Myanmar is a country divided by religious conflict, but a group of altruistic rebels are refusing to give into fear of ‘the other’.
Punk’s pacifist roots have endured around the world, from anti-war protestors to Riot Grrrls. Now that history is continuing in Myanmar, a country divided by religious conflict, where a group of altruistic rebels are refusing to give into fear of ‘the other’.
Inside a run-down apartment block in Yangon, a filthy stairwell leads to the communal apartment shared by Common Street: a growing collective of teenage punks and activists.
Lightbulbs hang precariously from a vintage wiring system, mattresses rest against the wall and studded jackets are draped across window frames instead of curtains. Twenty-nine-year-old Kyaw Kyaw is the collective’s elder statesman, as well as being the frontman for punk band Rebel Riot. His hair is shaven down the sides, a mohawk that changes every few days from blond to green to red. He’s a softly spoken yet charismatic presence whose drive commands the attention of his peers. They respectfully stand one-foot away as he tests a second-hand screen-printing press, which the group has just bought for $700.
The five friends watching are dressed entirely in black, their far-reaching tattoos blurring the divide between body and fashion. From a distance they appear like tribal jewellery, worn to signify a shared identity.
In a country where traditions are held in high regard, it’s a look that can’t help but stand out. And for the old guard in particular, stranded between the oppressive Myanmar of yesteryear and the newfound freedoms of late, it takes a little getting used to.
“Some parents are very strong,” says Kyaw, whose father is a retired policeman. “They act like dictators. They used to not agree with my life; they wanted me to live normally and they did not like seeing me with coloured hair and tattoos. But I talked to them about freedom, personality and attitude, and they opened their minds to punk. So now they accept me.”
“When some of my friends wanted to be punk, they would pretend to be normal at home, put their clothes in a bag, then come to our house and style their hair,” says Kyaw, still tinkering with the printing press. “Then they would have to change back again before they went home.”
Ashay Gyi, a bassist for the band System Error, is proud to have made Common Street his home away from home. “My parents are very conservative,” he says. “Eventually it was too uncomfortable to live with my family, so I had to leave. I miss them, but I no longer feel stressed because people are forcing me to fit in with normal society. Now I have a new family, and new brothers.”
Later that day, Common Street punks Ye Yint and Japan Gyi attend a small gig in the Maha Bandula Park. It’s a young crowd and the pair don’t stick out. After years as outsiders, it seems these punks may have finally been accepted.
But the idea of striking up a makeshift family, one based on shared interests and a common worldview, is somewhat radical in Myanmar. It’s only in recent years that outsider culture has even been permitted in a country that, despite a wave of political reforms, many believe still operates as a quasi-military state.
Before 2010, when the slow transition to liberal democracy began, the likes of records and books were treated like gold-dust. Legend has it that a sailor who stumbled upon punk culture while traveling in the early ’90s encouraged his crew of BMX enthusiasts to lift its aesthetics. “He brought an old magazine back from one of the countries he visited,” says Kyaw. “In it was an interview with the Sex Pistols. They liked what they were wearing, so they copied it.”
The music itself soon followed, with travellers smuggling copies of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols into Myanmar before spreading it by word-of-mouth. “I’m from the countryside,” says Ye Yint. “One day my friend visited Yangon and came back with a punk CD. I had no idea what it was – I thought punk was all about fighting and violence. After listening to the music and the lyrics, I started to understand what punk culture was really about.”
For many in Common Street, the discovery of punk soundtracked a growing understanding of Myanmar’s violent history, along with recognition of the inequalities and injustices still impacting the nation to this day. Coming of age in the ’90s, the group spent much of their childhoods blissfully unaware of the uprising being pursued by their elders. “I was a very happy child, even though the system was shit,” recalls Kyaw, who was born a year before the 1988 uprising. “We were just happy with the life we had. We didn’t know about politics.”
The 1988 anti-government riots were the bloody culmination of years of protest against Myanmar’s prime minister Ne Win, who had spearheaded a disastrous economic policy that morphed the country, also known as Burma, from a prosperous nation into one of the world’s most impoverished.
Deeply superstitious, Win replaced the national currency with new denominations divisible by the number nine. The savings of millions were subsequently rendered null, practically overnight, leading to widespread protests that were brutally suppressed by the military regime, leaving thousands dead.
Hope soon emerged in the form of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). But when she swept an election in 1990, the win was quickly declared void. She was placed under house arrest until 2010, becoming a symbol of resistance and one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners.
“If we talked about politics, the secret police would arrest us.”
For many of the older punks within Common Street, the events of the late 1980s are little more than a hazy memory. “We knew it had happened, but we could not do anything about it,” says Kyaw. “We thought every country was like this.” It wasn’t until 2003, following the massacre of pro-democracy rebels by government-sponsored mobs in the town of Tabayin, that the youth began to take notice. “I started to feel sad and angry all the time because our people were so oppressed,” Kyaw continues. “We were at the demonstration in 2007 – we saw them shoot people right in front of us. 1988 was just a story people told us. Now we saw it for ourselves.”
