ASEAN Human Rights Cartoon Exhibition Highlights Free Speech

An artist's hands in handcuffs. One The right hand holds a pencil and the left a paint brush. Text read ASEAN Human Rights Cartoon Exhibition

All this month, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is hosting an online Human Rights Cartoon Exhibition. The free exhibition was organized by the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar and the non-profit organization Hujjah Ehson. The exhibition runs from May 3 to May 31 and features 100 critical cartoons from 37 artists representing Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Myanmar.

The exhibition is separated into two digital galleries; the first gallery, titled “Human Rights at the Homeland,” is focused on the cartoonists commenting on the human rights conditions in their own countries. Tempo reports,

Zunar said that exhibiting works on human rights is very important, as there are many cartoonists in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states who are able to voice staunch critics of foreign governments—such as North Korea, China, and the United States—but are silence[d] when it comes to human rights issues in their homelands.

This exhibition will give them the chance to do just that.

Rounding out the exhibition is the second gallery titled “Solidarity for Myanmar.” The gallery is a response by the ASEAN cartoonist community to the military coup that occurred on February 1 of this year. Since the coup, the elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and several of her party members have been detained, and hundreds of protestors have been killed. From the introduction to the gallery:

The ASEAN Human Rights Cartoon Exhibition Solidarity Gallery is our way to show our support for our ASEAN brothers and sisters. Cartoonists put to pen drawings that mark as a symbol of solidarity as we stand with the people of Myanmar to defend democracy against the coup d’état by the military regime.

The Junta has violated democracy. We pledge our support for an immediate ceasefire. The violence against the people of Myanmar must be put to a stop!

Of the cartoonists from Myanmar invited to participate in the exhibition, only one, Salai, was able to contribute.

This exhibition comes at a time when the freedom of the press is in decline in Southeast Asia. A recent report by the non-profit organization Reporters Sans Frontières found truth behind that statement. Many of the artists in the exhibit have experienced pressure from the government and from fellow citizens to self-censor. Malaysian artist Fahmi Reza, who has been jailed for his work, said, “It is not overreacting to say that being a political cartoonist in Malaysia is a dangerous and risky job.” Unlike several decades ago, more and more artists can reach a growing audience on social media. An increase in audience is an increase in power: something governments may not like. Another Malaysian artist, Sarah Joan Mochtar, said it well, “Our strategy is drawing; placing power and knowledge back into the hands of the people.”

There has been some opposition to the show; recent cyberattacks were aimed at the digital exhibition. On May 8, Zunar led a forum with fellow cartoonists titled “Cartoonist — Enemy of the State.” During the event, there were 100 attempted hacks from 50 separate IP addresses. Such a coordinated attack led Zuna to state, “There is a pattern to their attacks, and it looks like it is being conducted by a specific group.” When asked who could have performed the attack, Zunar continued, “It could be from our country or other Asean nations. This is the first time a satirical cartoon expo in Asean is being held.”

Hopefully, this will be the first of many events to come, and we continue to see cartoonists creating a space where they can be seen and heard.

View the ASEAN Human Rights Cartoon Exhibition here.