This is Myanmar Voices, a new column by Jessica Goudeau, which tells first-person stories of people in Myanmar and their loved ones. The as-told-to format gives them control over their narratives and allows us to change their names and identifying details to protect them from the repercussions of speaking out. Myanmar is the site of thelongest-running civil war in the world, and the country was plunged into fighting again this year when the ruling junta, the Tatmadaw, took over the country in a coup on February 2, 2021. To learn more about the background of the current crisis, read theBBC’s helpful explainer.
Jessica’s note: Since the coup on February 2, 2021, artists in Myanmar have formed acritically important part of the resistance. Through their creativity and innovation, they’ve provided images that inspire and empower the thousands of people who are defying the Tatmadaw’s illegal takeover of the country.
“JC” is the pseudonym of one of those artists. I discovered her work through the campaign#Sisters2Sisters, an international coalition to “raise awareness on excessive force and sexual violence used on women by Myanmar military and to promote solidarity among sisters fighting systemic oppression.” Like many urban schoolchildren educated in government-led schools, JC did not hear about the history of the junta’s abuses against ethnic minorities as a child; it was only later, when she left the country, that she realized the full scope of Myanmar’s history. We have had to hide some of the specific details to protect her family, but JC spent some years away from Myanmar in a refugee camp in Thailand. There, she finally learned about the ongoing revolution that the despotic government had hidden from her. Though she refuses to say it herself, JC’s educational journey from Mae La camp to becoming a student at one of the best universities in Thailand is nothing short of extraordinary.
Like many of the resistance artists, JC’s work shows women and civilians exhibiting defiance or grief at what the junta is doing to the country. Protests in the country have had to takecreative forms during the pandemic, like the banging of pots and pans at 8 p.m.; in that vein, JC’s art often depicts women, who have traditionally been marginalized by military revolutions, and their unique role in Myanmar’s current resistance movement. She and other artists remain in danger under the oppressive regime in power.
Growing up in Myanmar in the early 2000s, I never heard about the civil war. In school, I learned about how good the Burmese government was. I had no idea what my government was doing to people. I am Karen, an ethnic minority in my country, but I did not know that my government would go into villages and force people to flee.
When I was ten, my mother and I had to move to Mae La refugee camp in Thailand. That was eye-opening for me. I don’t really consider myself a refugee, though technically I was, but when I think about refugees, I think about villagers or civilians who have to run from the fighting. I was quite young at the time, so I’m still not sure exactly why we had to leave the country. I just know that I lived in Mae La camp until I was seventeen, when I went to the border city of Mae Sot to continue my studies.
I spent a year in a boarding school there in Mae Sot. The university I eventually went to provided funding to the school for a special program for kids like me. We worked very hard and most of us got scholarships to do further education at a university in Thailand.
We had to get our GED; we had to earn our scholarships. We couldn’t use phones during the workdays. We had to get up early and go to bed at a certain time; there were night studies; we had to cook and clean—it was intense. That one year was quite efficient. We pushed ourselves very hard to get to the university. I’m glad that I did that, even if it was hard. It changed the course of my life.
I learned some fundamentals of visual design in a couple of my communications classes in college. But I never really did art. I still don’t do traditional art.
During 2020, I had more free time, and I tried doing digital art online. I saw editorial illustrations in pieces for the New York Times and NPR and discovered the work of artists likeDaniel Stolle andEmiliano Ponzi. I saw how their illustrations conveyed the messages of the articles. I wanted to know how to do that, how to illustrate something to really make a message clearer. Art felt like something that only some people appreciated, that maybe other people didn’t get or that didn’t resonate. For me, it was a way to express myself.
Then the coup happened.
My art turned from something I did for myself to something I did for others. It was about coup resistance. It’s overwhelming sometimes, and I have to take a break and just do pretty art. But what keeps me going are the ways I can use my art to find different angles to tell stories about life after the coup, to be explicit about what is happening, or just to show ordinary things.
For us in Myanmar, the art reflects our reality. It reflects our emotions. I think people are really appreciating art in a new way because an image can sometimes show something more powerfully than words. That keeps me going most days.
Like the work of a lot of people in Myanmar, my art is a way to show that we are fighting, that we will keep fighting. It’s a form of expression, a means of speaking out. Sometimes words can be lost, but with art, it’s something you stop and notice.
It’s a form of expression, a means of speaking out.
I have a lot of plans. I want to do interviews with other people. I want to illustrate stories and use my art to explain what is happening in people’s lives. I got toillustrate an article for Al Jazeera about a woman in labor, and my art conveyed the emotions. I enjoyed that process. That’s what I want my art to be able to do.
It can be frustrating, sometimes, not to do more when it feels like everything is falling apart around me. I think, “I’m sitting at home. I have a roof over my head. I don’t have to sleep in the forest in the mud.” It makes me feel guilty.
But then, when I’m able to produce a piece or illustrate an assignment, it makes me feel like I’m contributing to something larger than myself.
This coup has changed many of us. Just like I learned what was really happening when I left the country at a young age, now a lot of people are changing their views because they are seeing the full scope of things. They feel regret that they have not helped the Rohingya or Karen people or other ethnic minorities, that they have not done anything at all. That is one of the reasons all of us are fighting.
In a way, even though we are suffering now, I think what has happened will be good in the end. We are not winning in terms of power yet, but we are winning in terms of changing the mindset of many people in the country. It is leading to broader unity. I hope my art is part of that. Those changes are giving me hope for my country.
Jessica Goudeau is the author of AFTER THE LAST BORDER (Viking 2020), a narrative nonfiction book about refugee resettlement in the US. She has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, The Los Angeles Times, and other places. She has a PhD in Poetry and Translation Studies from the University of Texas. In most of her writing, she partners with displaced people to tell their stories with dignity while protecting their identities. Find out more: jessicagoudeau.com and @jessica_goudeau