On May 24, a group of 12 local and international artists was arrested by Myanmar police during a performance art event in the country’s second-largest city, Mandalay. The group, which included seven artists from Myanmar, four from Malaysia and one American—with her two-year-old daughter—was detained in a Mandalay police station throughout the day, where they were subjected to repeated questioning and forced to wait in sweltering rooms without any explanation as to the reason for their arrest. Although the foreign artists were deported from Myanmar to Malaysia the next day, the seven local artists currently remain under investigation and could be charged with up to three years in prison.
The performances in question were the final event of the Myanmar-Malaysia Performance Art Exchange, a project organized by Beyond Pressure, a Myanmar performance art initiative headed by Moe Satt—one of the local artists currently under investigation, along with Buka Kolektif, a Malaysian performance art collective, and Findars, a space for creative arts in Kuala Lumpur. According to organizers, the exchange aimed to spread knowledge of performance art as a valid form of visual expression; a medium that makes “daring, humorous or insightful statements that cut across boundaries and bring different communities together.” The program began in Kuala Lumpur between May 16 to 19, and included artist talks, workshops and public performance pieces on the streets of Jalan Sultan. The 12 performers then traveled to Mandalay, where a similar program of talks and workshops continued from May 22 to 23, without incident.
It was during the public performances on the morning of May 24, when the artists set up on the north side of the moat outside Mandalay Palace, that the police intervened and put a stop to the event. Police officers initially only arrested the three local organizers, artists Moe Satt, Maung Ni Oo and Suu Myint Thein; however, officers later located the other artists and brought them to the station as well. In a witness report, circulated via e-mail to raise awareness of the incident, Rahmat Haron, one of the Malaysian artists, explained that the police officers, some in plainclothes, failed to inform the detained artists of their charges, or even introduce themselves. Some reports suggest the arresting officers were more curious about the nature and purpose of performance art than the charges brought against the artists. “The police asked about the meaning of our performances. Moe Satt acted as interpreter,” wrote Haron. American artist Chelsea Heike, who performed and was deported with the group of foreigners, noted on her Facebook page: “They ask us about our performance. It is all relatively cordial. What was your performance about? What about the mat? . . . Everyone is questioned. . . There is no electricity, no fan, and it is mid-afternoon. We are there for what seems like a few hours.”
After being held all day, the foreign artists were escorted to Yangon International Airport in a van—an overnight journey—and put on a plane back to Malaysia. Throughout the entire journey, officers and attendants held the artists’ confiscated passports. Only after further delay upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur International Airport were the artists returned their passports, to find they had been freshly stamped “deportee.”
The five Myanmar artists who performed in Mandalay—Moe Satt, Maung Ni Oo, and Suu Myint Thein, the organizers, Lwin Maung and Aung Myat Htai—as well as Ma Ei and Nge Lay, who were billed but did not have the chance to perform, are all being accused of violating Section 11 of the 1964 Library, Museum and Exhibition Monitoring Act, allegedly because they did not obtain the appropriate permit for a public performance. The artists could be fined 2,000 kyat (about USD 2) or be charged with as many as three years in prison. None of the artists, nor, reportedly, some of the police officers involved, had ever heard of this particular law. Maung Ni Oo commented to the local Irrawaddy newspaper, “Even the police second lieutenant who charged us said he had to spend the whole night going through the law books to find it [the law] so he could press charges.”
The sudden enforcement of such an obscure law perhaps was brought on by increased policing in the area due to massive recent protests, which began the week before the performance event. From the evening of May 20, crowds of people gathered in the streets of Mandalay, later supported by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi—recently elected to Myanmar’s parliament—to protest chronic power outages that have plagued the city, which already receives only limited electricity. On May 24, the public art performance had only begun an hour earlier, yet a large crowd of people had gathered, blocking lanes of traffic and attracting the attention of police officers, who were already on high alert.
Meanwhile, updates from Moe Satt’s Facebook page read like a Beckett play—a seemingly never-ending series of court summons and subsequent cancellations, repeated interviews with the police, and notices of the case file being passed from one nameless hand to another; waiting for a verdict that will, hopefully, come sooner than Beckett’s Godot.
These recent arrests, and the still uncertain fate of the seven local artists, reveal that the promise of recent elections, and the optimism they have encouraged in international business and political circles, have yet to truly effect change on the ground.