When the Myanmar artist Htein Lin was in jail in Mandalay in 2000, he and fellow inmates read news in a smuggled magazine of a solar eclipse. They knew they had no chance of seeing it, and rarely saw the sun anyway from their cell. But, using the wheel of a cigarette lighter, toothpicks and medicine bottle caps, Htein Lin was moved to produce one of his prison paintings, “Eclipse”. The canvas was cloth from a white prison uniform.
“It struck me that our lives as political prisoners were like an eclipse,” he would later write. One minute he had a successful acting and artistic career, “the next minute the darkness of a cell”.
The 54-year-old, who as a student joined the 1988 uprising against the military dictatorship, and later endured torture and imprisonment, has lived through enough of Myanmar’s history to see the sun of political and artistic freedom come out, only for darkness to draw in again.
When I connect with him on the messaging app Signal, after struggling with dropped calls and frozen screens, he has something urgent to say. “We are in a revolution again,” he tells me, emphasising the word a new generation of youth rebels are using in their uprising against last month’s military coup by General Min Aung Hlaing.
After a democratic interlude that lasted less than a decade, Myanmar is confronting a new junta — and a new rebellion, led by young people demanding the restoration of their stolen democracy and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and others arrested since February 1.
On the day we have lunch in early March, security forces kill 38 people, in one of Myanmar’s bloodiest days since the coup. A few kilometres from where Htein Lin is sitting in Yangon, troops open fire, killing at least six, with police caught on CCTV bludgeoning medics with gun butts and clubs. In Mandalay, 19-year-old Kyal Sin dies of a gunshot wound to the head, wearing a T-shirt reading “Everything will be OK”. Pictures of her and other casualties are later strung over the road in Sanchaung, the Yangon neighbourhood where the artist lives and is having lunch.
Htein Lin, who has shaggy black hair, glasses and the questing mien of a university lecturer, is eating in Joitamoi, a fine dining restaurant run by an activist he met in exile in the UK. Like Thailand, where I live, Myanmar has been shut to most international visitors during the Covid-19 pandemic. I am dining on simpler fare at Mandalay Food House, a workmen’s joint in a Bangkok back alley, whose window is plastered with a huge print of Aung San Suu Kyi. The place is buzzing, filled with Burmese migrants — some of the at least 1.6m who live in Thailand and are following events at home anxiously.
Htein Lin was studying law at Rangoon Arts and Sciences University (today the University of Yangon) during the student uprising of 1988 — or, as he puts it, “the first time in my life revolution came to me”.
“We grew up under a socialist government,” he says. “We were demanding democracy without knowing what democracy was.”
The threadbare, corrupt Burma of General Ne Win, who ruled from his 1962 coup until he was forced out, was ripe for revolt. The uprising began in 1988 with broad support and high hopes, and coincided with Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to her homeland after long years in exile. But it was crushed after the coup that toppled Ne Win, when troops began shooting at crowds and violently breaking up protests, opening a period of repression that was to last more than two decades.
Htein Lin fled with other students across the Indian border. “We were hoping to get help from the Indian government,” he says. “We thought this big, democratic society would help us, but it did not happen.”
The frustration mirrors that of today’s protesters. Expressions of outrage and solidarity have poured in from around the world, but have not been matched by concrete help. Many in Myanmar want the UN to invoke its Responsibility to Protect principle, which the Security Council used to justify the 2011 intervention against Muammer Gaddafi’s Libyan regime — though few believe it will.
In a camp for Burmese refugees just over the border, Htein Lin met Sitt Nyein Aye, an artist who gave him an apprenticeship in modern art, a forbidden topic under Burma’s socialist regime. Htein Lin had always had an artistic bent, performing comedy as a student in a traditional performing arts troupe. Now, he found himself enraptured by his mentor’s stories about Van Gogh’s use of the colour yellow and transformation of bitter life experience into immortal art.
“He had never seen an actual Picasso or Van Gogh painting, but he had seen photographs,” he says. Learning about art without having seen it, Htein Lin says, “was like trying to understand democratic society without being in it”.
