Thangyat is sort of like slam poetry, and in Myanmar it can get you thrown in jail

Members of the Peacock Generation. (Photo credit: Handout)
Members of the Peacock Generation. (Photo credit: Handout)

Members of the Peacock Generation, a satirical performance troupe in Myanmar, face ongoing repression for staging politically offensive comedy.

Using a traditional comic form called thangyat, members of the troupe made a target of Myanmar’s thin-skinned military — the Tatmadaw.

Bans and censorship

Thangyat, which mixes poetry, dance, and music, has at times been permitted as a way for the public to let off steam about government corruption and other abuses.

Thangyat was legal, in a limited form, during the first decades of the military dictatorship after 1962.

It was banned in 1989 after the repression of massive pro-democracy protests, and was only once again permitted, with restrictions, in 2013.

And even today, performers must take care.

Thangyat performers at the New York City Thingyan water festival. (Photo credit: leesean/Wikimedia Commons)

For members of the Peacock Generation, things got difficult after a performance in which the unelected military officers occupying 25 percent of the country’s parliament were described as “cow shit.”

This — and a call for a reckoning in front of the International Criminal Court — were a bridge too far. 

Since then, six of the performers have been jailed for at least a year, and in some cases sentenced to hard labor.

In fact, the Tatmadaw have jailed scores of civilians for harming the military’s “dignity” and offending other aspects of their public reputation.

Official censors

It’s not that thangyat is banned outright.

It’s just that lyrics need to be submitted to the government, amended if necessary to remove offensive content, and then approved, before shows can happen in official venues. 

The Peacock Generation was having none of that.

Introduction is approx. 18 seconds followed by a Peacock Generation thangyat performance, full of rhythm and call-and-response vocals. Source: Radio Free Asia (U.S. gov’t funded)

During Thingyan, the water festival marking the new year (which in 2019 was in April), they donned military uniforms and took to the streets for an unauthorized performance ridiculing the Tatmadaw.

And they live-streamed it on Facebook. 

A Thingyan celebration in Yangon in 2008. (Photo credit:
juls78/Wikimedia Commons)

The military were not amused at what they called “online defamation.”

Rapid arrests, jailing, and various court ongoing appearances have resulted in sentences that may stretch to two years.

The case has attracted international attention as just another indication that Myanmar is not serious about improving its abysmal human-rights record. 

The advocacy group Amnesty International said the convictions were an “assault” on freedom of expression in Myanmar.

The European Union also decried the stifling of “healthy public debate.”

Both entities called for repealing, amending or reforming the laws that enabled the arrests.

No compromise?

Despite these pressures, the repression of speech in Myanmar isn’t going to go away soon.

FIfty-seven years after the onset of military dictatorship, the Tatmadaw still wield considerable power in government and in the everyday affairs of Myanmar’s citizens.

And the power elite in Myanmar aren’t backing down, either. 

The ruling National League of Democracy defended the jailing of the Peacock Generation performers, claiming that there are limits to free speech.

Myanmar’s ruling party is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner, and a Nobel laureate.

Critics of Suu Kyi have called for her Nobel to be revoked for her silence in the face of Myanmar’s genocidal persecution of the nation’s Rohingya ethnic minority.

Sources: Al Jazeera, Myanmar Times, Amnesty International (advocacy agency), The Irrawaddy (Myanmar), The New York Times, BBC News, BNI International (Myanmar), Mizzima (Myanmar)

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