Yangon punker Min Sid at Shwedagon Pagoda

Peace Through Punk Rock

In America, punk is a safe & ­predictable rite of passage; in Myanmar it's a matter of life & death

Min Sid’s upper lip curls and his tattooed hands twitch at the wrist. Slight spasms grab at the 22-year-old punk rocker’s cheek as he examines the sharp silhouettes in front of him. Onstage at the Caribbean-themed Pirate Bar in downtown Yangon, he’s a living metaphor for his country, Myanmar—its modern skin and its bone-deep agony.

He wrote songs in 2017 while weaning himself off heroin with street methadone and amphetamines. Tremors still run like falling dominoes up his arms and into his face, a steady hum below Min Sid’s smile as he watches 50 punks, all dyed Mohawks and fishnet T-shirts, fall over one another. Everyone is sloppy-friendly drunk, and everyone in the room loves Min Sid, the Yangon punk scene’s rising star. Everyone is his brother—his “bruzaaah!” Still, he can’t help but wonder if the police will cut the power to the show, as they have in the past, or how many of the taxi drivers hopping out of their cabs to eyeball the crowd are paid police informants.

For these 20-somethings dousing one another in beer, this is a gathering of chosen family. The Yangon punk scene breaks down into three waves stretching back to the mid-1990s, and luminaries from all three are in attendance. Shway (not his real name), the reclusive founding father of Yangon punk, with hair too thin to be teased into a Mohawk, perches on a bar stool with his video camera. He brought the first punk CDs—bootlegged compilations of songs by New York band the Casualties—into the Yangon open-air markets in 1996. Kyaw Thu Win, a.k.a. Kyaw Kyaw, is credited with founding the scene’s more worldly and web-savvy second wave. His band, Rebel Riot, has been covered extensively by European journalists and young documentary filmmakers ever since. Tonight he’s master of ceremonies, popping in and out of the spotlight, hyping the younger musicians and rallying the crowd with chants: “Fuck discrimination! Fuck the war!”

At punk shows from Oakland, California to Ridgewood, New York, cries like these are obligatory, implied or mocked, and the studded jackets are Halloween costumes—relics of a scene supplanted by myriad subgenres. In Myanmar, where decades of discrimination have tumbled into genocide and the civil war has been nursed by successive junta leaders to span the past seven decades, “fuck the war” means fuck the norm. It means fuck the one thing all 135 ethnicities in Myanmar have in common—life dangerously close to blood-speckled grass and villages set ablaze by government soldiers.
Ten or 20 foreign aid workers pepper the floor, swaying above the native crowd like pale palms in thick tennis shoes. (Most nights, Pirate Bar is where this group seeks new faces in the humanitarian dating pool.) Like every other damp, green-lit gin mill and beer station in Yangon, Pirate Bar tends to observe an unspoken ban on political discussions, with a special sensitivity to opinions about the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar’s Rakhine state. So it’s an unlikely place for an ideological cri de coeur, but on this April night, the world churning around the pencil-thin punk musicians of Myanmar’s largest city has made it one. Since Shway’s first efforts, a line has been drawn between Yangon punks and the rest of their conservative homeland. When Min Sid and his band, Outcast, take the stage, they’re entering their country’s culture war, a shouting match between the Buddhist majority, more than 35 million strong, and a small community of derelict punk rockers, starving artists and university students.

Both sides have their heels dug in, jockeying for the philosophical heart of a military state only recently reopened to the West with the free election of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015. The three-front civil war the government has waged against minority populations for the past 70 years has been decried in only a few places in Myanmar; Pirate Bar is one of them. Cops generally tolerate the punks, but the bar is only a mile from the notoriously corrupt Kyauktada police station, so all bets are off. In January 2018, Kyauktada station cops forced poet and Muslim civil rights activist Than Toe Aung into the back of a van. They beat him there and at the station before his family paid a bribe for his release.

