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Exiled Artist paints for democracy

ART-BURMA: Exiled Artist Paints For Democracy

   By Soe Myint

NEW DELHI, Dec (IPS) - Burmese artist Sitt Nyein Aye, who has lived in
exile in India for the past 10 years, paints for the pro-democracy
movement which is stifled in his home country.

   ''I feel I am a gardener ... I want to give my knowledge and art to the
Burmese pro-democracy youth who lack support,'' he says. Well known in
Burma where he had his own art gallery in  Mandalay, he now lives on the
assistance provided by the United Nations High  Commissioner for Refugees
(UNHCR) in New Delhi.

   The UNHCR recently cleared him for resettlement in Canada, but Sitt has
not made up his mind about leaving India. He wants to stay here close to
other activists fighting for democracy in their country.

   ''I cannot live without doing something (for the democracy struggle),''
he says. ''I have to do something, either painting in thoughts  or in

   Sitt's paintings proclaim bold political statements on canvas. 'High
Soaring Birds', done in exile has white doves soaring above a  Chinthe,
the ubiquitous guardian symbol of Burmese temples, to  reflect the
aspirations of pro-democracy activists, he says.

   'Sobs of Kant-Kaw Flowers' is on the neglect of education by the
military regime in Burma. The universities there have been closed for the
last three years, and the blooming Kant-Kaw trees appear to be weeping
over the death of learning.

   Sitt, 40, has been political since his student days. When he was in his
twenties he changed his name to Sitt Nyein Aye - which means ''war and
peace'' - after reading Leo Tolstoy's classic novel.

   He was detained for one month by the authorities of the  then so-called
socialist regime because of his drawing in a  calendar printed in memory
of those who died in the crackdown on student demonstrators in 1974.

   His deep love for his country and hatred for the army led him  to take
a leading role in the historic People's Uprising on Aug.8, 1988. He joined
students and Buddhist monks who were  demonstrating against the government
for its three decades of misrule.

   Soon he was the reporter, writer, photographer and editor of a
newspaper published by Red Galon, the powerful Buddhist monks' association
in Mandalay. The newspaper had a circulation of 23,000.

   After the military government brutally cracked down on the peaceful
demonstrators and re-strengthened itself with the coup in September 1988,
he decided that armed struggle was the only means of protest the military
generals would listen to. He left Mandalay two days after the military
coup for India.

   ''I want to be an artist. I want to draw paintings only,'' he says. But
in 1988, ''I could not do so as the people around were suffering. So, I
decided to join with the democracy revolution, thinking that I would paint
after democracy and peace was restored in the country.''

   He stayed in a camp for Burmese students opened by the Indian
Government in Manipur State and later at Aizawl in Mizoram State for two
and a half years where he taught art to students. ''A person who knows art
and who can feel art can go ahead in right  
direction in life,'' he explains.

   In 1992, he moved to Delhi to draw international attention to the
Burmese democratic movement with his paintings. Sitt's first exhibition in
New Delhi opened on Aug. 6 the same year to commemorate the 1988 People's
Uprising in Burma.

   Organised by the Delhi-based Burma Students League, it was inaugurated
by George Fernandes, the present Indian defence minister who has long
supported Burmese pro-democracy activists in India. In fact, he has
allowed Sitt to turn one of the rooms in his cavernous official residence
into a studio.

   Thirty oil canvases, depicting the intense yearning and struggle of the
Burmese people for democracy were exhibited. In 1933 his painting were
part of another big event, 'Gong of Burma', organised in the Indian
capital, proceedings from which amounting to more than 100,000 rupees went
to funding Burmese student activities in Delhi.

   Apart from the exhibitions, organised in India and abroad, Sitt
continues to assist the cause of democracy with his art work, including
helping various publications of exiled Burmese democracy groups.

   Sitt says his determination to fight inequality and discrimination was
born from his experience at the prestigious State School of Fine Arts in
Mandalay, where he was the poorest of poor students, often finding himself
without paper or pencil to draw.

   Born into a poor family near Pagan, in Upper Burma, he was one of six
children and got into art school with a state scholarship. It was at the
art school that he also found his two teachers, U Aye Kyaw and U Khin
Maung, both leading artists of Burma.

   By the time he turned 30, Sitt had become a commercial success, opening
his own art gallery in 1984 where he sold 200 of his works before a major
fire gutted the gallery the same year - but his heart was not in
commercial paintings, he recalls.

   It was with the spontaneous People's Uprising in 1988 that he
transformed into a political artist.

   Says activist Jaya Jaitly, general secretary of Fernandes' Samata Party
who has known Sitt in exile in Delhi: ''There could be many better artists
in Burma ... but very few like Sitt who left the country for his belief in

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