Rotten, Vicious Times: Burma's Punk Scene Fights Repression Underground

By , in Rangoon

Despite signs of greater openness, Burma's government continues to wield an iron fist. Among its targets is the punk scene, whose bands are forced to play and practice in secret to avoid harsh punishments. Here, punk isn't a lifestyle. It is an act of genuine rebellion.

The punk band Rebel Riot stands on a makeshift stage in an abandoned restaurant on the outskirts of downtown Rangoon, Burma's largest city. They wear their hair spiked straight up and studded leather jackets. "Saida! Saida! Saida!" singer Kyaw Kyaw barks into the microphone, "Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!" The drummer pounds away at his set while the guitars reverberate through the room. "No fear! No indecision! Rage against the system of the oppressors!" Kyaw Kyaw howls.

Meanwhile, about 50 fellow punks, none much older than 25, are romping around in front of the stage wearing T-shirts that say "Fuck Capitalism" or "Sex Pistols." They jump around wildly and fling themselves to the ground. The air is hot and sticky. The entire crowd sings along: "Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!"

In Burma, punk is far more than just a superficial copy of its Western counterpart. Here, what is probably the most rebellious of all subcultures in the Southeast Asian country is going up against one of the world's most authoritarian regimes. Punk gives young Burmese a chance to symbolically spit in the face of the hated government, which took power in 2010 in the wake of what was widely considered a fraudulent election. Although the government has shown initial signs of greater open-mindedness, which included the release of political prisoners in recent months, Burma is still far from a state that embraces the rule of law.

"We young people in Burma have become punks to protest against the political and economic situation in our country," Kyaw Kyaw says. He says there are about 200 punks in Rangoon and perhaps another hundred in Mandalay, the country's second-largest city.

Poverty, Frustration and Hatred

A few days after the concert, Kyaw Kyaw is at home. Wearing a Ramones T-shirt and tight jeans, he is sitting on a battered plastic chair in the room he shares with his parents and two siblings. Behind a partition is the pallet the entire family sleeps on. The roof is made of corrugated metal, and they prepare meals in a brick fireplace. The 24-year-old works at a textile factory, where he earns the equivalent of €50 ($65) a month. Pointing to his studded leather jacket, he says, "For this, I had to save for an entire year."

Living in poverty is frustrating enough for Burmese like Kyaw Kyaw. But it becomes unbearable when they learn about the indulgent lifestyles of the ruling elites who park their luxurious SUVs in front of cream-colored villas in the sealed-off capital of Naypyidaw.

"The government keeps the people in poverty," says a 30-year-old who goes by the name of Scum, spitting on the ground. "It's a daily struggle just to get by." Protests are rarely possible, he says. Scum is one of the leaders of Rangoon's punk scene. He is sitting on a tattered sofa, the only piece of furniture in his narrow one-room apartment. Dirty dishes are piled up on the floor. In the corner, there's a box with English-language books. Scum studied literature, but now he makes a paltry income selling tickets for an illegal lottery. He refuses to have a legal job because he says it "would only be supporting the government."

Scum wears combat boots and tight leather pants. His upper body is covered in tattoos. "This one," he says, pointing the word "hatred" inked onto his stomach, "stands for my hatred of the regime."

A Victim of Power

Scum is not impressed by the country's recent transfer of power to a civil government after almost five decades of iron-fisted military rule. After all, he says, the new government is mostly made up of members of the former ruling junta. Scum slumps back into the sofa, "There are secret police everywhere here," he says. "When they learn that I've spoken about politics, they'll put a sack over my head and take me away."

Scum is not to be cowed. He hates the regime more than he fears it. Until two years ago, he sat behind bars at Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison, a dismal brick building left over from British colonial times. Its cells are narrow, dirty and swarming with vermin. There's little more than trash to eat.

His mother was allowed to visit every few months. In the beginning, his girlfriend also came. But, before long, she had written him off and stopped visiting. "People in Burma say that a person has little chance of surviving a prison sentence longer than five years," Scum says. But he survived six.

Police officially arrested Scum for carrying a bag of marijuana. But it was just a pretext for locking away a troublemaker. In prison, Scum became a heroin addict, buying drugs from corrupt guards. Though he's out of prison now, he hasn't been able to get off the drugs. He still tries to suppress the memories.

"I wasted the best years of my life behind bars," Scum says. "What more can they do to me? They can't stop me from talking about freedom."

'In Burma , Punk Is Not a Game'

"If we just accept what's going on here, nothing will change," says Kyaw Kyaw, as he plugs an electric guitar into an amplifier. "I'm doing everything I can to shake people up." That's why he founded Rebel Riot in 2007. It happened during the period when the military junta cracked down on the so-called "Saffron Revolution" launched by Buddhist monks. Thousands of demonstrators were arrested then, and soldiers were ordered to shoot upon their own people. People in Burma are still deeply shocked by these events. None of the punks believe that the new government is serious about its newfound political openness. "Only a revolution can change the system," Kyaw Kyaw says.

Rebel Riot holds regular practice sessions in out-of-the-way buildings along the railroad tracks. To keep noise from escaping and giving them away, they line the walls with Styrofoam. Kyaw Kyaw's singing is backed by a drummer, guitarist and bass guitarist. "We are poor, hungry and have no chance," Kyaw Kyaw sings into the microphone. "Human rights don't apply to us. We are victims, victims, victims."

Every few months, Rebel Riot gets together with other punk bands to play in what are usually abandoned buildings around Rangoon. Though the gigs are only open to members of the punk scene, they are still dangerous. Anyone in the crowd could turn out to be a government informer.

Ko Nyan organizes most of these punk concerts. The 38-year-old makes a living selling punk T-shirts and CDs at a market stand in Rangoon. He is also one of Burma's original punks. In the mid 1990s, he read an article about the Sex Pistols, the legendary British punk band, in a music magazine he fished out of the British Embassy's garbage. Ko and his friends try to imitate the look of the musicians they saw, which comes as a shock to their countrymen. "When we walk through the market, everyone just stops and stares at us," he says. "They have no idea what punk is and just think we are crazy."

Sailors brought the first punk tapes to Burma from their travels to the West. "They were the only ones allowed to leave," Ko says. "They were the ones who brought punk to Burma."

Though it is a bit easier to leave the country these days, he still doesn't trust the regime. "We live in a damn police state in which we're risking our lives," Ko says. "In Burma, punk is not a game. It's a way of life -- and for that we deserve respect." He then closes up his shop and steps out into the streets of Rangoon, a city where punk is an act of genuine rebellion.

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