The 2007 uprising, dubbed the Saffron Revolution due to the involvement of thousands of Buddhist monks, was a reaction to an unprecedented rise in fuel prices. Largely peaceful protests were met with a brutal military crackdown, with monasteries raided, thousands arrested, and many killed.
During this time, Myanmar’s punk scene was kept largely underground – a result of all writing, filmmaking and lyrical content requiring approval by the state before publication. For musicians, only songs about love were legally permitted. To work around that legislation, punk bands performed secret gigs organised through text messages and funded by DIY merchandising – just as Rebel Riot print T-shirts, pants and pins marked with defiant punk slogans.
Today, Myanmar is on a precipice. In 2015, the NLD swept a general election and took majority control over the government, possibly paving the way to democracy after decades of military rule. And despite being constitutionally barred from the Presidency, Aung San Suu Kyi still holds power in her position as State Consultant. But while on the surface the country appears to be moving forward, there remains a cynicism about its newfound democracy. “The situation is good [now] because the government is about to change over, and I think Aung San Suu Kyi will be very good,” Kyaw says. “Nothing really changed in the last four years, but we hope that the election will bring real change.”
For Kyaw, freedom of information has been the greatest win. “The media is free, the internet is free, and communication is free, so we can say whatever we want about politics. Seven or eight years ago, if we talked about politics, the secret police would arrest us. Even if we talked about democracy, we’d be arrested.”
Ye Yint believes the country’s education system should be next in line for reform. “After graduation, there are no jobs for young people here. It was like that under the military government and it is like that now. Maybe the democratic government will change things – but we haven’t seen anything yet.”
But there’s another shadow hanging over Myanmar that troubles Kyaw: the continued oppression of the country’s Rohingya Muslim population, who have long been victims of human rights abuses. The religious divide is deep and far-reaching; even Buddhist monk organisations involved in pro-democracy struggles have allegedly blocked humanitarian aid from reaching the Rohingya people.
“Many Buddhists are not real Buddhists,” Kyaw says. “They just believe in traditional, conservative beliefs. I think that people have been politically brainwashed. In schools, they brainwash kids with a combination of Buddhism and nationalism. That is why we are more conservative than other places, and it’s why everyone [here] hates Islam and Chinese people so much; they think we are poor because they are rich.”
Kyaw remains steadfast in his own interpretation of Buddhism, merging the religion’s pacifist ideals with punk-infused defiance, but some of his compatriots are less embracing. “I don’t believe in any religion,” Ashay says. “Islam, Buddhism, Christianity – they all just try and teach people hate. This is why I don’t believe in it. If we have our own ethics, then we wouldn’t need religion, and society would be better.”
Like all good punks, Common Street are driven by action, not talk. They’ve launched their own branch of Food Not Bombs, the US-born collective bringing food to those in poverty. “It started in America and was also against the government and capitalism, but we wanted to do things differently,” Kyaw says. “The important thing is not the food, [but] kindness and compassion. We don’t just deliver food – we ask them if they are OK, we look them in the eye and talk to them. This is what they really need. People think it is the food they want first, something physical, but it is actually the mind that wants most.”
That line of thinking has inspired their latest venture. “Books Not Bombs is our new project,” Kyaw explains. “We noticed that a lot of people use social media and do not read, so we want to start sharing e-books with kids. Food solves hunger, books give knowledge. We want to share stories and educate kids, so in ten years’ time they can help change [their] futures.”
Kyaw’s wisdom casts him as a surrogate father, brother and best friend to those who align themselves to the collective. It’s this natural magnetism that appealed to director Andreas Hartmann, who follows the work of Common Street and Rebel Riot in the documentary My Buddha Is Punk. “They’re a generation in a phase of departure, of searching for tremendous change, and their behaviour often casts a vivid reflection of society as a whole,” he says. “People like Kyaw have a clear vision and can articulate what they stand for. He is very smart and open-minded, but he doesn’t see himself as a leader and doesn’t want to be one, as the ideals deny having one.”
Throughout the film, Kyaw insists on group unity above hierarchy, explaining that both Buddhism and punk have “no order”. It’s a difficult balance to strike, particularly when Kyaw’s wisdom inspires such devotion. “I think he’s in an ambivalent position,” Andreas says. “It must be difficult to strongly promote and support a movement without using methods of leading. How do you make your dreams come true without pushing that?”
Kyaw may not see himself as a leader, but his instinct is to offer guidance. In one scene in the film, Kyaw spots a young boy and asks him what he wants to be when he grows up. The boy replies that he wants to be a soldier. “It’s not good to be a soldier,” Kyaw replies. “They are killing people. And you can also get killed. Don’t do it. [The police are] also not good. They only want money. If they get money, they send good guys to jail. If the bad guys pay money, they let them go.”
The boy is clearly enamoured by this enigmatic figure with bleached blond hair and a studded jacket – but also confused. “There is only one thing that is good,” says Kyaw, throwing the kid a lifeline. “Be a street guy,” he says with a wink. “Just like us.”