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Burma: The art of transition

The Art of Transition Symposium took place in Yangon on 30-31 March 2013. It was the first public discussion of artist freedom of expression in Burma, looking in particular at the impact of the wave of political reforms, which started at the end of 2011, on artistic freedom of expression.

Here is a short film directed by artist Htein Lin, who also was artistic advisor to the Art of Transition Symposium with comedian and director Zarganar. The film reports briefly on the Symposium, and gives a snapshot of some of the performances and exhibitions that have taken place in Yangon during the year since the symposium.

The Symposium was co-produced by HOME – Zarganar's new company HOME (which stands for House of Media and Entertainment) and Index on Censorship. The Burmese team was led by journalist and former political prisoner Zaw Thet Htwe.

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The Art of Transition Symposium in Yangon was a significant event in the unfolding drive towards democracy in Burma, providing a public platform to discuss how changing political and social conditions are affecting artistic freedoms. It was the first symposium of its kind in Burmese and another in the series of firsts as the space for expression opens up. While the abolition of pre-censorship of print media released all writers, including poets and novelists from censorship and ensured that debate around media freedom was centre stage, discussion about broader artistic freedoms was trailing and needed to be considered in depth.

The symposium featured an unprecedented gathering of artists from Yangon and Mandalay facilitating exchange between historical, traditional and contemporary art forms and between artists of all ages. Many of the most respected artists in the country across all art forms, in particular those traditionally most associated with political and social engagement – poets, cartoonists, comedians, performance artists and film-makers – came together with political leaders, journalists, academics and lawyers for two days of presentations and discussion of the status of artistic freedom of expression and artists was possible.

Political backdrop

The symposium took place against a background of political and social change, optimism, instability, and uncertainty of President Thein Sein's commitment to reforms. There were two key free speech issues in the headlines. On April 1st, the day after the symposium, four new independent daily newspapers were published in Burma, the first since 1962. This historic moment for free speech was to an extent undermined by the on-going uncertainty surrounding press laws, which were to go through parliament in June. The other key freedom of expression issue was the debate around hate-speech triggered by outbreaks of violence between Buddhists and Muslims.

Ko Htut, chairman of the government appointed Press Council and member of Association of Former Political Prisoners, addressed the uncertain future of the press laws and called for the Ministry of Information's (MoI) draft Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law to be rejected as he saw it risked endorsing the old censor board under a new name.

Violence between Buddhists and Muslims figured strongly; the role played by social media in fuelling the violence was a major topic of discussion in the media at the time and continues to be at the time of writing. Hate speech and songs with Islamophobic lyrics circulated on the internet were discussed at the symposium and one of the performance pieces explored online hate speech. Emergency talks took place over the same weekend as the symposium which meant that Zarganar, a member of the interfaith council that met to discuss the tensions and violence, was only able to play a relatively small role in the symposium.

Artistic context

The symposium partners – HOME, comedian, film-maker and former political prisoner Zarganar's new company and Index on Censorship – viewed the symposium as a follow up to the Art of Freedom Film Festival which took place in Yangon in January 2012, screening uncensored films about freedom and the title of the symposium – Art of Transition – was chosen accordingly. The film festival had given a green flag to the public debate about free expression, in large part due to Zarganar's call for short films about freedom which elicited nearly two hundred entries, many by first time film-makers. The film festival, co-produced by Aung San Suu Kyi, was a very high-profile event with thousands of people watching the films on huge screens in the streets and squares of Yangon. It had clearly had a massive impact on the relationship between artists and the government, especially as 'Ban That Film' a fierce satire on film censorship boards, was the winning entry of the short film competition. The timing was critical and the organisers agreed to move quickly, to capture the conversation at an early stage of transition, making sure debate about freedom of artistic expression is on the agenda alongside media freedoms at this time of rapid reform.

The abolition of pre-censorship in print media is having a knock-on effect across other art forms, with artists taking more risks in terms of their choice of subject matter and putting on unlicensed events, in the belief that there would be less consequence or repercussion. The symposium, which was a licenced event, was in fact monitored by government officials standing at the back of the hall, though this did not seem to limit the discussion. It could be seen as one of a series of artistic initiatives and projects that are testing and interrogating the new freedoms in Burma during this period of accelerated change. Other notable events that took place around the time of the symposium were Zarganar's comedy performance March 27, 2013 was a six hour live broadcast marathon of unbridled satire; Thangyat performances for New Year Celebrations were openly critical of the government; and Padauk 7000 a temporary unlicensed arts space that showed a series of site specific installations from March – June 2013. See Annex for more information on these events.

Symposium Summary

Over the two days of the symposium the presentations and discussions moved from the experiences of surviving the most brutal treatment of political prisoners on Cocos Island, to President Thein Sein administration's apparent openness to criticism and satire, from the opportunities opening as a result of greater access to the internet to the impact of new independent artist associations and unions.

Many speakers chose to use this public platform to relate past experience of living through years of oppression and working in an environment extremely hostile to artistic freedom. Many spoke openly, some for the first time, about how they continued to create work in spite of considerable personal danger and hardships and described their courageous, ingenuous and often humorous strategies for circumventing censorship. Another discussion centred around the emergence of public censorship which, as the role of the state censor diminishes appears to fill the void. Public censorship, made up of many voices and sensibilities, brings with it a new, some felt more complex debate around freedom and the responsibilities of the artist.

There was a call to test limits and take risks to determine how far state imposed boundaries can be pushed, but at the same time there was concern that people need more time to learn how to exercise these new freedoms, especially in relation to the hate speech proliferating on the internet. The impact on artistic style and content was also discussed, as subjects that were previously banned can now be openly discussed. Whilst some felt liberated by these changes, others spoke about how they felt a paradoxical constraint generated by the new freedom and that they felt they had lost their bearings.

Artist Htein Lin played an important role in the symposium stimulating further thought and conversation with speakers and the audience about the core questions of the conference. He stressed that this is a new situation and there is a new reality which requires a new way of thinking and talking about freedom of expression. He posed questions about what artists should being doing to look after and increase the scope of the right to freedom of expression, pressing artists to think about the role of the police and how to work with new legislation.

Read the full story on the Index on Censorship website.

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