8888: economies of protest


Sitt Nyein Aye, ‘In the Dark, All Cats are Black’, photocopied mass reproduction, 2002. [Copyright Sitt Nyein Aye: artistngaba@gmail.com]

Sitt Nyein Aye's magnetic illustration of his eponymous epic poem, drenched in dark humour, ‘In the Dark All Cats Are Black’, was made for one of the many publications he edited and published from makeshift set-ups of printing and copy machines. He has said about the poem, quoting Erasmus, “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, adding, “and if you can see normally, they will forcefully blind you.”

Galon Nee, front cover, 1988.

This saved page from the publication is particularly significant, carrying the date 8.8.88 made during the forty days without censorship, from 8 August to 18 September, 1988, before the military took power again. This page uncovered a whole history of such pamphlets, many hundreds of them that were published alongside this one; saved and hidden till last year. 

Sitt Nyein Aye worked on Galon Nee. It was a 20-page protest news-pamphlet, published every two days, and carried news of the uprising. Twenty-three thousand offset copies of the Galon Nee were further disseminated virally through photocopying machines. He made the magazines in a monastery, then as he fled the repercussion of the uprising, on photocopiers in the border forest towns and camps between India and Burma, in Manipur and Mizoram, and finally in Delhi, where he lived till last year, before moving to the US.  

Monastery from which Galon Nee was published.

For this first newspaper, I myself took the photographs, accumulated and wrote the news, edited, produced and published it. The printed numbers were 23,000 (half of the A4 size – 20 pages). They were printed with offset. The demands were up to more than this amount. The offset printing was not able to print more. 

The subsequent newspapers were assisted by my brothers, pupils, the cameramen, the journalists and others. With two telephones from Galon Nee, I had to be all ears to all news all the times. I had to administer a program for taking the news and the photographs. A mass of cameramen along with their cameras came to me. A pile of truly outstanding cartoons reached me. Space was not available to print all of them. There was a plan to print them separately. Articles were also pouring in. All the cartoonists and article writers were not well-known and famous individuals. No one knew them, who they were, but they were outstanding. As they could draw, write and open their hearts freely, all their creations were sensitive. Not even a word overlapped among them. Each and every individual had his or her own grievances towards the Ma-Sa-La government, had they not?

[This extract is from Sitt Nyein Aye's autobiography, translated by Ko Moe, Burma Information and Technology, New Delhi, for a forthcoming publication edited by Clark House.]

The technique of all these magazines, by him and by others (shown below), is that of scissors and glue, a pastiche of photograph, enlarged or diminished, photo-copied, cut out, and inserted among typed reportage and opinion, sometimes hand-written or drawn. The pamphlets have a certain aesthetic inseparable from their labour, from often clandestine, and always meagre means.  

Sitt Nyein Aye was one of the few people to take to the streets, and continue to march, the morning the military began firing in the streets, a protest that spread through the entire country. He had to cross over into India with other student leaders following the repercussions after the uprising. They were moved to Leikhum Camp, fenced in with barbed wire, unable to leave the camp for four months. In this camp, some refugees lost their morale, others made posters, some simulated rifle shooting practice with branches. Sitt Nyein Aye decided to teach art and made a book to teach it with, called, ‘Knowledge of the Fundamentals of Drawing’. 

Sitt Nyein Aye, ‘8888’, Acrylic on Canvas, 2011. Installation view of our exhibition 'I C U JEST' (an anagram for 'justice'), at Mandalay Hall in Fort Kochi during the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. 

The numbers ‘8888’ - the name of the protest that began on the 8th of August in 1988, twenty-five years today - are the foundational ground of the painting by Sitt Nyein Aye, a distorted, and terrifying remembrance, of the faces of people, the clashes of guns and civilian protesters, made 22 years later, from books, photographs and memory:

Around 1 p.m. in the afternoon, the sound of Whil-Whil-Whil aroused the people to go out and look. Ah! A group of young students were marching. A girl holding a flagstaff of the peacock flag was in a front. Next to her, there was a flag with the phase ‘Give us democracy Now’. Then two young students, in sequence, were holding up pictures of General Aung San and Takhin Ko Thaw Mhain ahead of them and nearly thirty to forty youths were following them. Such was not much. All of their faces and mouths were covered by handkerchiefs. During 26 years, such demonstrations on the road had never ever occurred, so that this was something unusual for the people. The roads sides were crowded with the people who came out of their homes and watched them and supported them by clapping and shouting. For marching against the government, they could be arrested and they could even die anytime. They were the first to march on the road, and with their bravery.

Soon after, I was with them together. Marching from Road No. 30 and when the march arrived at Road No. 80, it was gradually accompanied by the people more and more. No slogan was shouted. It was the silent march. However, their bravery to march was as though they were shouting and putting the people on the alert. Then, when the march arrived at the center of Mandalay, the people in a line following us had become so long, at hailing distance.

This was the outlook of the eighth of August that began the democracy movement in Mandalay.

[This extract is from Sitt Nyein Aye's, biography, translated by Ko Moe, Burma Information and Technology, New Delhi.]