The artist featured in this article has requested that his full name is withheld.
Maung grew up loving the countryside. Born in 1969 to a Karen mother and Shan father – two minority ethnic groups in eastern Myanmar – even now, as an adult, the Burmese artist finds peace in the simple movements of the natural world.
Almost every morning, Maung feeds the sparrows near his home in Mae Sot, a hub for Burmese migrants and refugees on the Thai border, with rice he buys at the market specifically for the birds.
But like the child depicted in one of his own favourite paintings, Maung’s appreciation for life’s simple pleasures was harshly interrupted in his youth. Despite his love of nature, the Burmese forests became something of a hell when he was younger, with the frantic barking of a village dog acting as a warning sign for advancing army patrols searing his early memories.
“Whenever terrible things happen, they go after the children first, even though children are not the source of the terrible things,” he says. “I did this painting because of the child’s eyes. His eyes encouraged me to do this painting. Still today, I cannot stare at his eyes without any emotion. His eyes send many messages.”
But in some ways, Maung is one of the lucky ones. He managed to get out of the village, start university and by his mid-twenties, leave Myanmar altogether.
Today, living in Thailand, Maung uses the medium of watercolour and words to exercise his trauma and express his feelings, with his paintings, many of which are inspired by photographs, acting as poignant vignettes of the everyday injustices of war.
His words and paintings – published in two books, On the Border (2006) and Still on the Border (2019) – focus on the people that war and poverty affect the most, yet whose lives are often hidden – the grandmothers, parents, daughters and sons that live in constant fear and uncertainty.
His most recent book, Still on the Border, is made up of 97 watercolour paintings, each accompanied by captions in the form of poetry, all written by Maung. Each story represents a feeling or experience from either his own life, or others that he knew.
“Art and me are the same,” says Maung. “My art is from my time.”
When asked which painting was his favourite, he replied that he thinks of his art the same way he would his children. “Parents love every one of their children. It’s not easy to choose which one of their children is their favourite.”
For Maung, one thing however, is certain. The devastation of war is all encompassing, and, in his eyes, there are no survivors.
“In war, everyone is affected. Some people may not die physically, but they die themselves [on the inside].”
In Maung’s presence, there is often a sense of melancholy. He is calm and engaged, but the pain isn’t buried too deep.
“When I came to [Mae Sot] Thailand, I felt depressed and lost. For around 15 years after leaving, I did not like my dreams. In the daytime, I can lie to myself, but at night, I cannot.”
Maung spent his childhood in a village in Karen State, just a few hours from the Thai border, in an area that the Myanmar army deemed part of ‘the black zone’, a government designation for places that were hotspots for separatist guerrillas.
In Karen State, civil war between various pro-government and anti-government factions has torn the region apart for generations. Officially starting in 1949 – just a year after Burma declared independence from British colonial rule – the Karen fighting is part of one of the world’s longest-running ethnic conflicts.
“To be honest, I don’t really know why I left [for Thailand]. I just know that [Myanmar] felt like a nightmare. You can say I was lost. I didn’t feel like if I go here, my life will be better. I just left,” he said.
As a boy the spectre of violence was always present, with Maung vividly recalling “one of [his] first experiences with war.”
When Maung was seven or eight, his cousin got ordained as a monk, a cause for community celebration. There was a big party at night, but it was interrupted by nearby gunfire between Karen and Burmese troops.
In the mayhem, Maung ran for his life, following anyone he saw into the dark forest.
Maung teaching art to young students on the Thai/Myanmar border. Photos/illustrations: Pan Rak Foundation
“I followed whoever, but I don’t know who they are. I am sure they are from my village, but I don’t know them. We ran from the bullets and hid in the forest that night. I slept next to strangers. In the morning, they said it was okay to come back,” he said.
“When you are young, your mind is too pure. And then you run and hide in the woods? At that time, I didn’t know what to do. When you are young and you see something scary, you want to hold on to your parents. But you only see strangers. How can I hold [onto] them?”
