Local celebrities are in crisis! Just like our country is. They have been navigating their place in society in post-coup Myanmar, and things do not look good for some. This month, local celebrities, who once used their star power and supported the anti-regime protests, were seen participating in the regime-organized Thingyan festivities, and it became the talk of the town. While some supporters, who rooted for these celebrities for their anti-regime activities, show their disappointment, a few argue that they have the freedom to choose where they stand since it is their lives. Both views seem to be valid.
Now let’s rewind back to 2021. When the military staged the coup, the public including these celebrities showed their dissent. By May 2021, nearly 20 celebrities were detained and more than 100 public figures went into hiding to escape from the arrest warrants. Among the detained celebrities, model Paing Takhon, award-winning actress Eaindra Kyaw Zin and her husband Pyay Ti Oo, her nephew/star-on-the-rise May Toe Khine, and fashion blogger Win Min Than stood out for they have a great fanbase. When Paing Takhon was detained, his fans across the Southeast Asia region raised awareness online for the arbitrary arrest altogether with the illegal military coup. Other celebrities such as actresses Paing Phyo Thu and Chit Thu Wai, model Myat Noe Aye, and actors Min Maw Kun and Daung, who went into hiding and took refuge in liberated areas, were also applauded by the public for their bravery and commitment to the revolution. Comments on social media show that the public appreciates these celebrities, whether big-name superstars or micro-influencers, for standing together with them in the crisis, and sympathizes with the struggles that come with their anti-regime activism.
In 2022, the junta pardoned some of the detained superstars and lifted arrest warrants against some celebrities who were in hiding, allowing them to return to their homes. This is where things get interesting. Some of the stars who returned home continued to live their lives as they knew before the coup. They were seen attending promotional events, modeling in photo shoots, and starring in new films/TV shows. Having witnessed multiple massacres, the disheartened public questioned whether these celebrities should be living their lives as normal when villages were torched and people died. However, many also empathize with them since their livelihood depends on these activities. Regardless, the public did not fail to show their understanding toward these celebrities, especially those who were pardoned from prisons, assuming they might be in a certain predicament with the regime. Life seemed to be normal for them until this year’s Thingyan festival where model Paing Takhon, rappers G-Fatt, and Floke Rose showed up at the Thingyan festival pandal hosted by the military.
This whole discourse makes one question the relationship between artists/celebrities and society. Do they owe the public anything? Is there a social contract between artists/celebrities and society? Do they have a social responsibility?
Before going any further, one can argue why the public should care about celebrities who betray them because even without their endorsement, the revolution is in its momentum. It is true. However, it should be acknowledged that celebrities or social media influencers have a large number of followers on their respective platforms. This means that these celebrities, whether they are artists, musicians, actors, or Internet personalities, have the power to influence the masses and shape public opinion. Thus, their influence is majorly used by businesses to promote or advertise their products. In addition, major celebrities were also seen around Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when she was in power, and some of these celebrities also endorsed and campaigned for the National League for Democracy (NLD) during the brief period of democratization. These advertising deals and celebrity endorsements are visible proof of the influencing power that these local celebrities have. The power they hold over the masses is the reason why their position in post-coup Myanmar needs to be addressed especially at a time when the public has repeatedly shown their rejection of the military.
The moral predicament or dilemma that artists and celebrities face in times of political turmoil is not a new issue. In 1936, widely-celebrated writer Virginia Woolf wrote an essay “Why Art Today Follows Politics” in which she explored the relationship between artists and society. Woolf wrote that there is an unspoken understanding or “contract” between artists and society where artists separate themselves from politics to create artworks that are free from any kind of influence, and the society repays artists “a living wage” by giving them the privilege of being free from the politics. She mentioned that this understanding only worked in a peaceful time. Woolf then counterargued that even if such a “contract” exists, artists depend on society for their livelihood and that society is both “a paymaster” and “a patron” of artists. She explained that these patrons are rather “dictatorial” and they would only support artists whose artworks align with their social or moral values. This means that, in a time of crisis, artists who stand against the public will struggle to make ends meet. Another philosopher who echoed artists’ place in society was Nobel Laureate Albert Camus. In a lecture he gave in 1957, Camus discussed the expectation that the public had over artists. According to him, artists historically had the liberty to live and create any work of art as they pleased, but by the 1950s, they were expected to speak out their views in times of crisis. By giving writers as an example, Camus emphasized that their silence had “dangerous implications” and they were “vociferously blamed” for their silence. Both Woolf and Camus stated that artists had the liberty to separate their lives from current affairs only in a peaceful time.
