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Aung San Suu Kyi Has a New Target: Political Satire

Category: Art & Culture,Books

YANGON, Myanmar — Poets were holding court on the street this week in Myanmar’s largest city, laying down satire as thick as the tropical humidity.

“All the forests and jewels are gone, all good things will be smuggled,” they chanted over a drumbeat — a subtle dig at the military that dominates Myanmar’s political life and has enriched itself for decades by pilfering natural resources. “Thinking about selling the whole country!”

The satirical slam poetry known as thangyat is typically delivered in public during Myanmar’s new year holiday, in April. The tradition, which has roots in the 19th century, was banned for more than two decades after 1988, when the ruling military junta killed thousands of pro-democracy protesters to stay in power.

That censorship stopped in 2016, when a quasi-civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate and onetime democracy icon, came to power after sweeping the first general election in decades.

But thangyat performers say it has crept back with a vengeance over the last two years, along with other restrictions on speech that many hoped Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government would banish to the past.

“If the government wants to ban thangyat, it won’t hear the real voice of the people,” said U Min Thwe Thit, the leader of Oway Voice Thangyat, the troupe that mocked the military’s penchant for timber and jade smuggling on Monday.

He said the troupe chose to perform in the street this year because only acts that submitted their lyrics for censorship in advance were welcome at venues that hosted holiday thangyat performances.

On Monday night, four members of a different thangyat performance troupe were arrested in Yangon after live-streaming their act on Facebook.

They were later released, after being charged under a section of a telecommunications law that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has used against journalists and government critics, and which carries a maximum prison term of three years. The exact charge was not clear as of Tuesday afternoon.

The troupe, Peacock Generation Thangyat, wore military uniforms during a performance last week, said Su Yadana Myint, who was one of those arrested. “The military may want to sue us because our lyrics rub salt in their wounds,” she said.

One of her colleagues, U Paing Ye Thu, said that before the holiday, the Yangon police had pressured local venues not to host poets who refused to submit lyrics to a censorship board. He added that members of Ma Ba Tha, a group led by ultranationalist monks who gained prominence before 2016 by promoting the military junta’s policies, had physically threatened troupes during performances.

Representatives for the Yangon police and the Myanmar Army were not available for comment on Tuesday, the last day of the five-day holiday.

Officials have said that the new thangyat restrictions include a ban on hate speech or commentary that attacks officials or questions national unity or sovereignty. U Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, was quoted by Reuters over the weekend as saying that the restrictions were temporary.

Thu Citta, a Ma Ba Tha monk, said by telephone on Tuesday that members of the group had suppressed thangyat performances this year as a way of defending the military’s honor.

“The military is protecting our country and some people don’t appreciate its value,” he said.

Thangyat performances are a form of role reversal in which the authorities permit ordinary people to say things that would not otherwise be tolerated, said Christina Fink, a Myanmar expert at George Washington University and the author of a 2009 book about survival under military rule in the country, which is also known as Burma.

“This type of ritual of reversal allows people to let off steam, but also communicates important information to those in power, if they are willing to listen,” she said. The tradition dates to at least the time of Burma’s penultimate king, Mindon, who ruled from 1853 to 1878, she said.

For decades after the Myanmar Army, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power from a civilian government in 1962, the ruling junta allowed public thangyat performances, with restrictions. When the junta banned the performances outright in 1989, some thangyat performers moved to India and beyond, and CDs of their shows were occasionally smuggled back into their home country.

Thangyat censorship eased “a little bit” under a government that ruled Myanmar for a few years before the landmark 2015 elections that brought Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power, said U Thiha, 70, a composer of thangyat lyrics.

Over all, Mr. Thiha said, censorship is looser under Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi than it was under the last government. For example, he said, her government censors words instead of entire paragraphs.

“I submit my lyrics for censorship because I believe they are written in my country’s best interests,” he added.

Professor Fink said that while the government’s concern about hate speech had some validity, its growing censorship of thangyat performances also reflected its dislike of criticism and its fear of public unrest over the failure to end decades-old wars in the country’s hinterlands and reduce the military’s political prerogatives.

Another primary concern, she said, is how the Tatmadaw might react if thangyat performers mocked its behavior, particularly that of its powerful commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Under the army-imposed Constitution of 2008, the Tatmadaw unilaterally appoints a quarter of the Parliament, and its commander in chief retains control over key institutions like the police and border guards. It is not subject to civilian authority.

During a streetside performance in Yangon on Sunday, the Oway Voice Thangyat troupe broached a number of sensitive political themes, including press censorship, government debts to China and the proliferation of crony capitalism.

“Cronies have no place left to put their belongings, but people have nothing to eat,” chanted the performers, mostly young women dressed in matching white shirts and black longyis, a sarong-like garment.

Another piece addressed the 2017 murder of U Ko Ni, a legal adviser to Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi who was shot in the head at Yangon International Airport while holding his infant grandson.

Mr. Ko Ni was murdered after he devised a plan to replace the Constitution with one that would strip the military of its extraordinary political powers. His murder is widely believed to have been a political assassination.

But the supposed mastermind has not been found, and whatever role the military had in the killing, if any, was not revealed during a lengthy trial of four suspects.

“Which side is the ministry on?” the poets asked, referring to the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs.

“We dare not say!” they said, kicking their heels in a chorus line.

“We dare not say!”

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