Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Sketching for transparency

Despite increased censorship, cartoonists continue to sketch at the frontlines of political discussion

Illustration - OKKWIllustration - OKKW

Provocative, heart-felt and laced with satire, political cartoons have long been used to stir up discussion about the issues facing the country. Even today, with the advent of blogs, memes and 24 hour news, cartoonists are still sketching to hold the powerful accountable.

This was the subject of ‘Budget transparency for improving people’s lives’, an exhibition held on August 11 and 12 organised by Spectrum, a local NGO. It featured 40 socially and politically charged works by 40 of the country’s leading cartoonists.

It’s not the first time Spectrum has used the power of the pen to draw a line through sketchy issues. Created in 2007 to raise awareness on environment, sustainable development and natural resource management issues, Spectrum has distributed educational cartoons to school children in Kachin about the dangers of toxic waste and sent cartoon booklets to parliament in efforts to lobby elected officials to adopt global standards in transparency for extractive industries.

In 2015, to coincide with the release of Myanmar’s first civilian budget in over five decades Spectrum, together with UNICEF, developed a budget explainer cartoon.

The cartoons on display, a mix of hand and computer drawings, covered a range of topics including the importance of transparency in state finances, taxation and the management of natural resources. The exhibition also included cartoon books published by Spectrum as part of their awareness campaigns over the past decade.

Illustration - Shwe LuIllustration - Shwe Lu

“Although we know we cannot change policy from just one cartoon we want the government and the media to know about the people’s need for budget transparency through them.”

“We have a duty draw them,” said Lai Lone, a cartoonist and programme officer for Spectrum.

Asked about his method and the way he works, he told Pulse that much of the inspiration for his work comes from online content. He bases his drawings on events or discussions he sees on Facebook, while social media is also a pivotal platform for projecting his work.

One of his featured cartoons depicts his idea of how the Myanmar ship should be navigated.  

“The boat represents our country which uses very little of its budget on education and health. The boat sinks because of these holes,” said Lai Lone.

A poke in the eye

Exhibition goer Nay Phone Latt, Yangon Regional Parliament Member for Thingangyun township, says that art presents a valuable way for MPs to gauge the public’s voice on issues.

“Although this art is about pushing knowledge, it can also touch people’s hearts.”

He takes away from the exhibition that people want more to be done in the areas of health and education.

Soe Thaw Dar, one of the country’s most famous cartoonists whose work was also on display, produces single panel format cartoons for weekly journals, which take humorous pokes at politicians, social ills and the current climate of censorship in Myanmar’s print media.

In one of his pieces Soe Thaw Dar looks at how those connected to the former military regime have pocketed untold wealth through the illegal logging of the nation’s forests.  

While the advent of the internet might seem like a boon for local artists looking for more exposure, cartoonists are coming to terms with the idea that a little too much exposure might not be such a good thing.

Illustration - Lai LoneIllustration - Lai Lone

“Cartoonists create simple drawings which show their subjects in a humorous light but they need to exercise self censorship,” he said.

Self censorship has taken on new importance under the NLD. Arrests under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law  have increased measurably under Aung San Suu Kyi compared to the previous USDP government. The law, which is often used against journalists and activists deemed to have publicly defamed a person online, also has cartoonists re-thinking what they can and can’t publish.

“We have to take more time than we did under the previous government to think about our drawings and the words which we include so we are covered from 66(d).  Especially for political matters and things related to the NLD or military,” said Lai Lone

But in the current climate of online hate-speech, where people can hurl accusations at one another online with impunity, self-restraint is essential for amature and professional cartoonists alike, says Soe Thaw Dar.

“At the present time all people use Facebook and many people create cartoons with hateful or harsh words and post them online. Some aren’t professionals but will post cartoons that promote hate speech concerning things like religion, which affects us professionals too,” he said.

“It would be better if these people self censored themselves.”