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From Disney’s Elsa to Japanese manga assassins, Myanmar‘s young people are increasingly embracing the colourful world of cosplay.
The 8th Myanmar Cosplay and Otaku Festival in Yangon is playing host to a rich variety of characters from films and comic books – from both east and west.
More than 200 cosplayers and about 1,000 fans are squeezing into the main hall of the Myanmar ICT Park for an event that has seen its attendance increase ten-fold over the past three years, according to organisers.
Cosplay involves dressing up and role playing as characters from films, comics, anime and manga.
Cosplayers aim to create costumes and to act exactly as their chosen character.
They are often called “otaku” – a Japanese word for an obsessive or “geeky” person.
Mandy M Thomas, a Burmese-born cosplayer who lives in Norway, is a guest judge at the festival.
“Cosplay is the friendliest, you know. You have to put yourself out there. You’re not just wearing the costume but you are just being the character,” she says.
“In a way, it’s good because back in the day in Burma you know everyone are very like shy and not allowed to do this and that. Now, modern day, people have a change to be their own self. They can express their own self.”
The global role play phenomenon that originated in Japan has been around for decades, but for most of that period Myanmar was isolated from outside influences by an authoritarian regime.
Before 2012, fewer than one percent of the population had access the internet, according to the Internet World Statistics website. What access they did have was strictly controlled by the junta.
That is now changing thanks to the opening up of the country and the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.
As of the end of 2015, around 13 percent of the population had access to the internet, according to IWS data.
In junta-era Myanmar, only the very rich could afford the high cost of a sim-card, but today, for as little as 1,500 kyats (1.30 US dollars), people can easily access information across the world from their smartphones.
With increased internet access, Myanmar‘s young cosplayers have been able to access anime and manga online, look at pictures of other cosplayers across the world, and even watch videos about how best to do their make-up.
Hsu Myat Noe, an 18-year-old medical student, started cosplaying a year ago after being introduced to it by friends.
“The most enjoyable part is that we get to be our favourite character for one day. We get to act like them, we get to to feel the joy that they feel, and that is the best part that I like about cosplay,” she says.
For Hsu, the internet was crucial in developing her hobby.
“I started to see cosplay pictures on the internet when I was grade 10 (16 years old) that’s why. I didn’t use internet at all when I was young so I didn’t know aboutcosplay. I didn’t learn about anything around the world. It was on the internet that I started to know about cosplay,” she says.
But the introduction of cosplay to Myanmar has not been met favourably by everyone.
Some people fear that the introduction of the Japanese cultural phenomenon could harm Myanmar‘s culture.
“Well, a lot of older people think bad about cosplay and I’m very sad to know it, but I love cosplay so I’m a little embarrassed but I like doing cosplay, I go on the street with cosplay usually,” says Hsu.
Lin Aung Kyaw, one of the organisers of the festival, has seen the popularity of the event grow since it started in 2013. There have been approximately two festivals a year ever since.
“At the first cosplay events there’s only about 20 cosplayers and this event there is about 200 now, maybe ten-fold like that,” he says.
But he agrees that the perception of cosplay has been a problem and says there were even calls for it to be banned.
“About two or three years ago when our cosplay new came up on the media they commented very bad, like we destroy the Myanmar culture like that, we disrespect the Myanmar culture, we copy from other foreign countries, we should be banned, like that,” he says.
But he argues that being involved in cosplay does not mean young people are rejecting traditional Myanmar culture.
“Like only two or three days per year you wear the costume. The other days you can wear Myanmar costume if you want,” he says.
“So it’s not a culture-destroyer. It is just a hobby and a realisation (self-expression) for the young people among the very, you know, intense society and high pressure of the education.”
The 8th Myanmar Cosplay and Otaku Festival was held on 23 and 24 April 2016.