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Cartoonists, media and ethics in Myanmar

Brussels, Naypidaw, October 19th, 2015 (The Irrawaddy /Global Voices/SIGNIS) this edited article comes from The Irrawaddy, an independent news site in Myanmar, and was republished on Global Voices on October 16th, 2015 as part of a content-sharing agreement. Cartoonists Maung Maung Aung and Win Aung were interviewed by Irrawaddy editor Aye Chan Myae about the relationship between cartoons and journalism. It is very seldom to hear non western voices about the relation between media, cartoons and ethics.

The interview was published under the title “Myanmar ‘Cartoonists have been on the side of the people”. In the text the cartoonists use the former nomination of the country which was Burma.

100 years of Comics in Myanmar

Aye Chan Myae: (…). This year marks 100 years since comics were introduced to Myanmar. I have invited cartoonists to discuss what is needed for the art form to develop and the relationship between cartoons and journalism. (…) Cartoonists have gone through various experiences in that time. U Win Aung, what is your view on the experiences of cartoonists in political, social and economic aspects in 100 years?

Win Aung: I don’t see Burmese/Myanmarese cartoons having a smooth history in the later period of this timeframe. Burmese cartoons have a good origin story. Sayagyi Shwetalay started his cartoon work in the period of the independence struggle. Though Burma was at that time under colonial rule, there was a certain degree of freedom of expression. Burma then regained its independence, and in the time of Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, there was also freedom of expression. The most striking example is cartoons of Saya U Ba Gyan, and taking at look at them, one can know (that there was freedom of expression). Then there came the caretaker government, then the Revolutionary Council, and finally one-party dictatorship under the Burma Socialist Program Party (BSPP). Then, the degree of freedom of expression cartoonists had enjoyed gradually decreased. Cartoonists had fewer things to draw cartoons about.

: We have gone through the time of BSPP and its successor. Cartoonists enjoyed a good time at first. Then there were restrictions in the time of the BSPP. But, cartoon played an important part in every political evolution of Burma. Cartoonists took part in it. U Maung, things have changed very swiftly today and with the proliferation of social media, cartoonists can draw very freely. And there are lots of cartoonists. Whether people like their work or not, it is undeniable that the number of cartoonists has increased significantly. There are also many young cartoonists who draw for fun in this age of social media and democracy. U Maung, would you tell me about the situation of cartoonists and their freedom of expression in this age?

Maung Maung Aung: I have now written cartoons for around 45 years. 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. There are two types of cartoonist. The first are cartoonists who take the art form as his life and the second are opportunistic cartoonists. 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.

Cartoonists are journalists with a code of ethics

ACM: We journalists also have a code of ethics. Whether there is press scrutiny or not, we have to operate according to our ethics. Cartoonists have their own ethics. There should be ethics in any field of arts. What do you think of ethics among cartoonists, U Win Aung? Would you compare the code of conduct that respected cartoonists have previous observed and the situation at present?

WA: Mainly, what is important for a cartoonist is his faith. Cartoonists should make sure their creations reflect the life of people. 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 they would stand for? Of those who oppress and those who are oppressed, which side they would stand for? They have to take a position. If a cartoonist has adopted a firm position and are to draw cartoons from that position, they have to think about ethics. As Saya Maung Maung has said, we are not supposed to write cartoons focusing on personal and racial feelings. For example, if the political system is bad, we can draw things about those who create that system, but we are not supposed to draw things about the personal lives of the creators of that system.

ACM: Cartoonists should understand that?

WA: Yes, they should understand and also observe it. Today, some have written dirty things. They use foul language in text. They should avoid personal attacks and foulness in illustrations and texts. I would like to give an example of a cartoon by U Ba Gyan. When the Pyitawtha Project came to failure, U Ba Gyan drew a cartoon about the corruption of the ministers of U Nu government. He used words such as ‘traitor’, ‘stooge’ and ‘fat cat’. He also used the word ‘goat bell’. Excuse me for being rude. By goat bell he meant the testicles of the goat which rock from side to side. He used subtle illustrations and texts. He used the word goat bell and covered that part of the goat with a piece of cloth in illustrating it.

Read the whole interview here


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