They call it the Secretariat, though the government moved out many years ago. But the grand edifice, ravaged by time and history, in downtown Yangoon continues to exude authority. The structure that recalls similar buildings in other colonial centres, including Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, reeks of state power. Past the grand portico, spiral staircases lead up to a spacious room with high ceilings and bay windows. Sonny Nyein’s work was beside one such window – an installation made of used, perforated tin sheets encased in a cage of barbed wire. Occasionally, the tin plates lit up and produced sounds that resembled the rumblings of a furnace and gunshots. Martyrs, a mixed media installation, is an invocation to that fateful night in 1947 when a group of soldiers drove into this building and gunned down General Aung San, the head of the interim government of Burma, and his cabinet colleagues. The nine tin plates mark the nine martyrs, martyrs of a yet-to-be-born nation state. The curtains fell on a fledgling federal democracy and darkness fell. From the window behind Sonny Nyein’s work, a second floor window with shutters draw is visible. That’s where General Aung San’s cabinet, elected representatives of Burma, then walking towards independence from the British Empire, had met that fateful night. Last year, a part of it, a small independent, single-storied building with a sloping roof in the heart of the quadrangle within the Secretariat edifice was opened to visitors.
Martyrs was a part of a landmark exhibition — “Seven Decades: Reflecting on the Past 70 Years in Myanmar” — curated by the well-known performance artist Htein Lin with the support of Pyinsa Rasa, a platform of various art groups in the country, at the Secretariat in July this year. The show that featured 19 of Myanmar’s best-known contemporary artists was political to the core and created in the furnace of the dark times the country has lived in since the British shipped out. At the heart of the exhibition was a singular strand of antipathy to the military that had muffled all forms of creativity and dissent and locked up thousands in prison. To put up this brave, incisive critique of the country’s military establishment, when the armed forces continue to wield enormous influence on public life, at a site that is almost a memorial to modern Myanmar’s tortuous history was very much a political act. Works like Maung Di’s Vimutti Rasa, which spoke about the idea of imprisonment and freedom, San Minn’s In Isolation, a miniature prison cell, San Oo’s brilliant Waiting Together, a series of the traditional ceramic toilet bowls arranged in a way to make it a satire of Myanmar’s unfinished battles for rights, Ma Thanegi’s Doors and Windows series, which recalls the experience of her prison term, and so on, were explicit in speaking truth about Myanmar’s recent past. The works and the exhibition site together had turned “Seven Decades” into an illuminated history of what had gone wrong in Myanmar since the 1950s. It was inescapable since most of these artists had spent time in prison for being a part of democratic movements.
That the exhibition passed the censors is a tale in itself. It also indicates that Myanmar is at a crossroads, where a democratic order is slowly deepening its roots even as the uniformed men watch from the shadows. Htein Lin, the curator, offered a simple explanation why the exhibition could pass muster. “The chief minister of Yangoon, U Phyo Min Thein, was my prison mate. I told him that the exhibition was political and talked about prison life. I invited him to the exhibition and he took time off to understand contemporary art.” Phyo Min Thein was arrested in 1991 for his involvment in the 1988 students’ protests and spent 14 years in jail. Htein Lin was arrested for his art interventions in 1998 and was imprisoned for eight years.
None of these are extrordinary in Myanmar. The country is full of artists and writers who have served time in prison. For instance, Ma Thanegi, well-known as a writer, wrote Nor Iron Bars A Cage (2013) on her days in the notorious Insein prison. In his recent collection of essays, The Cell, Exile and the New Burma, journalist Kyaw Zwa Moe, who spent eight years in prison and then 12 years in exile, writes about prison as “life university”. “Upon our release from prison, each of us received our ‘Life University’ diploma; a piece of cheap brown paper signed by the prison authtority declaring our release. We all treasure our Release Certificate dearly because the time we spent in cells, while difficult, was an invaluable life experience… we also know how fortunate we are not to have met the same fate as our colleague Thet Win Aung,” he writes in the essay, “The Cell”. (Win Aung, a student activist, died in prison aged 34 in 2006, while serving a 59-year prison sentence).
Htein Lin, for instance, honed his performance art in prisons. He had trained to be an artist, but was making a living as a small-time actor and comedian, when his colleagues asked him to use his “body” to make art. In 1996, they opened a gallery in Yangoon and as part of the opening, Lin wrapped himself with barbed wire and walked along downtown Yangoon half-naked, with a flower pot on his head. Two years later, the junta sent him to jail, where he met students, poets, journalists, who made him perform in prison. After he was freed from prison, Lin did a performance, which caught the attention of the authorities who took him and four others into custody. Lin has since travelled extensively, performing overseas including in Kochi during the 2012 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Nathalie Johnston, who runs Myanm/art, a gallery in Yangon, and has done her thesis on contemporary Myanmar art, says there is an organic link between the use of the body in contemporary Myanmar art and the country’s cultural traditions. It is linked to the protests here, the traditions of public theatre and the improvisations in folk theatre.
As tourism booms in Myanmar and international attention is caught by the tensions in the Rakhine region, the contemporary art practice tells a story of a society in transition. Under the junta, political ideologies had got discredited — the General Ne Win administration called itself socialist. Amidst the hardships of an economy under sanctions, religion had become the only solace, and a medium of dissent and resistance. Art, literature have not been immune to it, drawing image and metaphor from the Buddhist practices that influence daily life in Myanmar. Alongside, there is also a rise in the nationalist sentiment, fuelled also by what people believe to be the refusal of the international community to engage with its narrative on the Rohingya issue.
In the shadow of the great Shwedagon Pagoda, General Aung San and his comrades are remembered in a grand memorial. But who remembers the General’s remarkable initiative towards building a federal Burma, which allows equal rights, freedoms and sovereignity, including the right to secede, to the nation’s various ethnic minorities, symbolised in the Panglong Agreement of 1947? The junta junked it in favour of a strong militarised nation-state, best represented by the dystopic urban space of Naypitaw, an alienating space of massive buildings, roads and squares. The consumer boom, fuelled mainly by Chinese capital, is changing the landscape. The Secretariat will soon be restored to its old architectural magificence. It will still memorialise the General’s legacy, but most of it will be turned into a retail space. Art will have its task cut out. As Maung Day, one of the country’s younger poets, writes in There is a Village: “Time is a retarded son who doesn’t know where to stand in a family shoot. Dear children, there’s a lot more to say and this story could fill every space.”