David Scott Mathieson
Peace Industrial Complex
9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT9),
Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art:
Myanmar’s civil war is both the longest running and most complicated conflict in the world. Over the past seven years domestic actors and international interlocutors, donors and mediators have tried to bring peace and national reconciliation with dozens of ethnic armed groups that have been fighting the central government, and sometimes each other, for seventy years. Yet the process and its promise have sputtered to a halt under the democratically elected National League for Democracy government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Fighting in northern Myanmar has intensified, although often eclipsed by the humanitarian catastrophe of the Rohingya Muslim mass expulsion of the past year.
Why has the war raged even as millions in donor funding have been poured into its resolution? Partly because many international actors involved don’t understand the complexity of seventy years of conflict. This complexity provides a model for the Shan exiled artist Sawangwongse Yawnghwe and his recent works on Myanmar’s “Peace Industrial Complex” — three large, complicated and confusing diagrams of ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), government structures, foreign actors and, at the core, the Tatmadaw: Myanmar’s military, which has demonstrated little interest in ending a war it has failed to win and is characterised by habitual human rights violations.
Sawangwongse Yawnghwe captured this complexity, brutality and absurdity in his 2015 “Complex” work, an intensely engaging diagram of acronyms, actors, countries, corporations and conflict commodities, and patterns of abuse, an attempt to map all the interlinked details of the long war.
It is modelled on the infamous PowerPoint slide of 2010 that detailed the dynamics of the war in Afghanistan, called the “bowl of spaghetti” diagram, of which then General Stanley McChrystal wryly remarked, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”. Another general, H.R. McMaster (for a year plus, Donald Trump’s national security adviser) banned PowerPoint because he said it gave the “illusion of understanding”.
“Complex” is less bowl of spaghetti and more London underground, a sort of secret plan of the peace process that seduced neophytes and experts in Myanmar in almost equal measure when it appeared in 2015, just as international and domestic optimism over the looming nationwide elections was at fever pitch. The “Complex”, which a friend told me translated more as “factory” than “complex”, is a schematic of confusion masquerading as certainty.
From the centrepiece of the Tatmadaw, lines lead to copper mines, the now defunct Myanmar Peace Centre, Norwegian telecoms companies, prominent figures such as U Aung Min (the previous government’s peace tsar), torture, Chin, crony companies, China (in a few places), opium, the Podesta Group, PACTA, a Naga armed group, logging and, there in the lower right quadrant, Rohingya (the Rakhine State Crisis box is inexplicably on the other side).
Numerous countries are listed, including Australia and Norway. Centre-left is Ethnic Grievances, arguably the core of the constant war. The largest and most heavily armed EAO, the United Wa State Army, is situated to the left. There is no evident sense of the importance of any actor or issue in the size of the box; it is as if they are stations on an underground you have never navigated.
The numerous lines connecting boxes, if you choose to follow them, lead into a warren of speculation. It’s when you take a step back and chuckle that you comprehend it doesn’t actually compute. That is the power of the portrayal: its subtle ridicule of the self-importance of the peacemakers by parodying their obsession with systems analysis.
Peace-building vernacular was another patois of foreign assistance. Terms such as “stakeholders”, “consultation” and “spoiler” were bandied around with grave importance, but in the absence of real knowledge were heard as opportunism and the abandoning of reality, like a language shouted at greater volume if there was a hint of incomprehension.
Born into one of the most complicated civil wars in recent history, with a huge personal family toll exacted by military repression and years in exile, Sawangwongse was preconditioned to arrive at a cynical exploration of the long-postponed peace, and to see terminology and diagrams as weapons of the rich and powerful, not as emancipatory tools.
His first challenge was to list the almost infinite number of armed groups, civil society organisations, international donor initiatives, Burmese military terms and many other details. Spanning the Roman alphabet from the Arakan Army (AA) to the Zomi National Congress (ZNC), scores of armed groups and almost every confluence of ethnic and religious designation are married to numerous tags: army, party, front, resistance, organisation. The ability to converse in Myanmar civil war acronym-speak almost qualifies as fluency in a constructed language, like an Esperanto of exotic abbreviation.
Even for many Myanmar and international “old hands”, it was an enviable and rare skill to explain how that acronym and the real people within the group actually related to the current peace process, in terms of date of formation, location, number of soldiers, recent activities, revenue raising and assorted intrigue. This patois is the speech pattern of inexhaustible meetings, workshops and endless study tours through Yangon, Naypyidaw, Chiang Mai, South Africa, Colombia and Switzerland.
