This post is written by Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey, a social justice activist and lay Buddhist teacher in the Burmese tradition who travels to Myanmar at least once a year. Unfortunately Jesse didn’t send credits for the following images. Most were distributed anonymously, some have signatures. If you know who made any of these, please leave credits in the comments:
Today a friend facetimed from Myanmar. I answered right away. Even without our other friends around to translate, I needed to see her. During this time of military coup in Burma and the swelling uprising of resistance in the streets across the country, even the smallest fleeting moment to connect and share our love and solidarity feels existentially vital. She was in her car with her husband and kids and we shared our limited but enthusiastic greetings before she turned the camera around out her window. I was stunned to see she was driving in the center of a giant protest in the capital town of the division she lives in. Her protest sign—a crossed out image of General Min Aung Hlaign tightly gripped in her daughter’s hands—was ready for waving in the crowds. She repeated to me the slogans I could hear echoing outside the car. She flashed me the three-finger salute—adopted first by anti-government protestors in Thailand from the Hunger Games story line—and I flashed it back. She turned the camera to people on the streets who immediately flashed me the sign, and I flashed it back, holding back tears. Was this really happening? What kind of interaction was that? She returned the camera to her smiling family. They were excited and nervous. She is not an activist, but she is activated.
Soon after the military overthrew the elected government, detained hundreds of its members, and dissolved parliament on February 1st, she started posting some of the amazing protest graphics that started popping up on social media. It was amazing to start watching the range of dynamic images spread on Instagram and Facebook under the hashtags #savemyanmar and #justiceformyanmar. The identities of the artists who produced these images are still unknown to me. If that is intentional, it is probably wise. The three-finger salute quickly became an image that needed no explanation and built steam in many iterations and variations as it spread to include selfies of Burmese youth across the country and around the world flashing it with pride and indignation.
Soon the cacerolazo practice of banging pots and pans from windows and rooftops and then in the streets—whose lineage traces from France to Algeria to Latin America to the Philippines—became a nightly event in the major cities of Myanmar and soon spread into the countryside. The heroism of that act was immediately recognized and honored in the imagery of the resistance. In a country like Burma, where for many decades the military dictatorship disappeared, murdered, imprisoned, and tortured any utterance of democratic sentiment, it truly is almost inconceivably brave to pick up an old cookie tin and take a crack at it at your window. The image-makers recognized that, honored that, and infused the act with an electrified sentiment that emboldened more and more people in all distant parts of the country to join in. Then, as the doctors—in their relatively privileged positions, especially during a pandemic—refused to work and began in-earnest to develop a true civil disobedience campaign, their imagery also got digested into the graphics and they re-emerged at a super-hero level in the consciousness of the country. At this point there are thousands of workers in different industries and professions going on strike as part of the national movement.
And then people took to the streets. There was plenty of good reason to think it may not happen. After nearly a century of horrific brutal crackdowns on any unrest, the people of Burma have every right to be too afraid to risk it. But a few thousand people showed up on the streets of Yangon, in the usual historically resonant locations of past protest and past uprisings. Then more. Now, only a few days later, demonstrations have sparked up in the small towns and in the countryside with throngs of people on foot, on mopeds, in cars, on horses, and oxcarts gathering in the streets while joyfully and forcefully demanding an end to the coup and, more deeply it seems to me, the haunting of their futures by the henchmen of the green garb.
Today when I search those hashtags, I don’t see nearly as many fresh graphic—I see photographs of the people in rebellion. The revolt itself is the imagery and it is inspiring more and more people into the streets. My friend was moved by the imagery and now she is the imagery. The first cycle is complete. More art will come. And it must respond to the concrete conditions in the streets and in the air. But for now, the faith is confirmed: the unfolding process of consciousness expanding into action expanding into consciousness expanding into action—mediated through art—is now integrated into the life-cycle of the uprising. We will see how it develops and where the artists learn to respond and influence the vibrancy of the movement. It cannot be predicted, prescribed, or imposed. And of course, all of us can try to do our part in the life-cycle by finding, sharing, and helping develop the process of consciousness and action outside of the borders of Myanmar using all the means, media, and messages we know and are inspired to create.
ps. We have not blurred the photos of people because these images have been circulating unredacted on the web for days now. It is our hope these people allowed their photos to be taken in order to share their sense of dignity.