Welcome back to Undertones, where we analyze narratives from around the world. This week, we’ll cover Myanmar’s celebrity culture and its role in politics. My name is Eddie Lwyn, a Burmese independent researcher.
As part of my Civic Media Observatory research, I delved into Myanmar’s pop culture and found major narratives that have yet to be covered in-depth by mainstream media, perhaps due to the seemingly superficial nature of the topic. Yet, the entertainment industry has a lot to say about the state of the country.
In February 2021, the military staged a coup d’etat against the civilian government. What ensued were nationwide protests, civil strikes in the form of the Civil Disobedience Movement, arrests of whoever was suspected of supporting democracy, violent military crackdowns, and the subsequent formation of the People’s Defence Force, an armed resistance to fight off the military regime. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, “[the military junta] has killed 4,000 civilians, destroyed 75,000 civilian homes and infrastructures, displaced over 2 million people and driven 15 million into food insecurity” since the coup.
Every aspect of the country’s life was disrupted, including the entertainment industry. Movie theatres were shut down, and cultural productions came to a halt. Famous actors and singers who spoke out against the regime were put on warrant lists and arrested. They were later released in order to “participate in nation-building with their art” according to junta-owned media. It is also a common belief that artists must sign pledges promising to refrain from talking about politics and are forced to attend public events. A few celebrities had to flee the country for their safety.
Almost three years into the coup, it is fascinating to look at what’s left of the arts and entertainment industry – and how it reflects ongoing politics. With Myanmar set to be the host country for Miss Grand International, an international beauty pageant with more than 60 contestants, in 2024, social media users sparked a conversation about how the military is trying to normalize its strict rule.
The entertainment industry was extremely stagnant the first year following the coup. Most A-list celebrities remained under the radar after being arrested or put on military watchlists. This provided an opportunity for new (and unknown) people to reach audiences, as entertainment channels such as “Myanmar Celebrity TV” needed a way to generate views and income. These newly found personalities were given the spotlight for the most mundane activities, resulting in a common joke under the comments section of these videos – “Is there anyone Myanmar Celebrity hasn’t interviewed?”
Groundbreaking or not, these Facebook videos are now getting hundreds of thousands of views and reactions, and many argue that they are distracting people from the military violence at hand. Less and less people are posting about politics. This is also due to the fact that the military have arrested people for social media posts.
Singers and actors are not the only branch of entertainment industry seeing a boom. More and more interest is given to beauty pageants, too. In October, the official Miss Universe Myanmar page posted a country introduction video, portraying Myanmar as a peaceful and serene country, ignoring the harsh realities people continue to face. Another beauty competition garnering 69 country representatives, Miss Grand International, is also stirring controversy, especially as Myanmar is set to host next year’s contest. People expressed concern over the implications it would have in portraying the country as normal and functional.
This Facebook post announces that the 12th edition of Miss Grand International will be held in Myanmar in 2024, with famous male model Htoo Arnt Lwin as National Director.
The news caused a public outcry on social media, with people stating that this would contribute to the military's normalization tactics to portray Myanmar as a peaceful and functional country.
Some people mocked the event by saying, ‘Good luck to the safety of the contestants,’ and ‘Let's hope the electricity stays on during the ceremony.’ Others in the comment section supported the event.
Military-affiliated figures are also directly involved in the entertainment industry. An example would be 7th Sense, a famous production house co-founded in 2017 by the daughter of coup leader Min Aung Hlaing. When the coup started, people called to boycott every military-affiliated businesses, including 7th Sense. However, the production company rebranded itself at least seven times since then, under names such as “SM Winner”, “V7”, and “W Entertainment”.
Pro-democracy supporters point out that 7th Sense and other initiatives are a conscious effort by the regime and its affiliates to keep people distracted from the coup. The Facebook page “People’s Spring”, which shares views of pro-democracy activists, says that these entrepreneurial efforts are not for financial gain; for example, these companies do not enforce copyright laws as films and shows are published on social media.
The military regime has co-opted the entertainment industry in an attempt to portray a normal state of affairs despite recurring conflicts between the military rule and the People’s Defense Force across the country and a staggering economic crisis. For many, it’s a display of dissonance.
In May this year, the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization – which works hand in hand with the Ministry of Information, under junta rule – organized the Motion Picture Academy Awards ceremony, an event equivalent to the Oscars in the West. It was the first event in three years due to the coup and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Military personnel gave speeches on the country’s thriving entertainment industry during the three-hour long ceremony, while amateur and established celebrities avoided talking about politics.
The Facebook page “Narinjara”, an e-mail news service based in Dhaka set up by Arakanese democratic activists, claims that artists were pressured to attend the Motion Picture Academy Awards ceremony in May 2023, the first in three years.
According to the first image, the military regime would have promised a golden brooch to former award winners to entice them to attend. This was confirmed by an actor in an interview with the military-owned media channel MITV.
The list of former winners did not include those who are in exile, such as Paing Phyo Thu and Min Maw Kun, but did include those who were recently freed from prison. The presence of these particular celebrities paints an image that they have now ‘come around’ to the military's side.
People made fun of these military tactics in the comments.
Other similar events include the Water Festival, Thingyan, which is also organized by the regime. Many believe that certain celebrities were also obligated to join.
Narratives on celebrities’ political involvement
In Myanmar, celebrities and audiences are debating the artist’s role in politics, and the standards they should be held to, if any. While some claim that celebrities should use their platform to speak out against the military regime, others argue that the fight for democracy should not rely on ‘superficial figures’. The two opposing narratives here are: “Myanmar celebrities should be politically active and speak out against the military regime” and “People in Myanmar should not rely on celebrities in the fight for democracy.”
Artists in exile continue to create work reflecting on life following the coup, and at home, celebrities have to adapt to life under the junta and censor themselves. What is certain is that celebrity culture is booming in Myanmar, with the rise of TV shows (as movie productions struggle), new artists, extravagant celebrity weddings and an overwhelming interest in beauty pageants. More discussions are likely to happen in 2024 with the Miss Grand International to be held in Yangon.