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Thangyat is a traditional form of entertainment performed for Burma’s New Year Thingyan Water Festival (taking place this week), made up of chanted satirical sketches with dance and percussion. The performances highlight all the things that went wrong in the past year, in the hope of avoiding repeating the same mistakes in the year to come. Thangyat was banned by the military government after the uprising in 1988 and was kept alive in exile before being allowed back last year.
Thangyat troupes, which can be up to 70 people strong, compete for cash prizes in heats leading up to the festival. The finalists perform on the main stage and the winner is announced on New Year’s Day. This year Sky Net, a new independent TV company, has sponsored the Thangyat competition and will broadcast it nationwide.
Sky Net required all participating teams to submit their scripts or videos of their work so they could vet the material. Index met members of one troupe that had been banned from taking part.
The performers we met from the banned troupe believed Sky Net was more sensitive to political satire than the government, and were shocked and angry at being excluded. They thought that they had been banned for the generally political nature of their performance, rather than because they ventured into particular no-go zones. The troupe is going ahead with their performance anyway but their shows will not be broadcast; they are making their own documentary instead.
In Mandalay pre-censorship remains in the hands of city authorities and when I was there earlier in the week the first ever all-woman Thangyat ensemble was waiting to hear back from the censors. The women are teachers and students from a college in the city who have formed a group to preserve Burmese traditions — in particular traditional dress for women.
I was lucky enough to see an early rehearsal of this group, which took place in a monastery in a strange wilderness district of the city where huge, gated mansions mainly built for the Chinese buyers, are springing up around the monastery compound. The women, accompanied for the rehearsal by two percussionists, were working in an ornate communal building without walls and very young monks crowded in to hear the women rehearse.
Their performance is a passionate litany of biting satire that highlights the threats to Burmese culture, traditional life-style, and environment from business interests, with Chinese influence particularly targeted. The contentious Letpadaung Copper Mine, deforestation and the suspended Myetsone damn project were all targets. I heard that they are determined to perform their show as it is, whatever the censors say.
That Thangyat will be part of the celebrations again after 25 years is a sign of the times — and reveals the opening up of space for freedom of expression in Burma. But the fact that the comeback is being so closely scrutinised by both political and corporate interests illustrates the power of Thangyat to hit where it hurts.
As government pre-censorship is to some extent loosening its grip on arts and entertainment in Burma, as it appears to be, it is interesting to see corporate censorship stepping comfortably into its shoes. And as corporate censorship is a global phenomenon, it is something that artists all over the world, not just here in Burma, are increasingly concerned about.