Most of the night since the coup brought Myanmar back under military rule on February 1, the spectral symbol of protest has shone on the dance floor of the building.
It’s the secret of where the next lighting will appear in Yangon, the largest city in the country. But suddenly the projected image appears in the dark. Three fingers raised in a rebel pose. Dove of peace. The smiling face of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government was overthrown in a military coup.
Screenings are the idea of a filmmaker who wants to remain anonymous while the military hunts down those who dare to defy it.
Armed with paint brushes, songs and protest anthems, the creative classes provide the mass uprising of Myanmar with the imaginative enthusiasm and rebellious spirit that caught the military generals.
During daily street rallies in the country’s capitals, the atmosphere often has the feel of a cultural carnival. Graffiti artists spray-painted a mockery of senior general Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief who carried out the coup. The poets expressed themselves in angry verses. The cartoonists’ union started holding hand-drawn figures. The street dancers were spinning with abandonment.
On Wednesday, the largest single rally since street protests began in Yangon, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the central district, holding posters and signs designed for the Instagram generation.
“If we look at the history of the resistance in Myanmar, we were quite aggressive and conflicted, with this history of bloodshed,” said Ko Kyaw Nanda, a graphic designer whose protest art contrasts green pig heads (army) with ruby red heels (Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi). “With this new approach, it can be less risky for people, and more people can join.”
The Myanmar military, which has ruled the country for the most part in the past six decades, has concluded more than 450 people from the coup, according to a group that monitors political prisoners. The new regime has drastically reduced civil liberties and its history of violent suppression of dissent has lasted for a long time. Security forces fired and beat protesters against the coup. On Wednesday night in the city of Mandalay, soldiers marched through an area where railroad workers were housed who were boycotting the business, firing multiple bullets. At least one person was confirmed injured, but the dictatorship’s weapons did not deter peaceful protesters, who depended on humorous memes and protest art to carry them out.
“If there are young people on the street, then why couldn’t I be?” said Daw Nu Nu Win, a retired civil servant who wore a laminated sign with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s face at a rally Wednesday. “I want the whole nation to be outside the dictatorship.”
Internet art collectives have made their designs free so protesters can print them for signs, stickers or t-shirts. One of the most popular pieces shows a collection of hands lined up in greeting with three fingers from the movie “The Hunger Games”. Each hand was drawn by another artist, a mosaic of defiance.
As she watched the protests grow, a freelance graphic designer bearing the stage name Quecool decided she wanted to make a contribution. Although she illustrated a book on feminism, during her years at the public relations agency she did not consider herself openly political.
She was shockingly overthrown by the army, which grew up disliking her. She started drawing into the night.
One of her paintings is now often used in the protest movement: a young woman in a traditional sarong waving a wok and a spatula. The background is crimson, a nuance of the National League for Democracy’s signature, which was ousted from government despite two overwhelming election victories.
Every night at 8pm, cities across Myanmar were crammed with crowds of people pounding on pots, sherpas, woks and anything else that created crowds. The goal is to repel the devil, and at this time the art of projection is emerging, adding visual elements to the cry of discontent.
Myanmar’s military rulers have long seen a threat in the arts, imprisoning poets, actors, painters and rappers. Among the dozens of people fed along with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in the first attacks before the dawn of the coup were a filmmaker, and two writers, and a Reggae singer. The graffiti artist, whose protest signs have revived Yangon in the past two weeks, said he was fleeing from police. There were also two poets. Arrest warrants were issued for actors, directors and the singer on Wednesday.
Ko Zayar Thaw was a member of Generation Wave, a hip-hop collective that challenged the former ruling junta with cunning lyrics. After serving five years in prison for his activism, he joined the National League for Democracy when he ran in the 2012 by-elections. Mr Zayar Thaw won a parliamentary seat in a district once considered a military stronghold, populated by the thunder of parliamentary papers and thought left his days of artistic protest behind.
“Hip-hop artists already have a culture of revolution, so we’ve protested through songs in our generation,” he said. “Now all kinds of artists are involved because they don’t want to lose the value of democracy.”
The artistic ferment in Myanmar today originated from other regional protest movements. During their months of enduring dissent in Hong Kong, young protesters revived their rallies with sympathetic cartoons and colorful walls of sticky notes that evoked the so-called Lennon Wall in Prague, where art and messages of dissent against communism multiplied. Motivated by the earlier incarnation of the opposition, protesters in Hong Kong popularized the use of a yellow umbrella against water cannons and turned it into a powerful meme.
In return, the Hong Kong Democratic Movement encouraged pro-democracy protesters in Thailand, who organized months-long rallies last year. Encouraged by the force of capriciousness in Hong Kong, Thai protesters, who opposed the prime minister leading a military coup in 2014, deployed inflatable rubber duck rafts to repel water cannons. They popularized the use of the “Hunger Games” salute, which the former Thai junta initially tried to ban with its emergency powers. (No one actually listened.)
A few days after the coup in Myanmar, doctors, who started the civil disobedience movement that has now forced about 750,000 people to stop going to work, flashed three fingers in protest. The salute is now the leitmotif of the rally in Myanmar, along with inscriptions in English – all the more so as it will attract international attention – condemning the military takeover.
“I was inspired by how protesters from Hong Kong and Thailand used creativity and humor in their protests,” said Mr Kyaw Nanda, a graphic designer.
Cross-currents of protest are flowing in both directions. Last week, a Thai youth group adopted a campaign of pots and pans from Myanmar to protest in Bangkok.
“There is a struggle for democracy, human rights and justice in the region,” said U Aye Ko, a painter in Myanmar whose art has long expressed political longings. “The movement is beyond the question of one nation. We have all united in resistance to oppression. ”