Myanmar artists enjoying greater freedom of expression

March 15, 2012


YANGON--Myanmar is better known for government suppression than artistic freedom, but that is changing--perhaps faster than many outsiders had expected.

An all-girl band called Me N Ma Girls--apparently a play on the official name of the country--seems to be leading the way.

The five members, aged 21 to 25, are the rough equivalent of Britain's Spice Girls.

The band has developed a loyal following among young Burmese with upbeat songs as well as stylish make-up and clothing.

The band members often sport bright-colored wigs and bare their knees as they sing and go through their dance moves.

The band released a DVD in November, which includes a scene in which the members cavort wearing blue and pink wigs.

The group feared government censors might reject the scene, citing foreign influences. The members said they were prepared to use a black and white version of the scene if the footage was rejected.

Unexpectedly, the scene was not cut.

"We were all delighted, even though people in other countries may not understand why," said Cha Cha, 22, one of the members.

The group was formed in February 2010, with members picked from 130 applicants through an audition. The band released its first album in January.

DVDs and CDs, as well as movies, novels and newspapers, must be submitted to government censors under the Information Ministry prior to release.

Until military rule ended in March, scenes showing dyed brown hair or skimpy clothing were rejected.

The length of skirts is a typical example of a change brought by the inauguration of a civilian government.

While female artists had to cover their knees in the past, Me N Ma Girls appear in DVDs with hemlines 10 to 15 centimeters above the knees.

The members said they simply want to wear what they want to, something taken for granted in many other countries. Sex appeal was not high in their minds.

The Me N Ma Girls write their own lyrics for songs.

Censors under the military regime rejected part of a song penned by the band apparently on the grounds it evoked images of democratization.

Originally, the lyrics said: "Let’s go down this path together, correcting mistakes."

Now, the members are working on their first song with a political message.

The song, "Come back home," says: "Let's return home and work together for Myanmar."

The members said the song is directed at Burmese who fled overseas for political reasons as well as all ethnic minorities in the Southeast Asian country.

"Freedom is gaining ground in our country," said Htike Htike, 25, another member. "I don’t think this song will be barred by censors."

Things appear to be beginning to change in the film industry as well.

In January, director Wyne, 38, received an audience prize at a film festival on "freedom" in Yangon (Rangoon).

The movie, "Ban That Scene!," comically portrays how censors reduce rolls of film down to a fraction, complaining about everything from a beggar to a woman confessing love.

"I heard that the government is loosening censorship, and I wanted to see whether they mean it," Wyne said. "I was prepared to get arrested in the worst case, but it seems alright, at least until now."

Filmmakers plan to produce a movie on the life of Gen. Aung San, a respected Burmese independence activist, for domestic and overseas releases in 2015, the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Under the military regime, it was impossible to produce a film on the general because his name is inseparable from his daughter and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate.

The civilian government, however, provided the site for the film set, according to Zaw Thet Htwe, 45, a member of the production committee.

"Until recently, that was unthinkable," he said.

Freedom of expression is still limited, however.

In the film festival on freedom, which was originally proposed by Aung San Suu Kyi, movies were shown in Yangon theaters. But the number of venues and the schedule of screenings were limited.

Aung San Suu Kyi is also involved in the production of the film on her father.

Some people suspect that the government decided to give the go-ahead to appease the international community.

"It will still take time before we gain real freedom," Wyne said. "We have to make efforts to realize a society in which anybody can shoot a film without censorship."

Kei Nemoto, a professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said the Myanmar government does not believe that looser censorship will immediately lead to criticism against the government even if the nation’s culture is influenced by other countries.

Nemoto, who specializes in modern Burmese history, said Burmese tend to depend too much on Aung San Suu Kyi's influence to gain freedom of expression.

"It is necessary for artists to expand freedom by creating precedents step by step," Nemoto said.

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Members of Me N Ma Girls perform during a rehearsal in Yangon. (Ryuji Nakagawa)

Members of Me N Ma Girls perform during a rehearsal in Yangon. (Ryuji Nakagawa)

  • Members of Me N Ma Girls perform during a rehearsal in Yangon. (Ryuji Nakagawa)
  • Members of Me N Ma Girls at a rehearsal (Ryuji Nakagawa)

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