‘The people’s messengers’ – Myanmar’s satirical poets target censorship

YANGON (Reuters) – In a classroom on the outskirts of Myanmar’s biggest city, a thin, bespectacled university student led about a dozen peers in boisterous chants of “Censorship is a shame!” and “We don’t believe in censorship!”

A student from Dagon University performs Burmese traditional slam poetry or thangyat during Burmese New Year in Yangon, Myanmar, April 13, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang

It was the final rehearsal of a troupe performing “thangyat”, a centuries-old custom allowing free rein to satirise rulers and society during New Year celebrations that began on Saturday.

The tradition, featuring a mix of comedy and slam poetry set to drums, has sparked controversy this year, with troupes in Yangon, the commercial capital, saying the first democratic government in 50 years forced them to submit lyrics to a censor panel.

“We founded the thangyat in order to serve as the people’s messengers to the government,” said the student, 20-year-old Thant Zin.

“Why don’t they dare to listen to the people of the country, students of the country?” added Aung Min Thu, a 23-year-old who helped organise the troupe.

The issue has ignited debate on social media and highlights Myanmar’s limits on freedom of speech under the government of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a year ahead of elections set for 2020.

A spokesman for Suu Kyi’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy, said the curbs on thangyat were “temporary” as Myanmar moves towards democracy.

“Currently our country hasn’t achieved democracy,” said Dr Myo Nyunt. “We worry that unnecessary things will happen due to the thangyat. So the authorities issued temporary restrictions.”

He added, “We always prioritise and are working on freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”

“CAN’T ALLOW OBSTRUCTIVE WAYS”

The military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades outlawed thangyat performances but they resumed in 2013 after a return to semi-civilian rule. Many supporters of Suu Kyi’s party pushed for the revival.

But in March, ahead of this year’s celebrations, authorities in Yangon, home of the most elaborate performances, set up a panel to scrutinise the lyrics of thangyat, and performers must now seek its approval.

The panel aims at averting ethnic or religious conflict, rather than censorship, its chairman, Zaw Aye Maung, told Reuters by telephone.

“There is freedom of speech, but we can’t allow obstructive ways, can’t speak harmful words about individual people or organizations,” he said.

“The main thing is not to destroy the unity of ethnic people, not to destroy the sovereignty of the country, not to destroy the union.”

However, officials with loudspeakers have gone around at least two townships warning they would take action if thangyat performances targeted the government, residents told Reuters.

Thant Zin’s troupe, and members of others, said they had refused to submit their lyrics to the panel and planned to perform on the street anyway.

“The stages which accepted us during previous festivals apologised and rejected us,” said Thant Zin.

His troupe is one of several planning lyrics that criticise the government’s failure to amend the 2008 constitution, which reserves power for the military, as well as lacklustre economic growth and controversial development projects.

“Thangyat reveals the obstacles of the people,” he said.

FREE SPEECH REPRESSED

Three-and-a-half years after a landslide 2015 election win that brought Suu Kyi’s government to power, it faces international pressure for its response to a military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in August 2017 that drove some 730,000 into neighbouring Bangladesh.

The campaign was executed with “genocidal intent”, the United Nations has said.

At home, critics say the administration has been slow to fulfil election promises to reconcile armed rebels in different regions and amend the military-drafted constitution.

Activists say authorities have failed to safeguard freedom of expression. One group, Athan, or “Voice” in Burmese, says 44 journalists and 142 activists have faced trial under the Suu Kyi government.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Among them are Reuters reporters Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, jailed in September for seven years on convictions of breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

“The government cannot fix the problems if they cannot hear the criticisms,” one political activist, Kyaw Ko Ko, told Reuters by telephone.

“Especially with the 2020 election coming, they need to listen to the situation, what is happening among people.”

Reporting by Thu Thu Aung; Additional reporting by Zaw Naing Oo; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

Source

more recommended stories

  • Japanese police officer stabbed in possible targeted attack – NHK

    TOKYO (Reuters) – A Japanese police.

  • Magnitude 7.4 earthquake strikes Kermadec Islands in South Pacific: warning center

    MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A 7.4 magnitude.

  • Iran summons UK envoy over ‘unfounded’ tanker accusations

    FILE PHOTO: An oil tanker is.

  • Jailed British-Iranian aid worker in Iran starts hunger strike – husband

    LONDON (Reuters) – A British-Iranian aid.

  • State sponsor behind May tanker attacks, says UAE minister

    FILE PHOTO: United Arab Emirates Foreign.

  • Russia’s Putin gives China’s Xi ice cream on his 66th birthday

    Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) toasts.

  • Hong Kong media say controversial extradition bill may be suspended

    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong.

  • Indian migrant girl, 6, died in Arizona desert as mother sought water

    (Reuters) – A six-year-old girl from.

  • U.S. and Gulf allies face tough task protecting oil shipping lanes

    DUBAI (Reuters) – The United States.

  • Migrants rush to enter Mexico ahead of security crackdown demanded by Trump

    CIUDAD HIDALGO, Mexico (Reuters) – Central.

  • French, Italian shipbuilders forge naval alliance

    PARIS (Reuters) – France and Italy.

  • Oman following Yemen escalation with ‘great concern’ – Omani media

    FILE PHOTO: Saudi security officers are.

  • U.S. blames Iran for tanker attacks in Gulf of Oman, Iran rejects assertion

    DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States.

  • Democrats – Trump comments give green light to foreign election meddling

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic lawmakers accused.

  • White House spokeswoman Sanders leaving job at end of month

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House spokeswoman.

  • Two tankers struck in suspected attacks in Gulf of Oman – sources

    DUBAI (Reuters) – Two tankers were.

  • Hong Kong shuts government offices, security tight after violent protests

    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong.

  • Macri’s key rivals in Argentina presidential election strike alliance with centrist

    BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – The main.

  • Italy’s Salvini threatens to use strict new law on German NGO boat

    ROME (Reuters) – Italian Interior Minister.

  • Austria moves towards September 29 election as parliament draws towards close

    FILE PHOTO: Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian.

  • Missing British hiker found dead in New Zealand – police

    WELLINGTON (Reuters) – The body of.

  • Trump and Kim one year on: A ‘beautiful letter’, stalled diplomacy

    SEOUL (Reuters) – A year after.

  • Thousands of protesters paralyse Hong Kong’s financial hub over extradition bill

    HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chaotic scenes.

  • Protests abating, Macron sends PM to map out exit from reform ‘death valley’

    PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron.

  • Uganda confirms first Ebola case during current outbreak, a Congolese child – WHO

    GENEVA/KAMPALA (Reuters) – Uganda has confirmed.

  • Botswana’s High Court decriminalises homosexuality

    JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Botswana decriminalised homosexuality.

  • Kazakh activists call for more protests over presidential vote

    ALMATY (Reuters) – Anti-government activists called.

  • Italy’s coalition to work to avert EU disciplinary action over budget – PM’s office

    ROME (Reuters) – Italy’s coalition leaders.

  • Japan PM Abe to meet Iran’s Khamenei, Rouhani this week

    TOKYO (Reuters) – Prime Minister Shinzo.

  • Turkish F-35 pilots no longer flying at U.S. base – Pentagon

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Training by Turkish.

  • U.S. House Democrats to get some Mueller evidence, Trump calls witness ‘sleazebag’

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Democrats and.

  • Defying law, Indian farm group says it planted unapproved GM cotton seeds

    MUMBAI (Reuters) – An Indian farm.