Burma: Performance artists arrested in Mandalay

Last week I was on phone with Maung Ni Oo, Burmese poet, performance artist and one of the directors  of Mandalay Contemporary Art Centre (MCAC).

He explained that he and Suu Myint Thein — another performance artist and director of MCAC — had recently returned from a performance exchange programme in Kuala Lumpur and planned to recreate part of the programme in downtown Mandalay, as part of the performance festival Beyond Pressure.

Maung Ni Oo’s decision followed a dramatic series of events in Mandalay two days ago, as protesters demanded more electricity supplies in Mandalay division in the biggest street protest in Burma since 2007.  Special police questioned  more than 50 demonstrators for a few hours including writer Nyi Pu Lay from MCAC, and then halted the movement until the new government offered a reaction.

Maung Ni Oo was concerned about doing the street performance.  I worried for them too. I know how difficult it is to do street performance in Burma. I was questioned for five days after participating in a street performance with artist Chaw Ei Thein in Yangon in May 2005.

Yesterday afternoon I heard that Maung Ni Oo, Suu Myint Thein and Moe Satt were arrested and questioned during their morning performance, along with a number of other foreign performance artists (three Malaysian, one Australian).

I called their mobiles, but I couldn’t reach them.

Eventually, I got in touch with Maung Ni Oo at 5pm (GMT) and he confirmed they were all released after a few hours.

Their morning performance began at 8am near the moat on the east side of the palace and they planned to move to U Bein Bridge in the afternoon.  They only did an hour or two’s performance in the morning and big crowds gathered to watch.  They did not have permission for a street performance, which is difficult to apply for in Burma. The District Police Chief interviewed Moe Satt, another –performance artist and director of Beyond Pressure Festival.

Similarly to when I was arrested, the police asked questions about the foreign artists.  They asked about performance art so the artists explained what they did and showed the police officers their websites.  The Chief Police Officer called the immigration officer and ordered the deportation of the foreign artists.  The immigration officer refused, which is unusual.  He said the artists were doing nothing wrong according to immigration procedures.  So in the end the police released them all, but Maung Ni Oo, Suu Myint Thein and Moe Satt had to sign a document to say they wouldn’t participate in any further street performance.

The artists were also recorded videos of the questioning, so perhaps they will use this is in a future artwork? If they do, I think they will do it in Mingun, Suu Myint Thein’s hometown.