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digital hd video, sound, color

17 min.

The brutality of the military junta in Myanmar made international headlines following the massacre of hundreds of peaceful pro-democracy protesters in 1988. When, in 1990, the party of opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming election victory, the generals ignored the results and Aung San Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest. Pinning her picture up, in public or in private, became grounds for arrest.


All the more startling, then, was the design of a modest banknote that the government commissioned and published at that time. The designer of the new one-kyat note was a political supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi and he saw an opportunity for subversion in his task. He knew the note must include an image of Aung San Suu Kyi’s late father, General Aung San. The general was the founder of the Myanmar army, and was revered for his pivotal role in securing his country’s independence from British colonial rule. The designer engraved the image of the general in the watermark. As he drew, however, he subtly softened the sharp line of the soldier’s jaw. He also used a light hand when drawing the general’s eyes, nose, and mouth. From these slight, almost imperceptible changes emerged a powerful form of sedition: The face of the father was gently transformed into the face of the daughter. The censors approved the design—failing to notice that the watermark resembled the daughter more than the father. With the subversive image in place, the banknote was printed, distributed, and put into mass circulation. In tea shops and pagodas across the country in the weeks and months that followed, people whispered to each other as they studied the new note with its hidden portrait of “The Lady,” as Aung San Suu Kyi is known to her compatriots.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s name, incidentally, translates as “Bright Collection of Small Victories.” The act of subversion wasn’t limited to the main portrait. The floral design consists of four circles of eight petals—eight around eight around eight around eight, echoing the date of Burma’s “four-eights” uprising that began on 8/8/88. Although the people held up the banknote with disbelief and pride, it was not pride that the generals felt. The subtly defiant one-kyat note was withdrawn from circulation and possession of the banknote became illegal. Those who kept it continue to treasure it. It is known as the “democracy note.”

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