Hotel employees were handing out copies of the Myanmar Times, a largely apolitical English-language weekly filled with bland headlines: “Prominent Monk Helps Upgrade Toilets at Monasteries,” “Election Turnout Higher Than in 1990.” In a sign of the slightly more liberal times, the paper did carry a photograph inside of Suu Kyi, embracing her younger son, Kim Aris, 33, at Myanmar’s Yangon International Airport in late November—their first meeting in ten years. Suu Kyi was married to British academic Michael Aris, who died of cancer in 1999; he failed to gain permission to visit his wife during his final days. The couple’s older son, Alexander Aris, 37, lives in England.
At the hotel, a dozen Burmese fashion models ambled down a catwalk before J-Me leapt onto the stage wearing sunglasses and a black leather jacket. The tousle-haired 25-year-old rapped in Burmese about love, sex and ambition. In one song, he described “a young guy in downtown Rangoon” who “wants to be somebody. He’s reading English language magazines, looking inside, pasting the photos on his wall of the heroes he wants to be.”
The son of a half-Irish mother and a Burmese father, J-Me avoids criticizing the regime directly. “I got nothing on my joint that spits against anyone,” the baby-faced rapper told me, falling into hip-hop vernacular. “I’m not lying, I’m real. I rap about self-awareness, partying, going out, spending money, the youth that’s struggling to come up and be successful in the game.” He said his songs reflect the concerns of Myanmar’s younger generation. “Maybe some kids are patriotic, saying, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi is out of jail, let’s go down and see her.’ But mostly they’re thinking about getting out of Burma, going to school abroad.”
Not every rapper treads as carefully as J-Me. Thxa Soe needles the regime from a recording studio in a dilapidated apartment block in Yangon. “I know you’re lying, I know you’re smiling, but your smile is lying,” he says in one song. In another, titled “Buddha Doesn’t Like Your Behavior,” he warns: “If you behave like that, it’s gonna come back to you one day.” When I caught up with him, he was rehearsing for a Christmas Day concert with J-Me and a dozen other musicians and preparing for another battle with the censors. “I have a history of politics, that’s why they watch me and ban so many things,” the chunky 30-year-old told me.
Thxa Soe grew up steeped in opposition politics: his father, a member of Suu Kyi’s NLD Party, has been repeatedly jailed for participating in protests and calling for political reform. One uncle fled the country in 2006; a cousin was arrested during student protests in the 1990s and was put in prison for five years. “He was tortured, he has brain damage, and he can’t work,” Thxa Soe said. His musical awakening came in the early 1990s, when a friend in Myanmar’s merchant marine smuggled him cassettes of Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer. Later, his father installed a satellite dish on their roof; Thxa Soe spent hours a day glued to MTV. During his four years as a student at London’s School of Audio Engineering, he says, “I got a feeling about democracy, about freedom of speech.” He cut his first album in 2000 and has tangled with censors ever since. Last year, the government banned all 12 tracks on his live-concert album and an accompanying video that took him a year to produce; officials claimed he showed contempt for “traditional Burmese music” by mixing it up with hip-hop.
During a recent trip to New York City, Thxa Soe participated in a benefit concert performed before hundreds of members of the Burmese exile community at a Queens high school. Some of the money raised there went to help HIV/AIDS sufferers in Myanmar.
Thxa Soe isn’t the only activist working for that cause. Shortly after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, I met the organizers of the 379 Gayha AIDS shelter at the NLD Party headquarters one weekday afternoon. Security agents with earpieces and cameras were watching from a tea shop across the street as I pulled up to the office building near the Shwedagon Pagoda, a golden stupa that towers 30 stories over central Yangon and is the most venerated Buddhist shrine in Myanmar. The large, ground-floor space was bustling with volunteers in their 20s and 30s, journalists, human-rights activists and other international visitors, and people from Myanmar’s rural countryside who had come seeking food and other donations. Posters taped on the walls depicted Suu Kyi superimposed over a map of Myanmar and images of Che Guevara and her father.
Over a lunch of rice and spicy beef delivered by pushcart, Phyu Phyu Thin, 40, the founder of the HIV/AIDS shelter, told me about its origins. In 2002, concerned by the lack of treatment facilities and retroviral drugs outside Yangon and Mandalay, Suu Kyi recruited 20 NLD neighborhood youth leaders to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. Estimates suggest that at least a quarter million Burmese are living with HIV.