As he talks, he is tucking into the second of six courses in Yangon. In Bangkok, I have ordered tea leaf salad, my favourite Burmese dish, and Shan tofu noodles.
Htein Lin began doing illustrations for a political magazine distributed in the camp and beyond, but wanted to do more. As India became less welcoming of the student exiles, he headed to northern Kachin state to join the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front. This group had guns, but limited ammunition. “Only about 40 bullets, then you had to run,” Htein Lin recalls.
It must have been terrifying, I say. “Yes,” Htein Lin agrees. “But we thought revolution was like a Hollywood movie.” The students were enraptured with the film Rambo, and stories they read about Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. In reality, they struggled with malaria and hunger. At one point, they spent an entire rainy season in flight.
Htein Lin reached the ABSDF camp in Pajau at the Chinese border in 1991, in time for the culmination of a horrific internecine power struggle in the group. A rival faction accused his group of being spies. They tortured them with electric shocks, beatings and burns from knives heated in the fire.
“I have had many experiences of torture, but that one was the worst of my life,” Htein Lin says. He and others managed to escape to China but the Chinese turned them over to the Burmese army, who spared them as their tale of torture was a useful propaganda tool.
What did he take away from it all, I ask. “An understanding of how people get bad with power,” he says. “It was quite an important experience in my life.”
86B Shin Saw Pu, Yangon
Lunch set menu
Mini Caesar salad
Yoghurt beetroot velouté with walnut crouton
Tartare of Myanmar yellowfin tuna
Chicken and foie gras ravioli
Braised Australian beef brisket with potato purée
Chocolate and strawberry
Tax 5% (not charged in support of the civil disobedience movement)
Total 45,000 kyat ($32)
Mandalay Food House
Phetchaburi Road, Ratchathewi, Bangkok
Garlic pear leaf salad 80 baht
Shan tofu 70 baht
Tea leaf salad 70 baht
Fried fish fillets 120 baht
Water x 2 30 baht
Hot tea 30 baht
Tax 7% – 28 baht
Tip 100 baht
Total 528 baht ($17.20)
For a man who has endured so much, Htein Lin has a healthy appetite and an endearing belly laugh, which he deploys when I remark on the feast he is having in Yangon. My tea leaf salad is good — fermented leaves punctuated with crunchy seeds and garlic — but my tofu noodles are in a stodgy sauce, so I order some fried fish.
After seeing friends die in the jungle, Htein Lin says, he realised “you can die any time because life is so fragile”. He recalled the story of Van Gogh, who ended his own life but achieved immortality nonetheless. “Even though he died, his name stayed.”
Back in Yangon, Htein Lin resumed his law studies, but was now set on becoming an artist. He began to experiment with abstract expressionism, a safe choice to avoid the regime’s censors. He also dabbled in street satire and performance art, covering his mouth with tape or carrying a paintbrush planted in a flowerpot — Htein Lin raises his knife to illustrate this — and wrapping it in barbed wire.
In 1998 he was arrested when authorities intercepted a letter naming him as a potential participant in an event planned to mark the 10th anniversary of the 1988 uprising (in fact, he says, he had no plans to take part). Sentenced to seven years in jail, he began drawing, first on walls, floors or stray bits of paper. Some of the guards recognised him from amateur films he had performed in, and he was able to wangle white cotton uniforms, soap and other materials to make art. He would produce thousands of paintings and monoprints on a range of cultural and allegorical themes, as well as depicting prison life: inmates in cells, returning from labour camps, or showing hands they had maimed to avoid the camps. “Whatever I saw inside prison, I painted,” he says.
On his release he returned to Yangon, and in 2005 mounted a clandestine exhibition of his prison paintings. Vicky Bowman, then Britain’s ambassador, was captivated by them, but worried they would be found and destroyed. She helped to ship them out of the country. The two became friends, then fell in love.
On a trip to London, Htein Lin visited the National Gallery, his first ever art museum, and saw Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”, which his teacher had told him about in the camp. “All the memories came back to my mind,” he says. He proposed to Bowman by doing a performance art sand drawing on a beach in Cornwall. The two wed in 2006 and moved to London when Bowman’s post ended.
