Go and Don’t Shoot: A story of survival in Kayin

'Go and Don’t Shoot' series, photo: archive of Štěpánka Šimlová

A new exhibit entitled Go and Don’t Shoot will open on Tuesday evening at the National Gallery’s Veletržní Palác. It presents multi-media works that the contemporary Czech artist Štěpánka Šimlová brought back from her visits in Kayin State in Burma. In this week’s In Focus, Masha Volynsky speaks to Ms. Šimlová about the exhibit, and her experiences in Burma, and later looks more closely at the situation in this war-torn country.

'Go and Don’t Shoot' series, photo: archive of Štěpánka Šimlová
Kayin is home to one of many ethnic minorities in Burma and for more than fifty years they’ve become victims of military brutality and displacement. At the Go and Don’t Shoot exhibition Štěpánka Šimlová presents mix-media pictures, videos and sounds that document the life of Kayin’s villagers and those trying to help them.

The format and content of the exhibit seemed to me more suitable for a smaller independent gallery, so I began our interview by asking Štěpánka how the idea of the exhibit and the cooperation with the National Gallery came about.

“I was in Barma in Kayin state twice, in 2010 and 2011 and I brought back a lot of material. We started to make a documentary, which was ready last fall. I am not a documentary maker by profession, though, I am a visual artist. Documentaries are expensive to make. And for me there was a lot more there that had to do with my feelings, the impressions that I brought from there, so that is why I started working with the National Gallery [on the exhibit].

“I work a lot with independent galleries. But I felt that this theme, which is kind of political and important needs a respectable space.”

When you first went to Burma in 2010 were you going there already with an idea for a project?

'Go and Don’t Shoot', photo: archive of the National Gallery
“Actually, yes. I went there with a friend of mine who coordinates an aid project for people in Kayin state. He had been interested in this area for a long time, and I’ve seen his pictures and heard a lot of stories. And one day I asked him if I could go as well.”

Could you say a bit more about the main focus of the project?

“For the documentary we visited an organization that is called Free Burma Rangers. [The project is about] the situation in Kayin state, which has been at war for over 60 years. It is actually the longest war in the world. People there know nothing else besides war and being in danger on a daily basis. And it actually felt like – and I’m hesitating to use this word – a moral duty to do something for them, to let the world know about it.”

How difficult was it to get into the villages and areas that were under threat from the Burmese army?

“It was pretty difficult. We had to cross the border illegally from Thailand. And it took us three days to get to a place where we were safe. Actually three nights, because we had to walk during the night without light. It was physically and, of course, emotionally very difficult.”

'Go and Don’t Shoot' series, photo: archive of Štěpánka Šimlová
Do you think this experience will affect your art in the long-run?

“Yes, I think it will. Actually, looking back at it, I have a feeling as if I watched a difficult movie, or something like that. I still feel some kind of distance from it. But also, once you come back and you think of your problems, they seem much smaller.”

From what you’re saying and from what I’ve seen of the documentary it almost seemed as if you were reporting from a warzone. Did you feel like your role was similar to that of a war reporter?

“I never actually thought of myself in that way. We were not exposed to real danger. I think the most dangerous situation that we were in was when I wanted to see the Burma Army camp and film it – from a distance, of course, because you can’t get close. They said that it’s fine, but that we would have to cross a mind field. And at that point I said that I can probably do without.”

You said earlier that you felt that you needed to do something for the people of Kayin. Do you think that this exhibit in Prague will do something for the people over there?

“I hope so. Of course, it is not really direct aid. There is no collection of money or anything like this. But it is meant to bring attention [to the issue]. And I think when you draw attention to something, things may change [as a result].”

Having had this experience, do you feel that artists have a responsibility to the outside world?

'Go and Don’t Shoot', photo: archive of the National Gallery
“Yes, but not conditionally. But, of course, they have influence. Also, once we finished the documentary, we realized that it is kind of like a drop in the sea. There are so many documentaries out there about this issue or more terrible things like rape or torture. And we are somehow overwhelemed by all of it. We look at it and say, yes this is horrible, but it is far away. So for me, to do something that I consider to be real aid, I need to go there myself.”

Having spoken to Štěpánka Šimlová, I wanted to find out a bit more about the situation in Burma. To do that, I spoke with Sabe Soe, a Burmese immigrant to the Czech Republic and the director the Burma Center in Prague.

I asked her first about the situation in the state of Kayin, which the Go and Don’t Shoot exhibit is about.

“Kayin state has been in constant armed conflict with the Burmese army, and many people from the Kaying ethnic group have been forced to leave their homes. So, many of them are in refugee camps in Thailand and many are internally displaced people. They are just hiding in forests, because they cannot go back to the villages.

Sabe Soe, photo: Alžběta Švarcová
“At the moment there is a seize-fire agreement in effect between the Kayin leaders and the Burmese government, but the conditions for the Kaying refugees and internally displaced people to return to their homes are not set yet. People have lost their homes because their villages were burnt down and now they have nowhere to return. I think the negotiations between ethnic leaders and the government should be more specific, create proper conditions and guarantee safety of return for these people.”

A number of politicians around the world have been recently saying that the situation in Burma getting better. What is your assessment of how the situation has developed there in the past year?

“There have been lots of positive changes inside Burma and of course a major issues werethe release of political prisoners and abolition of media censorship. On the other hand, the social changes are not very visible yet. It is truth that the opposition political parties could participate in the bi-elections in 2012, including Aung San Suu Kyi. On the other hand, the overall awareness of democratic values among the general population is rather low. And we hope that all the support from the international community will enhance the awareness and the ability of the general population to participate effectively in the general elections in 2015.”

You mentioned the support of the international community. Do you feel that cultural events, such as this exhibit, or other events happening in the Czech Republic and around Europe can have an effect on the situation in Burma?

“I’m very sure that the general raising of awareness about the situation inside Burma, no matter where in the world it takes place, could keep focusing the international leaders’ attention on Burma. Of course, current political changes may seem very positive, and people like to say that Burma is now a free and democratic country, so we don’t have to worry about their people any more, but the reality is totally different.

'Go and Don’t Shoot' series, photo: archive of Štěpánka Šimlová
“The reality is that Burma is still at war. In the north of the country there are still armed conflicts between government troops and ethnic Kachin army. And at the same time, in the northwest, Burmese Muslims, the Rohingya, are being chased out of their homes. And they have not been acknowledged as citizens of Burma. So, the international community cannot be cheated by the superficial changes. And events like Štěpánka Šimlová’s exhibit could show the real situation inside Burma to the Czech public and hopefully Czech politicians.”

The exhibit Go and Don't Shoot will be on at the Veletržní palác until April 28.