Since the reforms of 2010 that saw the military begin to loosen its decades-long grip over governance in Myanmar, some positive changes have occurred in Karen State. Cease-fire agreements between the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) and various separatist factions were signed, although outbreaks of violence still occur today.
In 2016, Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy and human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi took power after winning a landmark election victory in 2015, offering hope for the country’s ethnic groups. Since then, however, her tenure has been marred by allegations of failing to stand up to abuses against ethnic groups throughout the country, most publicly in Rakhine State with the Rohingya.
“In Burma, if you are talking about [Suu Kyi] everybody [has various opinions]. For me, I think her former sacrifices for human rights were amazing. But to lead the country it takes a different [set of skills]. I don’t think she is qualified because [the] rule of law is unchanged,” said Maung.
“Sometimes people forget because they love [her] too much. In 2012, I expected a lot. When she got power, I still had hope. Now my expectations are down to zero. People support her without thinking about [whether] killing or not killing [is happening]. They don’t think if things are fair or not fair.”
Rightfully so, the events in Rakhine State get much international attention. But meanwhile, instability in eastern Myanmar, including Karen, continues with virtually no notice.
You can say there has been some development for some people [in Myanmar]. But poverty is the same. Education is the same. Look at healthcare. According to the WHO, Burma is lowest in international [rankings]
Despite a fall in fighting in Karen State, Maung isn’t satisfied. Cease fires and reductions in violence are good, he says, but the lack of structural changes still weigh heavy.
“You can say there has been some development for some people. But poverty is the same. Education is the same. Look at healthcare. According to the WHO, Burma is lowest in international [rankings],” he said.
“How can I say that there is no fighting when people are getting killed in Shan and Rakhine [States]? Even though there is [less fighting] in Karen, there are still [other kinds of] fighting. There is still a bruise.”
For Muang, only broad societal changes will save the people of Myanmar. To make this happen, strong investments into public health and education will be crucial, he says.
Maung’s paintings continue to be his preferred medium of protest, and some of them are based on actual events. One of these depicts a mother and her children mourning over the body of one of their siblings.
According to Maung, the child was shot over 20 years ago in his village during an altercation between various factions.
“One bullet destroys more than just one person. It affects the whole family,” he explained.
Others are more personal. The painting of freshly harvested carrots may seem innocuous, but for Maung, it is imbued with emotion and loss.
“A very good friend of mine left [my life] forever without saying goodbye. I was [in the process of] painting it when he passed away. He could not see the finished [piece]. Now, it acts like my last memory of him.”
Maung also wants to use his art to teach the Myanmar youth the importance of understanding their right to safety and security.
In 2019, in addition to the release of Still on the Border, he also illustrated a children’s book, Born Free and Equal, that translates sections of the UN Declaration of Human Rights into four local languages. He hopes to help distribute the books throughout Myanmar.
Written with the backing of Amnesty International, the book uses simplified text to get the heart of the declaration’s content, making it easily digestible for children. His illustrations offer a glimpse into a potential future for the children of Myanmar – one without the threat of perpetual war.
“If someone looks at the book, even if they don’t have anything to protect themselves with, if they know their rights, [it offers] some protection,” he explained.
As for the drive behind his work, he says that art touches his soul. “I think my work can talk [for itself]. I don’t want to forget the people who suffer in Burma.
“No matter who you are, what happens with us [in the end] is not up for our imagination. When I die this will be a small record [of what happened]. Writing is not easy for me, but I do it. Sometimes when I am cycling, I stop near the street and write down my ideas.”
Maung is unsure if he will write any more books in the future, saying “if I can write another one in my life, I will be happy”. Day to day, however, life as a migrant continues to shape his outlook on life.
“I know I should go back someday [to Myanmar] but I just can’t. I lie to myself very often. I tell myself that this isn’t a different country [because] it feels better. In my mind, this is Burma.”