Exiled or left in jails: the Burmese artists still denied freedom

Democratic moves bring US visit but no change for people

Rangoon

The producer, Myo Zaw, is in the middle of filming 3-4, a slushy romantic comedy featuring jokes about an obese teen in a bumblebee outfit. But manufacturing saccharine and slapstick is not where his heart lies. Myo Zaw wants to make a film about students in the 1980s, but Burma's government censors – wary of the historical connotations of protest and rebellion in that era – quickly quashed the idea.

Burma may well be shuffling towards greater freedoms. The once-jailed opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now allowed to stand for office and several hundred political prisoners have been released, moves which bring the new, supposedly civilian government the reward of a visit this week from Hillary Clinton, the first by a serving US Secretary of State in 50 years. But for the men and women whose job it is to entertain the masses, it is still a daily battle against censorship.

"No change" is how Myo Zaw sums it up. Anything relating to history, the military, revolution or politics remains strictly off limits, he told The Independent.

Burma's government, still stacked with military figures, sees entertainment as a way to control, not inform, the country's 54 million people. Shepherding the minds of the people is an evolving project in Burma. It has stumbled from posters calling on the people to "crush" all those opposing the will of the army to more subtle attempts at manipulation.

A US diplomatic cable released by the whistle-blowing website Wiki- Leaks this year said that the government had in 2009 set up a national football league purely with the intention of distracting people from economic hardships which had spilled over into public dissent.

The rapper and activist Zayar Thaw, who has already served three years for his anti-regime lyrics, describes how the government keeps him silent while maintaining a charade of creative freedoms.

"In August we were going to do a charity show, but the government banned me," he says. "They didn't ban me on paper, or they didn't tell me in person, they told the organisers that they couldn't hire me, so it's a bit more complicated than before."

Zayar Thaw is now off the roster from hip-hop concerts, replaced by rappers who stick to more wholesome and generic hip-hop themes such as consumerism and accumulating vast wealth.

One of the few creative industries that has seen a tangible relaxation of censorship lately is print media. Whereas in the past all mention of Ms Suu Kyi and political prisoners was banned, they can now carry pictures of the opposition leader, although newspapers and journals must be submitted to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department for approval, with stories frequently removed. Zayar Thaw says his interviews have been censored, while discussion of prison conditions remains off limits.

An editor of a local journal says that journalists are still "monitored" by secret police, while many reporters remain in jail.

Artists behind bars: dissident voices

Sithu Zey

In September, the 21-year-old reporter from the exiled Democratic Voice of Burma news network was given ten years on top of his eight-year sentence under a vague electronics act.

Win Maw

The songwriter is serving a 17-year sentence for "spreading false news". He was lead singer in the rock group Shwe Thansin, popular in the 1990s, and often performs in support of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

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