Suddenly power chords pummel the thick air, ascending in pitch and volume; in his mind, Min Sid begins to levitate. Music is like heroin in that way, he says later: It makes him feel like he’s floating. He turns his back to the crowd and focuses on the scrawny musicians onstage with him.

He screams into the mike, “Break boundaraaaay!”

He’s floating above the boundaries he grew up with—a nationalist education, a traditional Burmese society based on conformity and a marathon of military assaults that formed a circle of death around Yangon.

He aims his addled truth at the ceiling: “Cunt authoritaaaay!”

A few blocks beyond Min Sid’s voice, in the Yaw Min Gyi neighborhood, Buddhist devotees young and old lay down long red carpets on closed-off streets. It’s only a few weeks before the April New Year’s celebration, and plush outdoor meditation rugs line large portions of the city. Rocking back and forth with their eyes closed, somewhere between wakefulness and sleep, monks lead the crowd droning mantras for hours into the hot night.
Inquisitive foreigners are likely to be told they have no right to speak about Myanmar, but the reality of this young democracy is that natives are also limited in their right to talk about their country.
Burma, the former British colony and Japanese puppet state, rejected its colonial name in 1989 in exchange for Myanmar, a move meant to acknowledge not just the ethnic Burmese majority but all the ethnicities within its borders. That may have been the government’s last move toward inclusivity. Its attacks on the Rohingya, Kachin, Shan and Karen people in 2017 and 2018 make Myanmar’s overarching domestic policy look like a race to violently displace minorities—for mineral resources in the case of the Kachin, for poppy farmland in the case of the Shan and Karen, and for fear of a religious and cultural takeover in the case of the Rohingya Muslims.

The Myanmar government of the 1990s was as opaque and as opposed to freedom of expression as it is today. Large expanses of the countryside were closed to journalists and the public, as they are now. Locals say much of that land was grabbed by the military and privately mined for jade or divided into government contract farms. Those who got too close to exposing the illegal economies in those regions were jailed or disappeared altogether, according to Kyaw Kyaw. “There is danger for people who make noise—still today,” he says.

The journalist Soe Moe Tun, reporting on illegal logging in the Sagaing region, was beaten to death in late 2016. The same year, two reporters’ homes were threatened with bombs in the Rakhine and Kachin states. In another case, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters reporters who uncovered a mass grave and verified the summary execution of 10 Rohingya men by government soldiers and Buddhist villagers in Rakhine state in the fall of 2017, have been sentenced to seven-year prison sentences for violating the Official Secrets Act. A vague and antiquated piece of colonial legislation, the OSA was enacted by the British Governorate in 1923 to classify evidence of corruption as an official state secret, allowing colonials to jail Burmese insurgents.

Myanmar’s openness to Western business can be seen in the expat boat parties in the port of Yangon and the slick bars and English-language classrooms popping up all over the city. Distrust of the Western media and international standards of free speech, which flowed in with the American and European money, is just as plain.

“Fake news from America!” is a frequent café reaction to New York Times stories that treat Myanmar government militarism as acts of war instead of self-defense or antiterrorism measures. Inquisitive foreigners are likely to be told they have no right to speak about Myanmar, but the reality of this young democracy is that natives are also limited in their right to talk about their country. Laws governing protest, telecommunications and defamation, many left over from British colonial rule, are still used by the government to jail critics. Human Rights Watch reports that by the beginning of 2016, 166 people were awaiting trial for breaking the Peaceful Assembly Law, including students who’d protested against the role of the military in government, farmers who’d protested the confiscation of their land for government gem mines and journalists who’d protested the arrest of other journalists. The legislation’s vague language penalizes “statements likely to cause fear and alarm” and those who “disturb the public tranquility.” 

To make matters worse, political activism in Myanmar fell into complacency after once lauded humanitarian Aung San Suu Kyi took office as state counselor in 2016.
  
“Their reasoning was that Aung San Suu Kyi was elected democratically. It’s what the people wanted, so what is there left to protest?” says Zin Linn, a Yangon-based musician and activist on the fringes of the punk scene.

Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s election, the Tatmadaw, the military arm of the Myanmar government, has maintained considerable operations countrywide. In August, the United Nations called for Myanmar’s military leaders to be tried in the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes committed during the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya. By September China had announced its opposition to “internationalizing” issues surrounding the Rohingya crisis, effectively saying it would vote against extraditing Myanmar’s military leaders for a trial.

Aung San Suu Kyi has proven reluctant to denounce the government’s scorched-earth campaign in the Rakhine state; as a result, she’s been stripped of human rights prizes including the Elie Wiesel Award from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Freedom of Oxford award and the Freedom of the City of Dublin award.

“She’s the same as all the others,” Zin Linn says. “It doesn’t matter how they get power.” 

The Pirate Bar stage feels like the only place in Yangon where popular opinion doesn’t fall blindly in step with the government’s propaganda newspapers. Endless Western media reports that Rohingya Muslims continue to flee government-sanctioned violence in Rakhine, along with news of a spike in military assaults in Kachin, have created a sense that Yangon is an alternate universe. Silent while war is all around. Silent except for this beer-soaked bastion of free expression.
Buddha didn’t need anybody else. He went his own way, like Johnny Cash.
Kyaw Kyaw says that Shway passed down his primary tenet of punk in 2004: “Solidarity,” he said, “is number one.” 

Those words have echoed between Kyaw Kyaw’s shaved temples for the past 14 years. In that time he has become the charismatic, English-speaking face of the Yangon punk scene. He and Rebel Riot are the focus of the documentary My Buddha Is Punk, released last January on Vimeo on Demand. Another rumored project, a crowd-funded narrative film about a female filmmaker from Europe marginalized because of her fetish for Asian males, began production in the summer of 2017; Kyaw Kyaw plays the pierced love interest.
But visibility alone doesn’t pay the bills, so Kyaw Kyaw converted his apartment, perched in a walk-up in the Hledan district, into a screen-printing shop. (The Rebel Riot shop sign being difficult to see from the street, it’s much easier to follow the sound of Bob Marley, Cannibal Corpse and Pantera upward to the third-floor balcony.) The sale of Rebel Riot shirts pays for rent and food for the transient musicians between gigs. More important, the shop is where everyone meets. When I walk in, a metal guitarist and a Vice journalist visiting from Hamburg are smoking and talking about politics and the punk scene in Germany. Punks from the countryside wander into the shop for drunken jam sessions and family-style meals. Outcast drummer Japan Gyi celebrated his 22nd birthday there over a meal of Myanmar Beer, dried crickets and sautéed chicken heads.

Kyaw Kyaw appears to have taken Shway’s philosophy of solidarity to heart while dodging corrupt police and protesting the conflicts that encircle Yangon. Focusing on the idea that political change in Myanmar must be generational, for the past three years he has been on a mission to expose schoolchildren in rural villages to punk (not to mention pop) music, the arts and the international media before they get hooked on government-controlled television news. Through crowd-funding, Rebel Riot has toured Thailand, Indonesia and much of Eastern Europe, building a roster of promoters and paving the way for Outcast and other third-wave bands.

Solidarity was number one with Shway because he knew the punk community would suffocate without it. They are a generation on the margins of a traditional Buddhist society that often sees artists as people too stupid or weak to pursue careers in business. Their country is by turns maniacally pacifist and militaristic, a new democracy and an old colony. Individual rights are determined by the ethnicity listed on a person’s national identification card. A tightly knit punk community—and vocal opposition to the government war machine—could grow if musicians and fans had one another’s tattooed backs, if they lived as though punk were their listed ethnicity.

