected representatives of the country, surely they should be advocates for freedom of expression. And that is really what we mean when we talk about supporting the Arts—supporting creativity and capacity for free expression.
Matt Grace is the founder of Myanmar Deitta, a not-for-profit organisation which works to develop resources for documentary photographers and filmmakers in Myanmar. The organisation manages the only dedicated photography gallery in the country as well as a library and resource centre, scholarship programme and numerous projects related to the Documentary Arts. Myanmar Deitta recently joined with a number of other local creative initiatives to form Pyinsa Rasa, an Arts Collective which works on collaborative creative projects to develop opportunities for arts promotion, education and support.
This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.