Cartoon drawn by LaiLone in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks (Cartoon Lailone).
Despite Myanmar’s newfound media freedoms, journalists and satirists shy away from critiques of burgeoning religious nationalism
When Salai Thawng Hlaing Lung graduated with a degree in environmental engineering a few years ago, he chose a different career from the rest of his class. “Most engineers only care about infrastructure, but I wanted to change people’s mindsets,” he says. “And art – particularly cartooning – is an effective way to do that.”
Lailone, as he’s known professionally, started out drawing cartoons focused primarily on environmental and resource governance issues. But his work soon strayed into pointed criticism of Myanmar’s political establishment and the military – subjects that, just a few years ago, were thoroughly taboo.
Even with newfound press freedoms, though, one institution that few journalists or cartoonists are willing to openly criticise remains Buddhism and the politically powerful monks that promote it. In his own cartoons on the subject, Lailone treads very carefully.
“Sometimes, cartoonists are hesitant to draw about religious issues because of culture. If you shave your head and become a monk, it’s impossible for a typical Buddhist Burmese to criticise [you],” says Lailone, a Christian from Chin State in Myanmar’s northwest. “It’s self-censorship – you don’t want to go to hell.”
Although Buddhism has long been part of Myanmar’s political fabric, Buddhist fundamentalism – spearheaded by a handful of radical monks – has gained new prominence since 2012. Two related movements, 969 and MaBaTha (shorthand for the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion), have cast a long shadow over Myanmar’s reform process.
Monks, including notorious hardliner U Wirathu, stand accused of instigating anti-Muslim violence that has left scores dead across central Myanmar and Rakhine State over the past three years.
“For some … publications and journalists, they know that this radical movement is not good for the country, but maybe they are a bit worried about any potential consequence,” said Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy magazine, which was published in exile from Thailand for nearly two decades before opening a bureau in Yangon in 2012.
Last October, the magazine’s website was hacked after it covered a visit by U Wirathu to Sri Lanka, where he was the guest of honour at an event held by the Bodu Bala Sena, a like-minded Buddhist nationalist group.
Although journalistic standards in Myanmar are still low, the press regularly files brazen reports on issues that would have been impossible to cover before pre-publication censorship was abolished in 2012.
“If you want to criticise the reform process, and corruption, and mismanagement on the part of [President] Thein Sein’s government, it’s still okay. No problems,” Kyaw Zwa Moe said.
But Myanmar’s press is still far from truly free, with courts regularly doing the bidding of the rich and powerful to silence criticism. “Politically, sometimes, as a Burmese journalist, we have to think about these issues carefully when we report. Sometimes … there is an impact and consequences,” he said.
To date, no publications in Myanmar have been charged with blasphemy, but then most editors skirt contentious religious topics altogether. “This religious issue can easily drag down your publication, your circulation and your business,” Kyaw Zwa Moe said. “The publishers are quite worried about it. They may not face any charges from government authorities, but they can be attacked by mobs.”
Two ongoing cases paint a worrying picture of local authorities acceding to demands from MaBaTha supporters to prosecute alleged blasphemers. In early December, Htin Lin Oo, a prominent columnist and public affairs officer for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), was slapped with a lawsuit at the behest of MaBaTha-affiliated monks, alleging that a speech he gave in October that decried the conflation of nationalism with religion was “intended to outrage religious feelings.” The NLD promptly cut ties with him, and he remains in custody.
In early December, three employees of a Yangon tapas bar – including general manager Phil Blackwood, a New Zealand citizen – were charged with causing “religious offence” over their plans to hold “Buddha bar” theme night, the promotional poster for which featured a stylised, headphone-wearing Buddha image. The trio face up to four years in prison if convicted.
MaBaTha and its supporters have become an increasingly powerful constituency in Myanmar’s evolving political landscape. In December, a package of four controversial draft laws proposed by MaBaTha that would place limits on religious conversion and interfaith marriage were approved by Myanmar’s president, and will be debated in parliament later this month.
Moderates within the political establishment face a conundrum, as criticism of radicals would amount to political suicide. Many in Myanmar believe that radical Buddhists are being actively supported by hardliners in the run-up to nationwide elections later this year, which will mark a make-or-break moment for the legitimacy of Myanmar’s ongoing political and economic reforms.
The chilling effect journalists face when it comes to reporting on religion plays directly into their hands, Kyaw Zwa Moe claims.
“From the authorities’ side – not all the authorities, but those that support [radical Buddhist] movements – I think they are content with what’s happening in the country in terms of religious tensions, and the media reports on it,” he said.