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Over nearly five decades of censorship, critics of Burma’s successive military governments were left with precious few avenues to voice dissatisfaction with the status quo. U Pe Thein was among the most prominent and influential Burmese cartoonists of the latter half of the 20th century, passing away in 2009 at the age of 85. To mark what would have been his 90th birthday, Rangoon’s Gallery 65 hosted a retrospective of his life’s work from 1- 3 February, his oeuvre having been meticulously catalogued and preserved by his widow, Daw Khin Lay Nwe.
Cartooning offered dissident artists a way of disseminating criticism that was at once ambiguous and seditious, and the work they left behind serves as important documentation of a paranoid era. Sneaking denunciations of the government past the censors was at once a point of pride, an act of duty, and a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with a regime singular in its desire to stamp out dissent.
Born in 1924, Pe Thein grew up in the politically tumultuous 1930s, enrolling at Rangoon University just before Burma achieved independence. He first gained professional recognition in the 1940s for his politically charged drawings in O-Way (The Peacock’s Call), the university’s student newspaper. During the socialist era ushered in after Ne Win’s coup of 1962, he was a regular contributor to Kyemon (The Mirror), the government’s daily newspaper, and designed its iconic red logo. He also illustrated comic books about Buddhism throughout his life.
Pe Thein and his socialist-era cohort were not the progenitors of cartooning in Burma. Early in life, he studied the craft under U Ba Galay, who is generally considered to be the “father” of Burmese cartooning. Ba Galay also was a noted comedian and actor in the nascent film industry of 1920s Burma, and among his most enduring creations is the minstrel character Shwe Yoe, which has retained popularity to this day across rural Burma.
In homage to his mentor, Pe Thein regularly incorporated Shwe Yoe into his works, employing him as a metaphor for cartooning, press freedom and political life under military rule. One of the larger pieces on display at the exhibition, a six-panel drawing of Shwe Yoe dating to 1971, serves as a case in point. It’s a prime example of how symbolism and allusion formed the foundation for cartoons as vehicles for criticism in a repressive political climate.
In the first frame, Shwe Yoe doesn’t appear to have a care in the world. He dances around merrily, swinging about his signature Pathein umbrella and clutching his chequered paso, a smile peeking out from beneath his bushy yellow moustache. As the images progress, he’s rendered totally immobile and his expression turns decidedly less content, seated in resignation as the red walls of the frame close in around him.
Pe Thein’s critical cartoons landed him in hot water with the authorities in the aftermath of the failed 1988 uprising against military rule. Burma’s reconstituted military junta slapped him with an eight-year publication ban, barring him from putting any new work into the public domain. According to his widow, his family barely scraped by on sales of Buddhist-themed comic books he had written and illustrated prior to 1988, as he was not allowed to publish anything new, politically-oriented or otherwise, following the publication ban.
After the ban was rescinded in 1996, he was once again allowed to publish in private journals, but was never again allowed to publish cartoons in the newspapers. He remained productive throughout this period, which means that many of the pieces on display at the exhibition had never before been seen in public.