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Drawing Fire in Burma

Harn Lay, Grant Awarded 2010

Harn Lay © 2010 Platon for Human Rights Watch
Harn Lay © 2010 Platon for Human Rights Watch

He became arguably the most prominent satirist of his generation in Burma. For 15 years in the pages of the prominent exile newsmagazine The Irrawaddy, Harn Lay drew and wrote biting critiques of a junta that cried out for caricature in all its brutal excess and comically ham-handed propaganda. His pen also skewered international apologists for the regime for their trust in military leaders. “To me, art is for impression and cartoons are for expression,” the cartoonist, who is an ethnic Shan, said upon receiving the Hellman-Hammett grant in 2010. “I am very proud when my work is recognized because in its own way, it fights for human rights. The Burmese people are starved for human rights.”

Prominent satirist: Lampooning the junta and its apologists
Harn Lay lampooning the junta and its apologists

Up until 2012, newspaper articles had to be submitted to the government’s feared Press Scrutiny Board for scrutiny. But Burmese Facebook began taking off in mid-2011 and the government never instituted the kind of massive online surveillance favored by its huge neighbor to the north. In August 2012, the Scrutiny Board basically evaporated.

If the censors were still active today, probably more than half of what appears in newspapers would get the “red pencil” treatment. Burma has gone from an information desert to a vibrant, intensely competitive, and increasingly fearless media environment. There were no private newspapers under the junta; in the last three years, about two dozen have gained licenses for daily publication.

Today, the official censorship system is – officially – gone. In its place, however, is a creeping new menace, exemplified by harsh prison sentences for journalists and organizations deemed to have “jeopardized national security” or “invaded privacy.” Last July, five journalists for the Unity Journal were sentenced to ten years in prison for supposedly “disclosing state secrets.” They had reported on the construction of what they claimed was a chemical weapons factory. Defending the journalists against the charges proved so expensive that the Unity Journal had to close its doors. Issues involving the military are particularly sensitive. In March, the Myanmar Times issued a “Letter of Regrets” for a cartoon implying military involvement in illegal land-grabbing.

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The Irrawaddy moved back into Burma in 2012 and continues its muckraking. Last year, the government threatened not to renew the newspaper’s license to publish unless it changed its colonial-era name. Just as “Burma” became “Myanmar” when the military junta took power in the late 1980’s, so The Irrawaddy is supposed to become The Ayeyarwaddy. The newspaper has so far resisted the change.


Dave Mathieson is senior researcher on Burma at Human Rights Watch.

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