Meanwhile, Kyaw Kyaw and his band are at constant risk. Threats rolled in over Facebook after Kyaw Kyaw posed as a punk-rock version of Buddha while other members of Rebel Riot dressed as Jesus and the Hindu goddess Shiva for a photo shoot in Thailand. When the threats intensified and found their way to Kyaw Kyaw’s cell phone, he signed an agreement with a Yangon governing body stating that he would never again punkify the Buddha. But that didn’t stop him from writing a song called “Fuck Religious Rules”:

     Fuck religious rules
     There are no human rights by religious rules
     There is genocide by religious wars
     Religious rules fuck off!

Religious conservatism isn’t the only thing threatening to snuff out the Yangon punk scene. Min Sid began his path to punk rock enlightenment—and his descent into addiction—in the blackest, moldiest concrete tenement on Lan Thit Yeit Thar, a street on the west side of the city. Here, scraps of thick, construction-grade bamboo, browned palm fronds and the silhouettes of passed-out drunks decorate the sidewalk. When it rains, cigarette butts roll into the awnings and tumble down, floor by floor, into black puddles on the sidewalk. The older buildings, with their porous concrete under-muscle exposed, grow another layer of mold, wide black patches that fade out like reverb.

In the stairwell leading up to his home, in the shadows cast by the rebar security door, Min Sid shot heroin into his arm for the first time. As a teen, he was getting paid to turn his sketches of animals into tattoos. Sometimes kids in the neighborhood paid in cash; sometimes they paid in drugs. Min Sid quickly learned his place in the world’s second-largest opioid-producing drug economy (Afghanistan being number one). Opioids and amphetamines produced in Kachin state and in the Wa region of the Shan state make their way to Yangon, according to Min Sid, and beyond the borders to Bangladesh via a network of corrupt statesmen, tribal leaders and police. Use of the product as currency is a testament to its popularity and its casual tether to daily life. Workers who produce heroin and other drugs, and those who distribute them, are often paid in kind and encouraged to use or sell, Min Sid says.

According to Nang Pann Ei Kham of the Drug Policy Advocacy group in Myanmar, there were 83,000 injection-drug users in the country in 2016. In 2017, Myanmar journalists reported that authorities had seized 4.6 million methamphetamine pills in February in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township, near the border of Bangladesh, and 400,000 additional pills that May. The same year, $220 million in opiates and amphetamines were seized and burned by the government for show. The Associated Press took a video.

Two of Min Sid’s close friends died heroin-related deaths. His addicted cousin disappeared into the countryside and has been missing for the past three years. Min Sid didn’t feel right screaming “cunt authority” while he was lining the authorities’ pockets, even as a small-time addict. On top of tragedy and hypocrisy, there were the relentless beatings—though not ones delivered by gangs or other druggies over money or territory. Min Sid’s traditional Burmese mother whupped him silly every time she saw him high, including the time she and his father carried him to the hospital, shitting his pants and choking on his own vomit.

“It was hard on my family, so my mom was hard on me,” he says, his hand instinctively moving upward to cover the back of his head.
A few days after the Pirate Bar show, Min Sid and I are walking around diamond-topped Shwedagon Pagoda, his country’s most sacred temple. Somehow he’s the one who looks like a foreigner—a guy in black sneaking off to smoke cigs, a huge breach of pagoda etiquette, while everyone else is lighting incense, praying and washing the Buddha statues for luck. 

“These people forget that Buddha didn’t need anybody else,” Min Sid says. “He went his own way, like Johnny Cash.”

Many of the families here most likely don’t believe that more than half a million people have been forcibly uprooted from the northwestern part of their country, or that the military crackdown on the Rohingya has been called genocide by the UN. The state newspapers, The Mirror Daily and The Global New Light of Myanmar, don’t run photos of the burning Muslim houses in Rakhine’s Maungdaw township.

“We trust our government to handle terrorists,” one man says between prayers.

Last April, a young Rohingya citizen journalist was my eye inside Maungdaw. He described a black skyline outside his window, caused, he said, by around-the-clock house fires. They stopped burning only if a European dignitary was coming into the Rakhine state, he said. After his third dictated report, the journalist fled to Bangladesh.

