A sketch in time

AdvocacyCommunity EmpowermentMyanmar
‘You need to pay tax to make everything work!’ Myanmar's tax system imagined as a railway

How a Tearfund partner organisation in Myanmar got their nation talking about the future, with simple pen and ink drawings.      

The tax collector leans out of his booth and calls out to the nearby citizens: ‘You need to pay tax to make everything work!’     

This is political cartooning Myanmar-style and it doesn’t pull its punches. It isn’t what you’d expect from a nation long closed-off from the outside world, under military rule.     

‘Some in government won’t like this one, but it will start a lot of conversations,’ admits David Allan, the founder of Tearfund partner, Spectrum. Spectrum has been running for over a decade now, speaking up on issues of environmental protection, human rights and economic justice in Myanmar.    

The last of these – economic justice – is a big issue in the country. Myanmar has one of the lowest ‘transparency’ ratings of any nation in Asia. People are being very actively encouraged to pay their taxes, but most as yet, according to David, have little idea of where their money ends up.

David spreads the word with Myanmar's President and VIce-President

‘Many times I've seen ministers obviously enjoying the cartoons and looking very thoughtful. Sometimes they just laugh. '

David Allan

More than words      

Spectrum first used cartoons to communicate with children about environmental issues. However, they soon realised that a cartoon could reach a variety of people in a way that words, statistics and graphs couldn’t.      

Cartoons are what David calls a ‘safe voice,’ an indirect way to present difficult messages.     

‘At times, cartoons shown can be surprisingly critical. I take advice from staff on what we can and can’t run. Military topics are particularly sensitive. However, if we can turn things around and use them constructively to discuss the concerns or possible fears of the people, it reduces the potential for a backlash later.’       

I wonder how the more controversial images go down with the nation’s leaders and officials. Spectrum will often put their work on display outside official conferences, and recently ran their own exhibition, Budget Transparency for Improving People’s Lives.       

‘Many times I've seen ministers obviously enjoying the cartoons and looking very thoughtful. Sometimes they just laugh. On another occasion, I recall one saying, "No, no; you can't represent this in this way…” But then he went on, “give me 1,000 copies for distribution to senior government officials in all the states and regions.”'  David dutifully provided the material. The very senior official was as good as his word, and distributed the cartoon book across the country.

Lightbulb moment: an illustration from Spectrum's budget guide.

My nation, my rights     

The cartoons are far more than a medium for satire. Spectrum produces a range of educational material.      

The above illustration is from a children's cartoon booklet titled What’s a budget?, published to coincide with the launch of the government’s first citizen’s budget.       

‘We want children to realise that they’ve got rights,’ says David. ‘Rights to healthcare, rights to education and a right to be safe and protected. But these books are also for the politicians; they need to be reminded that they have commitments too, to both children and adults.’ 

‘Myanmar is a very artistic society; people have lived with a lot of hardship and difficulty. It means that they look for irony and humour to provide them with a voice – cartoons can do all these things.’     

Pray for this work:    

  • Pray that through this work, Spectrum can continue to be listened to by Myanmar’s government.     
  • Ask God that Spectrum’s campaigning work will influence generations, to become more aware of their rights and engaged in the running of their country.
  • Pray for other Tearfund partners around the world as they seek creative ways to share important messages like this.
Ben Cohen
Ben is Web Editor for Tearfund. This can sometimes feel a bit like being ‘senior hairstylist for…