For more than a decade Harn Lay has drawn a steady stream of political cartoons skewering Burma's infamous military regime -- at times with gleeful zeal, other times with bitter rage. Working from the safety of neighboring Thailand, Harn Lay's cartoons were regularly published by Burmese media organizations in-exile, like The Irrawaddy and Mizzima, but until recently, would never have been allowed in Burma itself. Following a series of democratic reforms implemented by Burma's nominally civilian government, however, last year Harn Lay traveled back to Burma for the first time in 20 years. His work is now regularly published inside the country -- something unimaginable just a few years ago.
Today, Burmese President Thein Sein, the hand-picked successor of General Than Shwe, continues to be the subject of ridicule in many of Harn Lay's cartoons -- typically depicted wearing a longyi, Burma's national dress. Like many of his fellow members of the Shan ethnic minority, Harn Lay has not forgotten the years Thein Sein spent as the senior military commander in Shan state, when forces under his command carried out horrendous human rights abuses against local civilians.
But Harn Lay is an equal-opportunity critic. He's produced several biting cartoons targeting Aung San Suu Kyi -- often seen as a near-unimpeachable figure in Burma today -- for her apparent indifference to ongoing violence in the north and west of the country. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and other Western figures are often depicted as dupes, all-too-ready to fall for the story of the new, reformed Burma. China also takes a beating -- in Harn Lay's world, the superpower to the north is a wolf at Burma's door, always with an eye on the smaller country's resources.
Last fall, just months after Harn Lay's cartoons first began appearing in Burmese domestic publications, the cartoon above was condemned by an army-owned newspaper, the Myawaddy Daily. In the drawing, Thein Sein sends doves into the air, only to see them shot down by a general; it's a critique of the ongoing war the military is waging in Kachin state, which both calls into question Thein Sein's talk of peace and reform, and his control over the country's armed forces. In an editorial, the military warned that the cartoon spread "misunderstandings" about the army's role in national affairs, and noted that the newspaper should not make a "mistake" by publishing similar cartoons in future. Despite the implicit threats, the Myanmar Times has continued to publish Harn Lay's work. For his part, Harn Lay says he won't be intimidated by the army's threats, and will continue to make his thought-provoking art. His country will be a better place for it.