When reflecting upon what Woolf and Camus discussed, the montage of Myanmar celebrities at the beginning of the coup played in one’s mind. Protesters felt encouraged when artists and celebrities joined the pro-democracy movement. They applauded when celebrities gave speeches at big rallies. They also called out on certain artists who remained silent about the military coup. The public showed their disappointment by unfollowing these artists’ social media accounts and not supporting businesses that they endorsed. This is what Woolf meant by society being “dictatorial” to artists for not aligning their values with the public. This is what Camus meant by the artists being blamed for their silence because their silence can be interpreted as their support for the coup. It does seem as if a certain contract between artists and society that Woolf hypothesized exists.
Now on to the question of artists’ responsibility. Responsibility means holding someone accountable for his/her action, and as long as a person lives in society, he has to own up to his actions. It doesn’t require a person to be a public figure to be held accountable. A child must be held accountable if he is found guilty of bullying a classmate. A judge must be held accountable if he makes a mistake in reaching a verdict. Depending on the social status of a person, the impact of the responsibility varies. The bullying child can own up to his mistake by apologizing to the classmate and stopping the bullying. However, if the judge made an error, the lives of both the plaintiff and defendant were on the line. If the wrongful verdict was delivered, the judge needed more than an apology to rectify the mistake. The higher a person in the social hierarchy, the more impactful mistakes he/she can make, and the more responsibility is expected from that person. As it has been discussed in the earlier part, celebrities and artists hold millions of supporters who adore them, and they live a very public life where their actions are being perceived by millions of people. Hence, if they make any mistake, the impact is immense.
Myanmar is a country where military propaganda has always been a part of our daily consumption of media, where the ultra-nationalistic sentiment became too strong that it contributed to the military’s Rohingya genocide, and a country where the trust between diverse communities is all too fragile because of the decades of isolation and the military’s divide-and-rule tactic. This is a country where people with any level of fame and influence should be highly aware of how their actions impact society at large.
After making an appearance at the military’s festivities, rapper G-Fatt released a song in which he basically bemoaned how he became collateral damage in this political crisis as he attempted to justify his return to Yangon from exile. Before the song’s release, the public assumed that these celebrities must have been threatened and forced to show up at the event. Although people were disappointed, they did not take it as an offense because they knew that life under military rule was tricky. After the song’s release on social media, people perceived it as a slap to their faces and criticized G-Fatt for becoming a military mouthpiece.
In mid-April, three minor celebrities were arrested and pressed charges with sedition for showing their sympathy towards the Pazigyi Massacre on their Facebook accounts. This confirms that the current military regime is very sensitive, let alone tolerating criticisms. Human rights activists Moe Thway wrote on his social media, “I’m sure there are several celebrities and artists who stand with the public in this revolution. You don’t have to show your dissent towards the military publicly. Please show that you’re with us by staying away from the military and its affiliates in any capacity”. It is not a lot that he asked from celebrities, and many seem to agree with his request, which is not to become puppets of the military regime.
At the end of the day, the public looks forward to the end of the revolution, and the personal decision of celebrities whether to support the resistance or not depends on their moral consciousness. With or without their participation in the revolution, the public keeps moving forward with the spirit of resistance, and the revolution is accelerating with its momentum.
Let this essay be concluded with a quote from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who is well known for his political artworks.
“If anything, art is… about morals, about our belief in humanity. Without that, there simply is no art.”