Myanmar’s Young Artists and Activists

In the country formerly known as Burma, these free thinkers are a force in the struggle for democracy

One of the country's most popular rappers, J-Me avoids political statements in his music. But his lyrics, he says, reflect the concerns of Myanmar's young. (Adam Dean)
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The younger generation has been particularly hard hit, what with the imprisonment and killing of students and the collapse of the education system. Then, in September 2007, soldiers shot and beat hundreds of young Buddhist monks and students marching for democracy in Yangon—quelling what was called the Saffron Revolution. Scenes of the violence were captured on cellphone video cameras and quickly beamed around the world. “The Burmese people deserve better. They deserve to be able to live in freedom, just as everyone does,” then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in late September of that year, speaking at the United Nations. “The brutality of this regime is well known.”

Now a new generation of Burmese is testing the limits of government repression, experimenting with new ways of defying the dictatorship. The pro-democracy movement has taken on many forms. Rap musicians and artists slip allusions to drugs, politics and sex past Myanmar’s censors. Last year, a subversive art network known as Generation Wave, whose 50 members are all under age 30, used street art, hip-hop music and poetry to express their dissatisfaction with the regime. Members smuggled underground-music CDs into the country and created graffiti insulting Gen. Than Shwe, the country’s 78-year-old dictator, and calling for Suu Kyi’s release. Half the Generation Wave membership was jailed as a result. Young bloggers, deep underground, are providing reportage to anti-regime publications and Web sites, such as Irrawaddy Weekly and Mizzima News, put out by Burmese exiles. The junta has banned these outlets and tries to block access to them inside the country.

Young activists have also called attention to the dictatorship’s lack of response to human suffering. According to the British-based human rights group Burma Campaign, the Burmese government abandoned victims of the devastating 2008 cyclone that killed more than 138,000 people and has allowed thousands to go untreated for HIV and AIDS. (Although more than 50 international relief organizations work in Myanmar, foreign donors tend to be chary with humanitarian aid, fearing that it will end up lining the pockets of the generals.) Activists have distributed food and supplies to cyclone victims and the destitute and opened Myanmar’s only private HIV-AIDS facility, 379 Gayha (Gayha means shelter house; the street number is 379). The government has repeatedly tried to shut the clinic down but has backed off in the face of neighborhood protests and occasional international press attention.

It’s not quite a youth revolution, as some have dubbed it—more like a sustained protest carried out by a growing number of courageous individuals. “Our country has the second-worst dictatorship in the world, after North Korea,” said Thxa Soe, 30, a London-educated Burmese rapper who has gained a large following. “We can’t sit around and silently accept things as they are.”

Some in Myanmar believe they now have the best chance for reform in decades. This past November, the country held its first election since 1990, a carefully scripted affair that grafted a civilian facade onto the military dictatorship. The regime-sponsored party captured 78 percent of the vote, thus guaranteeing itself near-absolute power for another five years. Many Western diplomats denounced the result as a farce. But six days later, The Lady, as her millions of supporters call Suu Kyi, was set free. “They presumed she was a spent force, that all of those years of being in confinement had reduced her aura,” says a Western diplomat in Yangon. Instead, Suu Kyi quickly buoyed her supporters with a pledge to resume the struggle for democracy, and exhorted the “younger generation” to lead the way. Myanmar’s youth, she told me in an interview at her party headquarters this past December, holds the key to transforming the country. “There are new openings, and people’s perceptions have changed,” she said. “People will no longer submit and accept everything the [regime says] as the truth.”

I first visited Myanmar during a post-college backpacking trip through Asia in 1980. On a hot and humid night, I took a taxi from the airport through total darkness to downtown Yangon, a slum of decaying British-colonial buildings and vintage automobiles rumbling down potholed roads. Even limited television broadcasts in Myanmar were still a year away. The country felt like a vast time warp, entirely shut off from Western influence.

Thirty years later, when I returned to the country—traveling on a tourist visa—I found that Myanmar has joined the modern world. Chinese businessmen and other Asian investors have poured money into hotels, restaurants and other real estate. Down the road from my faux-colonial hotel, the Savoy, I passed sushi bars, trattorias and a Starbucks knockoff where young Burmese fire text messages to one another over bran muffins and latte macchiatos. Despite efforts by the regime to restrict Internet use (and shut it down completely in times of crisis), young people crowd the city’s many cybercafés, trading information over Facebook, watching YouTube and reading about their country on a host of political Web sites. Satellite dishes have sprouted like mushrooms from the rooftop of nearly every apartment building; for customers unable or unwilling to pay fees, the dishes can be bought in the markets of Yangon and Mandalay and installed with a small bribe. “As long as you watch in your own home, nobody bothers you,” I was told by my translator, a 40-year-old former student activist I’ll call Win Win, an avid watcher of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a satellite TV channel produced by Burmese exiles in Norway, as well as the BBC and Voice of America. Win Win and his friends pass around pirated DVDs of documentaries such as Burma VJ, an Academy Award-nominated account of the 2007 protests, and CDs of subversive rock music recorded in secret studios in Myanmar.

After a few days in Yangon, I flew to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, to see a live performance by J-Me, one of the country’s most popular rap musicians and the star attraction at a promotional event for Now, a fashion and culture magazine. Five hundred young Burmese, many wearing “I Love Now” T-shirts, packed a Mandalay hotel ballroom festooned with yellow bunting and illuminated by strobe lights.


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