Myanmar Cartoonists Caution Future Generations About the Obstacles of Free Expression

In an interview with Dateline Irrawaddy, Burmese cartoonists Maung Maung Aung and Win Aung discuss the history of cartoons in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and what it means to be a cartoonist in the current media landscape. They also address the responsibility cartoonists have to to the maintenance of free expression.

This year marks the 100th anniversary since the introduction of political cartooning in Myanmar and three years since the introduction of free expression with the abolishment of pre-publication censorship in 2012.  “I have now written cartoons for around 45 years,” says Maung Maung Aung. “In these 45 years, cartoonists have been on the side of the people, reflecting the economic, social and political situations of the country. Now, it seems that we get somewhat more freedom after years of restriction. So, more people are drawing cartoons.”

With the influx of cartoonists, though, artists like Maung Maung Aung have noted that the craft of the political cartoon has changed. From a struggle for independence from colonial rule in the early 20th century to recent fights against dictatorship, the kinds of cartoons produced and the cartoonists who produce them have evolved over the years. Moreover, with the advent of social media, cartoonists from all ages and walks of life have found a very vocal way to have their voices heard.

For Maung Maung Aung, this evolution has complicated his craft. “There are two types of cartoonist,” he notes. “The first are cartoonists who take the art form as his life and the second are opportunistic cartoonists.” He adds:

There has been some impact on those who have continuously engaged in cartoon art with deep faith. There is an unwritten code of conduct among cartoonists, according to what we have learnt from our seniors. Previously, there were prohibitions on things such as mocking the poor and the disabled and making personal attacks. It is more important (not to do such things) in this democratic era. To an artist, democracy is like a double-edged sword. While it can be used to stab others, it can also hurt the artist. So, it is not true that cartoonists can draw as they please. They will have to take responsibility for their actions when the law of democracy flourishes for some time.

Although the ability to express oneself has become easier in Myanmar, Maung Maung Aung cautions that the artist still has the responsibility to be aware of how their voice is being heard. Maung Maung Aung celebrates the newly found freedom of expression, but having done work for four decades, he has seen how the changing tides have impacted the work of cartoonists and how they choose to express themselves.

“Cartoonists should make sure their creations reflect the life of people,” says fellow cartoonist Win Aung. “Many say that cartoonists or journalists should not be biased, but must be neutral. It is wrong. They should have bias. They must. By bias, I don’t mean prejudice. If one side is right and another is wrong, which side would they stand for? Of those who oppress and those who are oppressed, which side they would stand for? They have to take a position.”

In the past 100 years the state of the political cartoon has evolved in Myanmar as much as the political landscape itself has changed. With revolution, cartoons that protest of colonial or socialist governments surged. With social media, younger artists vie for a chance to have their voices heard. Maung Maung Aung cautions that when each generation brings about a new type of cartoon and cartoonist, it is important to be aware of how one’s voice is being heard so as not to erode the hard work of previous cartoonists who fought for the right for future generations to express themselves freely. “In successive periods, we are like a person standing at the edge of a chasm. Drawing cartoons does not provide a secure livelihood, but we can’t help drawing. I will continue working this job, and I have to think about how to survive with it. Again, a cartoonist needs to have creative ideas and expertise.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!