Adding to this lexicon was an infusion of initiatives constructed for the fledgling peace process. Next came the imposition of international actors, often uninvited, many of whom ingratiated themselves with either government or EAOs and became part of the cornucopia of initiatives looking for a rapid solution to a long war, easy answers to a complex political/economic/social and historical conflict. Some of the new actors were serious people and respected organisations that have done exemplary work in a challenging environment, but there was a competitive caravan of carpetbaggers who thought that resolution of the conflict could be achieved by lessons from other wars.
The “Complex” was sketched in an environment of earnest diagram innovation, when so many people were trying to illustrate the complexity of the process: a riot of flow and pie charts, Venn diagrams, information lines drawn to balloons and the ubiquitous “stakeholder analysis” reports. The huge volume of information about the Myanmar conflict since the “transition” of 2011 started, spans the spectrum from professionally careful and concise analysis to opportunistic obviousness and dishonesty that betrays a Yangon or Naypyidaw bias of the recent foreign arrival. During the surge of international carpetbaggers in 2014, the lobbies of Yangon hotels were akin to the Mos Eisley Cantina scene from Star Wars: a collection of recently arrived freaks formulating funding deals on some aspect of a conflict they refused to comprehend.
The first schematic from Sawangwongse in 2015 was welcomed by some of these carpetbaggers as an illustration of a drama they wanted to cash in on, and they thought it was real. People contacted Sawangwongse to purchase it. I was shown visuals of it by several people who thought it a secret document that explained every connection. It was a slow dawning for many that it was art, not reality. The reality was in a situation that was more complicated and dynamic than many people admitted.
Sawangwongse is the grandson of the first president of Burma, the Shan prince of Yawnghwe, Sao Shwe Theik, murdered in detention by the Tatmadaw after its coup in 1962. His father, the celebrated Shan intellectual Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, was a founder of the Shan State Army in 1964, along with his mother the Mahadevi (princess) of Yawnghwe. Sawangwongse spent his youth in Chiang Mai before fleeing potential assassination by Shan rivals, and ended up in Canada, where he joined the navy and then art school, and later Berlin and long years in Italy, and eventually Amsterdam with frequent working trips to northern Thailand.
The tourists of bucolic Inle Lake may drop in to the Yawnghwe Haw (palace) of Sawangwongse’s family, where his grandfather’s portrait still hangs, and perhaps notice the family resemblance. His uncle, Harn Yawnghwe, is an integral personality of the nationwide peace process, after a long engagement since the early 1990s in exile and then inside. He is now blacklisted again from Myanmar. After working closely with the Tatmadaw and the government of former president Thein Sein, he is viewed with suspicion by Suu Kyi.
When I first met Sawangwongse in Chiang Mai in 2011, he was the picture of a swaggering Bohemian artist, a Shan Doppelgänger in style and attitude of the actor Johnny Depp. But his artistic drive, fused with his political inquiry and royal pedigree, led him to investigate aspects of his homeland’s long war and culture of abuse and repression. Yet he was relatively naive about the complexities of the actual process, divorced from the minutiae and key players, and relying on several friends to feed him incomplete details of a process that defies total comprehension from any one source.
It was this outside perspective that led him to capture the absurdity in the labyrinthine contours of the peace industry grafted onto the real conflict.
His innovative “Yawnghwe Office in Exile” project, first staged in Amsterdam and which unveiled the “Peace Industrial Complex 1”, seeks to explore the conflict from the voices of ethnic communities that have suffered. He paints harrowing portraits of real atrocities from Myanmar’s conflict zones, historical events and figures, and stark greyscale reliefs of weapons and helicopters, reflecting the intensification of Tatmadaw air power on ethnic armies and civilians in Kachin and northern Shan States. He told me he seeks to portray these events as being behind the soldiers or civilians, not above, as the peace industrialists tend to see it. These schematics are a form of “trying to fucking understand it all”, but as a sceptical, subversive and exiled viewer.
“Peace Industrial Complex 2” was part of an exhibition at Chiang Mai’s Museum of Modern Art in early 2018, and the gigantic and masterful third permutation, almost twice the size of the original, will be displayed at APT9 in Brisbane in November. What began as an attempt at understanding rapidly became an exercise in rebuke of opportunism and a cry for understanding of how these connections really operate. Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s wall maps make you think far more, in their arresting detail and confounding lines, than any accurate analysis or expert could, because this conflict is more complex than any outsider could fathom. Viewing them should be a humbling experience, not an emboldening one.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst working on peace, conflict and human rights
Credit to: Mekong Review August Edition