From corner kick to self-censorship

Cartoonist Kyaw Thu Yein poses for photo at the Nobel-Myanmar Literary Festival held recently in Yangon.

In light of last month's attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo‘s Paris offices that left 12 people dead, the French Institute of Myanmar held a discussion followed by a workshop on editorial cartooning in Yangon on January 23.  Noted cartoonist Kyaw Thu Yein, one of the panelists at the seminar, shares his personal thoughts on how far editorial cartoonists can go within the justifiable boundaries of press freedom in this exclusive interview with Myanmar Eleven

What did your talk focus on?

Sayar (teacher) Aw Pi Kyeh and I discussed about press freedom in relation to the murder of cartoonists in France with a French photographer and an official from the French Institute.

What was the French view on the issue?

Myanmar cartoons are not as transparent as French cartoons yet. They have received more press freedom than before. In accordance with Myanmar culture and custom, we can't draw characters in the nude yet. At the current stage, the French take the view that editorial cartoons have become more transparent to an extent than in the past.

How far can you go as a cartoonist?

They asked us about censorship and self-censorship and how the cartoonists decide what to draw and what not to draw.  Well, it's not the same for everyone. In our country, it's still difficult to draw they way they do in France. Sometimes we want to draw them, but it's inappropriate from our country’s cultural standpoint. Local cartoonists have to opt for voluntary self-censorship. We need to be very careful when we draw a cartoon about religion because it could be misinterpreted even though we want to draw from a constructive point of view. As press cartoons are still gathering momentum, we need to exercise a bit of self-censorship for self-development.

Any plans to participate in international cartoon organisations?

They told me that they had been planning to hold discussions and workshops with Myanmar cartoonists next year. They will contact an organisation in France called Cartoonist for Peace to host this programme. I don't know the details.

What's your view on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy?

This magazine has always featured satirical cartoons about religions and extremists. They're very brave and transparent. They have received many threats. As a cartoonist, I respect their bravery. I denounce the terrorist attack.

To what extent do editorial cartoons reflect freedom in Myanmar?

I believe it has become developed to some extent. I'm satisfied with the current position. It's like an example given by Sayar Aw Pi Kyeh. In the past, drawing cartoons was like taking a 'corner kick' in a football match. We need to think how to get across [our message] to the reader. Now it's more like 'offside' players. We're a little worried about this. If we could, we want to play freely. When we create cartoons, we try to balance the public's desires with what should be appropriately done. So I believe we have made some progress in our journey.

How has the feedback been from the reader?

The reader supports the cartoons because they reflect what's happening in the minds of the people. They love the cartoons because they can highlight some issues in the news.

What's the role of press cartoonists?

Myanmar cartoonists have not taken the risk the way the French cartoonists have. They are still ‘walking a tightrope'. They are afraid that they will trip over.

Do you think there has been an increase in editorial cartoons [as featured in local media]?

There have been more editorial cartoons now. The editorial cartoons have gotten better lately in terms of creativity and style. Some of the cartoons are even catching up with international ideas. I have also seen more caricatures. 

What’s in prospect for editorial cartooning?

The number of cartoonists has increased and their handiwork has also become better. It’s satisfying to see the rise of such kind of great cartoonists. I expect their ideas and handiwork to become better in the future.