It has now been nearly ten months in which the Burmese people have lived under oppressive military rule.
Myanmar's democracy turned six years old in 2021: before, the country was ruled by the military junta for over 50 years. In the new democracy, the military maintained an oversized power, with seats in the government guaranteed regardless of election results. However, in the November 2020 election, they lost a significant number of elected seats. Seeking continued relevance and evasion of crimes against humanity, on February 1, 2021, the head of the military, General Ne Win, shut down the internet and arrested hundreds of democratic leaders. By the end of the day, their military junta had carried out a coup, deposing the democratically-elected representatives and placing themselves back in power.
PEN America wrote this report, titled "Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup," to explore the chilling effect of the coup on the creative sphere in Myanmar, which has century-long ties to activist, democratic protest. Supplemented with interviews with over 100 Burmese artists, the report explores the creative society’s response to the coup and ongoing military rule.
“It’s been 16 years since I started my artist career. This time it’s hit very hard. In the past, I only realized it was a military dictatorship when I grew up. But now I’m a grown man. A middle-aged man. It is very terrible to experience the coup this time. I understand that I have to do something. I don’t want to relay the experience of growing up under the military dictatorship to my next generation.” —Myanmar visual artist, September 2021
Beginning on the first day of the coup, the junta has maintained control of the internet, accessed user's personal data provided by telephone companies – including the content of texts – and blocked communication websites including Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media websites. This was their first direct attack on free expression.
After the junta wrested political control of the country, it turned to the creative community as the next sector to take over and control. This began with the shutting down of art galleries, schools and independent media. Some continued to operate secretly. Younger members of the creative world, who grew up in the flowering, free democracy of the previous ten years, led the efforts to create art to push for the return of free expression and the end of the military dictatorship.
The report addresses the frenetic creation of anti-military art since February 2021: “Vibrant creation has faced violent oppression, with targeted detentions and extrajudicial killings, alongside the military’s broader arbitrary crackdowns.”
The number of arrested, tortured and murdered creatives has created a chilling effect on the rest of the community, which is one of the reasons that the military so ruthlessly hunts down additional creatives to publicize the arrests and mistreatment of. At least two poets have died as a result of torture in prison, leading a punk musician to bluntly state, “They targeted and killed poets.”
The persecution of Myanmar artists since February 1, 2021 in numbers
46 creatives .................... Detained
5 creatives ...................... Murdered
Countless ........................ Being hunted down; forced into exile; tortured; scared into silence
In the face of tyranny, the creative community interviewed for this report expressed hope and a resolute determination to continue to advocate for freedom. At the end of the report, PEN America called on the Myanmar military and international community to take action to protect the community:
The military to respect the 2020 democratic election that they rejected with the coup; to end the harassment of creatives, as well as protesters, dissidents and activists; to reinstate creative free expression in the country and online; and to release all artists and writers unjustly detained against their freedom of expression.
The international community to step up against the unjust taking of power following the November 2020 elections; pressure the military to take the above listed actions to support free expression and human rights; support the rebuilding of Myanmar civil society through individual country aid and international organizations; and protect Burmese people living in exile.
The international creative community to engage with Burmese artists, provide support and platforms to uplift their creative protests while keeping them as safe as possible.
The donor community to provide financial support to the country’s creative sector.
The U.S. Congress to pass two bills, the BURMA Act of 2021 and the Protect Democracy in Burma Act of 2021, which would impose sanctions against the military junta, provide humanitarian assistance to victims of the military and direct international attention to the situation in Myanmar.
PEN America is part of a network of world-renowned free-expression advocacy organizations, tied together by PEN International. Their work revolves around championing the freedom to write.