Two years after Aung San Suu Kyi was freed in 2010, beginning Myanmar’s fitful democratic transition, Htein Lin and Bowman returned to Yangon. He began bumping into his former fellow prisoners, now free men, some of whom would later become National League for Democracy MPs or ministers. “It was like a big reunion on the street,” he says. He began work on “A Show of Hands”, one of his best-known works, casting ex-prisoners’ hands in plaster and collecting their stories. While the piece, with its grasping, mute limbs, strikes me as unbearably bleak, in his telling it is uplifting, restorative. “Political prisoners are like that,” he says. “The country and history are broken piece by piece.” But, he adds, returning political prisoners helped to rebuild Myanmar, just as plaster heals a limb.
Htein Lin explored a range of contemporary issues in his art. In “Skirting the Issue”, he took on a superstition according to which men cannot wash their clothes with women’s sarongs nor walk under them, or risk losing their masculine power. While he faced a backlash from conservatives, the work proved prescient, as young female protesters this month weaponised the taboo, stringing their skirts over Yangon’s streets to taunt troops. Htein Lin says he is pleased to see it become “a peaceful protest tactic to mess with the minds of superstitious soldiers”.
The time has come for me to ask about Aung San Suu Kyi. It is a sensitive topic to raise given she is under arrest, and her mandate has been robbed by the regime. After being idolised for long years in the west, she was widely condemned overseas for failing to confront the horrific military action against the Rohingya Muslim minority in 2011, which killed thousands and sent about 740,000 fleeing. But the 75-year-old is still adored by most Burmese.
Htein Lin describes the Rohingya crisis as “a really sad affair”, and says the Buddhist extremists who cheered it on “are not really Buddhists”. “They use religion as a political tool,” he says. While Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government “did lots of good things”, he criticises her decision to travel to The Hague in 2019, when she defended Myanmar in the International Court of Justice’s genocide case. “She should not have gone,” he says. “It damaged our image.”
On the day of the coup, Htein Lin got early word of what was happening from a journalist. After the regime cut off internet and phones, “I thought, ‘this is really happening’”. He was “so angry”. “It’s like trying to go back to 20 years ago,” he says.
From anger, he has been spurred to action. In the seven weeks since the coup, Myanmar’s people have risen up, led by young people in their teens and early 20s. The military have responded by bringing to the cities the battlefield tactics familiar to people in its ethnic minority states, spraying gunfire into flats, conducting mass arrests, and inflicting enough fatal head wounds to make clear they were shooting to kill.
In recent days, some formerly peaceful protesters have begun arming themselves with firebombs, Yangon’s Chinese garment factories have been set on fire amid anger at Beijing’s diplomatic equivocation over the coup, and the crisis has taken on the ominous feel of a war — albeit one where the sides are tragically mismatched.
One of the compensations of entering one’s 50s is having seen enough history to draw wisdom from it, while stepping back and letting younger people take a leading role. Htein Lin has joined Generation Z protests, following by bike rather than on foot. “I am no longer a student like them, they can run faster than me from gunfire,” he says.
He voices admiration for the protesters’ “energy, bravery and creativity”. The kind of political art he once produced painstakingly by hand is now generated and traded at speed and electronically.
Before our interview, I see a photo of Htein Lin raising his hand in the three-finger salute, taken from the teen warriors of The Hunger Games, popularised by youth democracy protesters in Thailand last year and adopted in Myanmar now. Htein Lin tells me he is gathering images of the gesture and hopes to create a video installation from them. He has also been producing new artworks — from, notably, pots and pans, which protesters have been banging to protest against the junta.
“This story is not the end,” he tells me. “As an artist I survived, even in prison, even in solitary confinement, and now even in this stupid dictatorship.”
I ask him whether he thinks the revolution can succeed despite forbidding odds.
“One way or another we have to,” he says. “We can’t go backwards.”
John Reed is the FT’s south-east Asia correspondent
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