That same month, Thingyan, the annual water festival, began under a clear blue sky in Yangon. It was four days of fire hoses soaking the crowds at outdoor concerts. Drunken water fights between cars on gridlocked streets welcomed Myanmar’s New Year. Having left Bangladesh a month earlier, I knew that right across the Naf River at Tulabagan, the newest Rohingya refugee encampment, Rohingya families had their jerricans lined up around one dry well, waiting for rain.
A man on the street describes Hitler as a “determined artist who, with hard work, made himself into a world leader.” 
Within the Yangon state-media twilight zone, many locals believe the official narrative that the Rohingya have killed one another, set their own houses on fire and displaced themselves en masse in order to gain sympathy from the Western media. Others say the government assault on Rohingya families is a well-deserved retaliation: In August 2017, a group of Rohingya extremists attacked 30 police stations in Rakhine, killing at least a dozen policemen. According to Matthew Wells, a senior crisis advisor with Amnesty International, that same month, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a Rohingya Muslim extremist group, executed nearly 100 Hindu men, women and children. 

The punks look at the military crony government, organized Buddhism and the government education they received with a skepticism that’s hard to find elsewhere in Yangon. They’re unafraid to scream their doubts onstage or to have sympathy for those ignored by the majority of ethnic Burmese. The punks may be hazy on the nuances of the current Myanmar conflicts, but based on their childhoods spent within an aging propaganda machine, they suspect the state narrative isn’t the full story. A lot of what they’ve learned in Myanmar just doesn’t jibe with the rest of the world, suggests Kyaw Kyaw. 

“For example, in Myanmar Hitler is a national hero,” he says. 

Japanese generals founded the Tatmadaw during World War II, and government education in Myanmar still delivers an Axis version of history. According to a local, world history textbooks for grades eight and 10 make no mention of the Holocaust. Descriptions of Nazism and fascism don’t go far beyond “strong” and “unifying.” When I approach a university student for a quick man-on-the-street interview, he describes Hitler as a “determined artist who, with hard work, made himself into a world leader.” Pop your head into a café and you’ll likely glimpse a few Hitler screen savers. If you share a ride with a traveler from Germany, odds are a Yangon taxi driver will give a thumbs-up and say, “Germany good! Hitler good!”

The silence in Yangon crackles. After New Year, an uptick in clashes between the government and Kachin state insurgents displaced 6,000 people. Starving families caught in the crossfire near Hpakant spent the summer hiding in the bush, living on banana stems. Reports from aid agencies in the region read like screams from a distant point in the sea, though Google shows Hpakant to be around a day’s drive away.

The illusion of Myanmar is as convincing as the ragged sparrow handlers who sit on the curb with their caged birds. For a few kyats, a handler will release a bird into the air, freighted with tourist wishes. But they don’t release the birds for long; the cage is their home. The sparrows will return for seeds, to be released and caged again for more money.

“Many things in Myanmar are like this,” Kyaw Kyaw says. “It’s hard for foreigners to see my people. When we are happy we smile at you. When we are angry we also smile.”
At Shwedagon Pagoda, Min Sid and I sing “I’ve Been Everywhere” and “Folsom Prison Blues” while mantras fill the air around us. It isn’t the first time the Man in Black has come up: After the Pirate Bar show, Min Sid stayed drunk for two days, visiting punk-rocker friends and playing music. At one point the punks got into a fistfight with some locals from a village on the outskirts of Yangon—“redneck Burmese,” he called them. When the police asked for the punks’ names, Min Sid slackened his jaw and in a comically deep voice said, “I’m Johnny Cash, and this is Tennessee Two.”

Here at the pagoda, every voice connects to the next. The hum bouncing off the ancient inlaid walls and countless ivory statues of the Buddha brings out the vestigial drug tremor in Min Sid’s cheek. In that moment, in his weary, tattoo-fringed face, I see what Kyaw Kyaw was talking about: angry, smiling. 

 

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