- Myanmar’s ‘Spiderman’
As protests against the military coup d’état spread across Myanmar, younger generations have added the element of humor to public outcries against the Tatmadaw (the military). Through the use of widely recognizable cultural symbols and home-made signs, these protesters have effectively located the violent and undemocratic move of the generals within the realm of fun and ridicule. Such tactics are not new. Instead, humor has a longstanding presence in social movements across the globe.
The protests in Myanmar began soon after the Tatmadaw detained members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government and scores of parliamentarians and activists in an early-morning putsch on February 1, ending a decade-long, limited democratic opening. The army claimed the NLD’s November 2020 election win had been marred by irregularities and declared a one-year state of emergency. Outrage over Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing’s brutal power grab quickly turned to public action, with medical personnel initiating strikes under the banner of a ‘Civil Disobedience Movement’ and within days demonstrations became widespread across the country.
Highly diverse and massive in scale, the protests also quickly stood out for their unique creativity and displays of mockery of the army – with protestors carrying humorous messages such as, “My ex is bad but the Myanmar military is worse” and “I want a relationship, not a dictatorship.” In Yangon’s streets, (shirtless) bodybuilders, newly-wed couples and various superheros were seen voicing their dissent, as did a group of youths who rocked to a techno beat while carrying a coffin for the junta leader. These colorful protesters have been propelled by an angered Generation Z for whom tech-savviness, online activism and humor are important weapons – much like the youthful pro-democracy protestors in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which led some to dub this an online regional ‘Milk Tea Alliance’ with shared symbols.
Previous scholarship offers interesting insight as to the political work that humor does under conditions of adversity. Context and positionality certainly matters for unpacking the meaning of humor: just consider the many ‘inside jokes’ that you may not have understood, when humor is used as a ‘social corrective’ or for maintaining social hierarchies. Yet, the inherent ambiguity of humor has been found to offer a shield for those that seek to challenge authoritarianism or violent oppression. When something is humorously framed, it is often hard to distinguish between what is real or not real, allowing us to play with contrasts, contradictions and absurdity. Even in its most aggressive forms, and no matter how serious the message is, humor tends to signal a degree of innocence, hinting at power to not take the message – or the messenger – too seriously (it was, after all, “only a joke!”). In demonstrations against the junta in Myanmar we see many examples of protesters effectively playing with this contrast between innocence and seriousness. What should the Tatmadaw, for example, make of the young man holding a sign that reads: “Dear Min Aung Hlaing, How are you? I hope you are tall. As for me, I am 5’ 8’’”? He is mocking the general, surely. The question is, about what?
But is it really politically productive to joke about matters as serious as a military coup? Studying humor as nonviolent resistance, Majken Jul Sorensen suggests that it is exactly because oppression is such a serious matter that the use of humor is so effective – particularly for altering the discussion around what is going on. This, we would argue, is precisely what we have seen happen in Myanmar over the past weeks. As people show up to demonstrations dressed in full princess, ghost or Spiderman attire, they are changing the conversation around the coup. The fact that the meaning of these moves are not immediately legible to those in power may make them even more effective, as they (intentionally or unintentionally) mimic the absurdity of violence and the conditions that it fosters in everyday life. Similarly, and following the work of Achille Mbembe, the many signs we have seen in Myanmar that include graphic language and references to sex, do not simply tell us that young people find it amusing to use obscenity to mock officialdom – but they also mirror how the obscene is central to officialdom itself.
What is important about these humorous, confusing and sometimes obscene gestures, is thus that they hold the potential to disrupt the mythologies of power that the military junta so heavily relies on. Through their actions, young people on the streets of Myitkyina, Hakha, Yangon, Taungoo, Thandwe, Mandalay and elsewhere are sending a message to the generals that they are no longer in control of the narrative. In her fascinating work on humor in Palestine, Lisa Bhungalia suggests that in the context of violent oppression we can conceptualise humorous responses as a form of refusal: “a refusal to normalize conditions of subjugation”. To mock the generals is thus to tell them: you may claim to be in power but “your power has no authority over me”.
As we have seen in the demonstrations across Myanmar, humor has also worked as a contagious form of courage that has fostered solidarity and inspired the participation of diverse groups of people to use varied forms of expression. From grandmothers to drag queens, textile workers, pregnant women to punks, and artists to civil servants (including some policemen), individuals identifying with a range of ethnic backgrounds and religious belief have taken to the streets. This widespread representation and solidarity is significant in a land where historical grievances between different ethnic groups have been manipulated by successive military regimes in order to justify its Bamar-majority, nationalist ideology. In the words of ethnic Shan artist and activist, Ying Tzarm: “It is so encouraging to see photos and videos of all ethnic groups, all generations, all genders getting together, holding hands, singing together, and chanting their voices”.
Demonstrations laced with humour have emerged, therefore, not only as a platform unifying the people of Myanmar in their widespread rejection of military dictatorship. A politics of disavowal appears to be emerging—whereby longstanding but consistently neglected ethnic voices rejecting post-independence centralized politics in favour of genuine federal democracy, appear to be gaining traction. Pro-democratic solidarity has even begun to bridge the anti-Muslim sentiment that has violently resurfaced in Myanmar in recent years. Rohingya refugees are expressing pro-democracy support from Cox’s Bazaar and a protestor in Yangon held a sign saying “I really regret about Rohingya crisis”. A satirical Twitter account, @Soupnotcoup Tweeted: This bowl of soup wants to be clear about something: Our recipe includes the Rohingya. It includes all our brothers and sisters, everywhere in this Golden Land and beyond.
The Myanmar people’s resilience and creativity – including through laughter and displays of mockery - can be seen then as not only a definitive rejection of the army’s decades-long dictating of social life, but also as a productive political force with the potential to bring about genuinely inclusive politics in celebration of the country’s rich diversity.
In recent days, as tensions rose amid internet shutdowns and growing army deployments, this humorous defiance was still on show in a online viral video in which a man mocks hapless soldiers who are trying to restart a broken-down tank in central Yangon. “Do you need help pushing?” he says to the laughter of bystanders, adding later, “If you are learning to drive, don’t drive in downtown!”
This blog post results from an ongoing conversation between scholars at the University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies about Myanmar’s coup the d’état. In our efforts to analyze various aspects of the coup, we will also organize several online events that focus on its impacts on the civil society and media landscape, and inter-ethnic relations.
Anja Franck, associate professor, studies migration from Myanmar to Malaysia, with a particular interest in the social and spatial tactics that people employ – including the use of humor – to navigate borders in everyday life. She is (sort of) on Twitter @anja_franck.
Alicia de la Cour Venning, research fellow, is concerned with understanding state violence and the nature of grassroots resistance that emerges in response to structural criminality, with a particular focus on ethnic politics in Myanmar. She Tweets sporadically @avdelacour.
Paul Vrieze is a doctoral student who conducts research on Myanmar’s political situation and minority rights. Prior to this, he worked in Myanmar as a journalist and with the U.N. Refugee Agency. He is on Twitter @Paul_Vrieze.