Myanmar “Education has the top priority”

Exhibitions, readings, concerts - the cultural program of the Goethe Institute in Yangon generates great interest.
Exhibitions, readings, concerts - the cultural program of the Goethe Institute in Yangon generates great interest. | Photo: Goethe-Institut Myanmar

The Goethe-Institut Myanmar was shut down for fifty years until its reopening was celebrated two years ago. Founded in 1959, the institute was forced to stop working after only three years following the coup by General Ne Wins. The political reforms that began in 2011 opened the pathway for its reestablishment. We spoke with institute director Franz Xaver Augustin about the dialogue with Myanmar artists, the role played by the media and the consequences of the election victory by the opposition party NLD.

Mr Augustin, when you look back on it, what moments influenced your time in Myanmar the most?

Franz Xaver Augustin Franz Xaver Augustin | Photo: May Co Naing The lack of a signature on the lease for the future building of the institute lost us some sleep. Until now, our office and the classrooms are still housed temporarily at the Institut Français. But we are all now looking forward to the 100-year-old villa near the Great Pagoda where we will work in the future. Even without renovations it is a splendid place for all sorts of programmes, from the now legendary Berlin club nights to numerous exhibitions, mainly by artists from Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

Htein Lin’s Storyteller was probably the most significant exhibition. Like so many other political activists, the artist was incarcerated for many years. His works are a monument to all prisoners and processed their experience in the dungeons of the regime. He began many of his works while still in captivity. Htein Lin painted on the cloth of prison uniforms, with paints that some merciful guards allowed in. As tools he used his fingers, small branches, needles, lighters, glass shards. The Storyteller was one of the most important art events in Yangon in recent years. Thousands of visitors came, were touched by the impressive work and spoke with one another about what happened over evening-long discussions.

The Storyteller The Storyteller | © Goethe-Institut e.V./Myanmar
A very political exhibition … Were there any problems organizing it?

I worked for many years in Vietnam and Indonesia. By comparison, in Myanmar I’ve experienced surprising freedom for the work of the Goethe-Institut. I never had the impression that we are being critically observed or even censored. Art must be political in a country that is changing so radically. Both issues of the future and the past demand attention and need to be expressed.

There is no doubt that the old forces in the military are still pulling strings in the background. But the media are largely free and amazingly diverse. The bigger problem today is that there are not enough experienced journalists who know how to take advantage of the new freedoms.

Is this freedom linked to the 2015 elections?

The Goethe-Villa in Myanmar The Goethe-Villa in Myanmar | © Goethe-Institut e.V./Myanmar The real new beginning was actually the year 2011. The reforms introduced then came from above and from the inside: The release of most political prisoners, the new political and economic freedoms and the opening to world politics. The people responded to the sudden economic dynamism with confidence and optimism and the first genuinely free elections of 2015 were perceived as a consistent continuation of the course taken since 2011.

People are investing, building, renovating. In any case, the new government is faced with a mountain of challenges; the greatest is likely to be putting an end to the fighting in the minority regions, also a new tax system to facilitate the urgently needed public investments in the health system and in education, which has been neglected for decades.

Under these circumstances, what role does the Goethe-Institut in Yangon need to play?

The city’s cultural infrastructure is quite poor. To organize concerts or festivals you have rent expensive auditoriums. It is therefore so crucial that we will soon have our own house with meeting facilities, sophisticated technology and equipment.

Naturally, education in the broadest sense has the top priority in our work. Information and assistance for young people with regard to studies or non-academic training in Germany are very essential. We anticipate that the German offer will very quickly meet with great interest.

Alongside the exchange between visual artists from Myanmar and Europe I mentioned earlier, this focus on media educational programmes is certainly the most worthwhile.

Can you tell us about them?

The training of young musicians is one of the priorities of the Goethe Institute Myanmar. The training of young musicians is one of the priorities of the Goethe Institute Myanmar. | © Goethe-Institut e.V./Myanmar From the very beginning, we supported training for documentary filmmakers and musicians in all genres. The major accent is on making knowledge accessible. The production of the TV children’s knowledge magazine “I got it” in Burmese has proved very effective. Experts from the German broadcasters ZDF and WDR advised the largest local broadcaster and helped the young editors develop the content.

Our latest project, a multimedia magazine for young people aged 15 and over called YOPE (for YOung PEople), is also on this track. It revolves around culture, lifestyle and politics. The first episode’s trial run on Facebook immediately reached almost half a million people.

What was the subject matter?

There was a report and survey of young women on harassment in public transport. Such questions are not discussed in public anywhere else. That is why the topic is so vital for young people.

Earlier, you mentioned the lack of education, the inexperience among journalists – how can such a large multimedia project be tackled under these circumstances?

I admire the international team’s energy and patience. Everything – from the script to shooting to editing and moderation – is developed from scratch, step by step with the young Myanmar journalists and discussed repeatedly. The first shows are finished. The first episode was broadcasted on television and online on 1 July.

YOPE YOPE | © Goethe Institut e.V./Myanmar In-depth coaching by the trainers will certainly be necessary for the future broadcasts as well because the initially weekly program will gradually be increased to daily frequency. Much now depends on the success of the first episodes of YOPE and the sponsors’ approval. Even if the level of training of young journalists is rather modest at the moment, I haven’t seen such a serious willingness to learn and openness to new ideas among young people anywhere else in Southeast Asia as I have here.

Are the young people in Myanmar interested in German culture? What do they know about Germany?

They have practically no knowledge of Germany; besides the classic clichés about our country, which unfortunately also involve the chap with the Chaplin moustache, we cannot expect much. But what I said before applies here as well: When well presented, information about Germany and Europe meet with great interest: film, music, dance – whatever we offer, a full house is certain as well as attentive media that are not spoilt with plenty of cultural events.

Katrin Baumer asked the questions