Yangon, Myanmar – The writing is on the wall – literally – in Myanmar.
Alongside the many groups demanding more freedoms and reforms from Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government, graffiti artists have added their colourful missives to Yangon’s streets.
The spray-painted messages – some political, others whimsical – have proliferated on the walls of the city, one of the more visible signs of change as Myanmar’s former junta loosens its grip on the country.
“Plug the city, plug the country,” one graffiti artist sprayed below the image of a television set with feathered wings in mid-flight. A power cable and electric plug dangle in the air from the TV – a reference to Yangon’s regular power cuts, which are an ever-present reminder of Myanmar’s poor infrastructure.
“Money Laundry, 4 U Right?” is sprayed on another wall on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road. The words are accompanied by a deft rendition of a front-loading washing machine and a dollar sign in its glass door. Alongside the image, the graffitist has sprayed the initials of several of Myanmar’s top banks. In a country where corruption is legendary – Myanmar ranked only above Afghanistan in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2011 – it doesn’t take much to decipher the meaning.
Across the road, the graffiti is a simple appeal in red paint on a dirty concrete wall: “Dear President Thein Sein, in your second wave, please give us more power (electricity wise)…”
“They cannot stay any longer as a totalitarian government now.“
– Tin Oo, deputy leader of the National League for Democracy
Another painted message near Yangon’s zoological gardens warns those who inform for the authorities: “f–k snitches.”
Until recently, the most prominent street signs in Yangon were giant billboards warning of Western conspiracies and extolling the heroic virtues of Myanmar’s military. But the billboards have been crowded out now, or replaced, by advertising for upcoming Burmese rock music concerts, household electric appliances and cosmetics.
Alongside the graffiti, new cars in Yangon are another of the visible signs that something has changed in this city of some six million people. Old buses and battered Toyota taxis, the type abandoned in Bangkok 30 years ago, were once the only vehicles that bumped along the city’s narrow streets, where dilapidated British-colonial buildings and cracked pavement slabs bear the marks of the country’s neglect.
‘The Lady’ returns
Now there is a familiar face you see everywhere in Yangon: She adorns T-shirts, her portrait hangs on walls in homes and businesses, it graces the front of Burmese newspapers and magazines, key rings, hats, and mugs.
Banned until recently, the iconography of Myanmar’s opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, or “The Lady” as she is known, permeates the city and beyond.
Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest until her release in November 2010. Merchandisers are making up for every second of her enforced invisibility.
On a recent morning at Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy headquarters in Yangon, throngs of party supporters, young and old, urban and rural, came and went. Adding to the jamboree of meetings and strategy planning for NLD youth activists, a stall was erected at the entrance to the weathered office where more Suu Kyi T-shirts, baseball hats, badges, DVDs, and posters were selling briskly.
Plainclothes military intelligence officers who once kept close tabs on the NLD office are no longer to be seen.
Tin Oo, the deputy leader of the NLD, was holding the fort when Suu Kyi addressed parliament last month – another of the momentous changes in this country.
“They cannot stay any longer as a totalitarian government now, that is my first [answer],” Tin Oo said, describing President Thein Sein’s reforms, which have included the release of political prisoners, an end to press censorship, economic liberalisation, and the promise of free and fair elections in 2015.
“They cannot go on. Everything is set on the economic condition. And those conditions were gradually deteriorating from a long time ago,” Tin Oo said.
“Some of the tough-liners can get power back. They don’t want to give up their properties. It is one of the problems.“
– Aw Pi Kyeh, Myanmar cartoonist
“But we must be pragmatic and go slowly, go gradually,” he added.
Larry Jagan is a Bangkok-based Myanmar analyst who agrees the hardline rule of the generals will not return. “I believe that the changes can’t and won’t be rolled back. But so far, there is little democracy,” he told Al Jazeera.
A 2007 revolt was led by Buddhist monks and dubbed the “Saffron Revolution”. After allowing the demonstration to take its course for several weeks, the burgeoning movement soon became seen as a threat. The junta responded again with an iron fist, raiding monasteries and opening fire on red-robed monks and other protesters. Scores died and the brief hope of democratic reform was dashed.
Then, two years later, the military government itself decided to cede power. Critics argue it was in the best interest of the financially-broken regime to reform after years of Western-imposed sanctions took their toll. With most sanctions now lifted, Myanmar is open for business and the government and the country stand to prosper from a flood of investment.
Young police officers armed with old but well-oiled automatic rifles are still posted behind decaying sandbag bunkers throughout Yangon – a reminder of the way things were.
While the reforms have given people a taste for freedom, and buoyed cautious optimism, how far the former generals will go is the question on many minds. “We wait and wait, and now we hope,” said Daw Sann, a businesswoman.
Aw Pi Kyeh spent 30 years sketching cartoons that shone a harsh, if comical, light on the military regime. More than 300 of his cartoons were censored by the junta.
Unable to be overtly political, the cartoons carried hidden meanings that the military censors often missed, but the public understood clearly.
Aw Pi Kyeh said it was too early to be too optimistic about Myanmar’s future. “Some of the army side, some of the tough-liners can get power back,” he said. “They don’t want to give up their properties. It is one of the problems.”
The Myanmar narrative has been one of good against an entrenched evil; Suu Kyi stoic in her detention and determined not to compromise with the junta. Now, much like the emergence of graffiti on Yangon’s walls, the many shades of gray that make up life in Myanmar are coming to the fore.