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Our word of the week is: CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

When is an act of civil disobedience morally justified? Does breaking the law constitute an act of civil disobedience?

We continue our campaign “Human Rights through Art” introducing the vastly debated yet intriguing notion of civil disobedience, first coined by the American literary and philosopher Henry David Thoreau in 1849.

Civil disobedience is a mode of dissent, a way to engage in political activism through a non-violent and conscientious breach of law aimed at obtaining a change of certain laws considered unjust.

In liberal democracies, respecting the law is morally accepted and individuals can contest governments by peaceful means such as legal protests. A disobedient’s choice is a choice of last resort which often involves publicity, mobilization and education of the public around a justifiable and good cause. It implies the moral acceptance of the rule of law and the legal consequences of such an act.

Since the term became popular, several human rights leaders have been inspired by Thoreau’s theories and his successors.

Some examples:

• Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance against the British rule in India
• Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movements in the US
• Tiananmen Square protests led by pro-democracy students
• The Singing Revolution in the Baltic States against the Soviet Union’s occupation
• Marco Pannella’s civil rights campaigns in Italy
• Aung San Suu Kyi’s struggle for democracy in Myanmar/Burma


Henry David Thoreau was an American literary, a poet, a naturalist and a philosopher. In 1846, at the age of 29, he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay the state poll tax in protest against the enforcement of slavery and the imperialistic war against Mexico.

When one of his relatives paid his taxes to free him from jail, Thoreau was “mad as the devil”, seeing his release as a missed opportunity to continue his protest. Even though the jailing incident did not spark mass mobilization and went unnoticed, his most famous essay “Resistance to Civil Government” (also called “Civil disobedience”) would have later inspired global movements of nonviolent resistance.

A truly trascendalist and radical thinker, often misunderstood as an anarchist, Thoreau wanted to live as a free individual in a state which was not entirely free. Through acts of passive resistance such as tax resistance, he claimed his right to withdraw from an unjust state. The widely quoted phrase “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” contained in his essay well captures Thoreau’s thinking of conscience in relation to justice and authority.

Not only did Thoreau influence the greatest revolutionary minds of the 20th century but he also inspired his fellow writers such as Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway and Leo Tolstoj. Years later, the latter would have paid tribute to Thoreau in his book “Resurrection”: “Yes, the only place befitting an honest man in Russia at the present time is a prison”.

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Amid nationwide anti-coup protests against the return of the military junta on Feb. 1st 2021, Myanmar’s artists have resorted to satirical & imaginative art to express their dissent towards the putsch.

Two days after the armed forces led by General Min Aung Hlaing seized the power & declared a 1-year state of emergency, doctors & teachers went on strike, launching a civil disobedience mov. & taking to the streets raising three-fingers in a salute of resistance. This salute, inspired by the Hunger Games book, has quickly become a defiant symbol of the latest pro-democracy uprisings – the biggest protests since the Saffron Revolution in 2007 – & the visual representation of Myanmar political art.

Unlike the previous protests, the civil disobedience mov. has found its place primarily on SM platforms where counter-propaganda posters, humoristic slogans & mocking illustrations of General Min Aung Hlaing & military leaders are shared among users & flashed out in the streets. All over the country, poets, graffiti artists & dancers have expressed their anger & called for freedom, exhibiting a reinvigorated artistic spirit.

In a country where – even during San Suu Kyi’s times – freedom of expression has always been at stake & artists have been routinely imprisoned for their ideas, this right is being more & more undermined. The military govt. responded to the mass mobilization shutting down the Internet, as well as repressing & killing peaceful protesters. The @Time reports that at the early stage of the coup, a filmmaker, 2 writers & a Reggae singer have been arrested along with ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Just recently, actors, directors & a singer have fallen victim to arrest warrants. However, protests are unlikely to stop so is the artistic verve which has coloured Myanmar’s cities.

→ Watch “The Ladies Diary” by @walkingcatproductions to listen to the stories of 6 Burmese women committed to Myanmar’s democratic path.

→ Watch the “The Lady” portraying the life of Aung San Suu Kyi.

More sources: @nytimes, @artnet, @europeanparliament