Ri, A collaged portrait of Myanmar’s late dictator Ne Win with two defunct coins on his eyes, 2022, from the series What You Remember, When You Remember, 2021–ongoing

In the early hours of February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military began knocking on the doors of dissidents. The Tatmadaw, as they are officially known, had launched a brutal coup that swiftly overthrew the democratically elected government. Within weeks, the military transformed the country into a full-fledged dictatorship, suppressing peaceful protests with lethal force and arresting anticoup activists. The move was reminiscent of the junta that had ruled Myanmar in various forms from 1962 to 2011, evoking a familiar horror for those who had lived through previous takeovers. For the younger generation, which had come of age in a relatively democratic and free Myanmar, the coup represented an existential crisis. Due to the junta’s ongoing efforts to repress citizens’ freedom—including enforced disappearances, long prison sentences, and executions—the majority of Myanmar’s population remains opposed to the military regime.

Sai, from the series <em>Trails of Absence</em>, 2021–ongoing “>
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Sai, from the series Trails of Absence, 2021–ongoing

Sai [Redacted], a multidisciplinary artist who works under a partially redacted pseudonym (sai means “mister” in a Shan dialect) for his family’s safety and to highlight Myanmar’s censorship of its citizens, was in the former capital, Yangon, when the military arrived at his family home in the country’s Shan State. His father—a chief minister and senior member of the National League for Democracy party—was promptly arrested, forcing Sai into hiding. In May 2021, the artist secretly returned to his home, where his mother had been placed under house arrest. After a brief reunion, he fled again to avoid possible arrest, as military intelligence was keeping the family members of detained leaders under close watch.

His series Trails of Absence (2021–ongoing) uses a physical gap to portray family trauma, fear, and the void left by his father’s imprisonment. The artist stages portraits where he and his mother appear with a string running between them. Their faces are obscured by pieces of fabric woven in the style of a traditional Shan carpet. These fabrics, originally worn by those being held—and effectively disappeared—in Myanmar’s notorious prisons after the February 2021 coup, were given to Sai through personal connections. “I asked to get some sort of evidence that can represent their existence,” he told me recently. “They gave me their clothes.”

For those in Myanmar who oppose the coup, there has been a lot of frustration over the Western media’s coverage. Despite the fact that ordinary citizens are subjected to daily armed violence and arbitrary detentions, the focus has seemed to remain on high-profile political figures. In 2022, Sai’s father was sentenced to twenty years of imprisonment and hard labor. “The series is a call to action for the world to take notice of political prisoners in Myanmar,” the artist says. “Can the world still sweep us under the carpet if we become the carpet?”

Ri, Statues on a large monument that represents the three branches of the military; Army, Navy, and Air Forces, Nay Pyi Taw, 2019, from the series Soulless City, 2019
Ri, A replica of Hkakabo Razi mountain from Kachin state, an armed conflict prone area in Northern part of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw, 2019, from the series Soulless City, 2019

For the photographer Ri—who also works under a pseudonym—Myanmar’s political present is both deeply personal and historically bound. While her previous images focused on community, queer relationships, and Myanmar’s landscape, after that February’s events, she felt the need for a change. While photographing anticoup demonstrations in Yangon in 2021, Ri wanted to move beyond a documentary approach and instead explore the historical power structures perpetuating oppression. “I felt like I had a responsibility to do something when the coup happened,” she tells me. “It was partly because of survivor’s guilt.”

In her multimedia piece What We Remember, When We Remember (2021–ongoing), Ri uses archival imagery, original photographs, and collage to explore the impact of nearly half a century of military rule on the country’s collective psyche. She spoke with a range of subjects—those who have embraced the Tatmadaw along with those who fear and despise them—asking, “When did you learn to hate or be afraid of the military?” One issue that came up often was money. The previous military, led by the dictator General Ne Win, instituted a swathe of policies, including the devaluing of select banknotes from Myanmar’s currency, ultimately weakening the cash-based national economy. Ri’s mother, who worked in a state-owned factory then, was affected by these changes, losing all of her life savings. In one piece from the series, two defunct coins cover the former dictator’s eyes, a commentary on the economic stresses placed on ordinary people.

Zicky Le, <em>Late Pyar (Butterfly)</em>, Yangon 2021″>
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Zicky Le, Late Pyar (Butterfly), Yangon 2021
Zicky Le, from the series <em>I Don’t Trust These Dreams</em>, 2021 “>
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Zicky Le, from the series I Don’t Trust These Dreams, 2021
Zicky Le, from the series We Are Who We Are, 2022
All photographs courtesy the artists

Despite broad national resistance to the coup, Myanmar’s population is far from a monolith, with more than 135 ethnic groups across several states. Currently living between Bangkok and Yangon, the photographer Zicky Le is half Burmese and half Karen, an ethnic minority with a long history of conflict with Myanmar’s governments that dates back to the country’s independence from British rule in 1948. Zicky has been a fashion and editorial photographer for nearly a decade, with work published in Vogue Italia and the Madrid-based Sicky magazine. The series We Are Who We Are (2022) expresses his frustration with how queer people are portrayed—often, with mockery—in Myanmar’s popular culture and mainstream media. In response, Zicky photographs his queer friends with vibrant color and lighting to celebrate their beauty, diversity, and truth. “I want to contribute to a cultural revolution that overthrows sexism, transphobia, and homophobia,” Zicky says. “Representation is not the end of liberation but a means.”

Young artists such as Sai, Ri, and Zicky have grown up in the shadow of two Myanmars, belonging to a generation that has experienced both partial democracy and dictatorship. Like them, many artists in the country have begun to self-censor their endeavours under a junta-ruled Myanmar. Some, also using pseudonyms, have worked exclusively with foreign institutions or exiled outlets. Several photographers have fled to neighboring countries, including Thailand, while others have joined the armed revolt. In their own context, each has contributed to the creation of informal communities of support that challenge the political systems and ideologies inherited from decades of military rule. For these artists, photography is a crucial tool for solidarity, resistance, and visibility—and it is one of many.

This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 252, “Accra,” under the column Dispatches.