Stifled politically, Burmese find release in music and art


POSTED: Friday, March 26, 2010

YANGON, Myanmar » The dance music thundered through a crowd of thousands of drunken fans, past the pavilions where skinny women in impossibly high heels gyrated around metal poles and into the streets filled with taxis that ferried partygoers to this free, whiskey-soaked concert in the park.

“;Our parents don't allow it, but we do it anyway,”; said Zun Pwint Phyu, one of the dancers who endured hours of lascivious stares.

Myanmar is a country where owning a fax machine without a permit is illegal, where even spontaneous gatherings of more than five people are technically banned and where critics of the government are regularly locked away for decades in tiny prison cells. Yet despite this repression, or perhaps partly because of it, young people here are pushing the limits of what the military government, let alone their parents, considers acceptable art and entertainment.

Art exhibitions, some featuring risky hidden political messages, open nearly every week in Yangon, Myanmar's main city. Yangon has a festival of underground music, including punk bands, twice a year. Fans of the most popular musical genres, hip-hop and electronic dance music, wear low-slung baggy pants to regularly held concerts here.

U Thxa Soe, a popular artist who mixes traditional “;spirit dances”; with something resembling techno music, said he believed that the government tolerated wild concerts in recent years partly because it suited its strategy of control. “;You need to squeeze and release, squeeze and release,”; he said.

“;We live in fear,”; he said. “;We live under a dictatorship. People need fresh air. They release their anger, their energy.”;

The success of artists like Thxa Soe undermines Myanmar's often monochromatic image as a place of zero freedoms. This country, formerly known as Burma, is by many measures a brutally authoritarian place—human rights groups count 2,100 political prisoners. But even if the generals willed it, people here say, the government would probably not be able to pull off North Korean-style totalitarianism. Society here is too unruly, disorganized and corrupt; people are too creative, the climate too hot for 24-hour repression.

The police are famously brutal, but they, too, suffer from tropical torpor: a common scene is a group of police officers napping in the back of a truck.

Over the past two years, entertainment options have rapidly expanded for residents of the country's largest cities.

The government has nurtured the creation of a soccer league after years without any organized matches. Soccer games are famously raucous, with fans spewing invective toward the opposing side, ignoring government exhortations to be “;polite.”;

The number of FM radio stations in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, has gone from just one a few years ago to a handful that play both Burmese and Western-style music. Last year, a private company started up the country's first television channel dedicated to music videos.

“;The government is trying to distract people from politics,”; said a Western-educated Burmese businessman who declined to be identified because he thought it might jeopardize his business. “;There's not enough bread, but there's a lot of circus.”;

The contrast between the military government's heavy-handed authoritarianism and the surprisingly uninhibited entertainment scene can be jarring. Early this month the leader of the ruling junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, marked Peasants Day, a national holiday honoring farmers, with a message addressed to the “;Esteemed Peasantry.”;

“;I wish you, the peasantry, physical and mental well-being and greater success in agricultural farming,”; the message said.

By contrast, as night fell at a lakeside fairground in Yangon, security guards had trouble holding back the thousands of fans, who clambered over one another like peasants in revolt. Police officers at times raised their night sticks menacingly but were largely ignored by the crowd, who had come to see a bill of popular artists playing music that ranged from heavy metal to pop.

One longtime analyst of Myanmar said the government tolerated politics with a small p—gatherings of intellectuals and members of smaller political groups. But it cracks down on Politics, with a capital P, which the analyst defined as anyone who questioned the legitimacy of the military rulers, like groups that support Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate. The analyst, like this reporter, did not want to be identified because the junta does not tolerate foreign journalists, aid workers or academics who operate here without permission, which is often denied.

Thxa Soe said he experienced both the government's hard-line rigidity and its quirky, laissez-faire side. He is one of the most harassed musicians in the country, constantly called in for reprimands by the censors, who banned 9 of the 12 tracks on a recent album. They have ordered him to delete other songs over the years from DVDs and CDs and passed a law last year banning his innovative musical style.

Yet in a telling sign of the complexities of Burmese society, his hard-driving music is popular with civil servants. He sometimes jokes with the military intelligence officers assigned to spy on his shows. They are also fans, he said. He was invited to inaugurate the zoo at the country's new capital, Naypyidaw, several years ago and has been invited back to perform three times.

“;Some people in government like me, some people hate me,”; Thxa Soe said.

His songs include “;We Have No Money,”; a title that appears to have slipped past the censors. Poverty is a delicate topic in Myanmar, because many blame government mismanagement and corruption for the country's poor economic performance.

Speculating about what kinds of activities the government will tolerate is a regular topic of conversation here, especially among those who push the limits.

Artists say the censorship board's approval process often seems random and inconsistent.

U Thu Myat Aung, 24, an artist who says he draws inspiration from the British graffiti artist Banksy, hosted the country's first graffiti show this month, on the eve of Peasants Day.

“;We've been wanting to do this since 2003 but we weren't allowed,”; Thu Myat Aung said at the exposition, where women and men spray-painted pieces of plywood. U Nyein Chan Su, an artist whose work has often met with disapproval from the censors, said the government appeared to be particularly wary of abstract art.

“;My opinion is that they only allow art they understand,”; he said. “;They are afraid that artists are doing political things by using contemporary art.”;

Nyein Chan Su cites the example of an artist's painting that was rejected by the censors that featured impressions of women with contemplative expressions. “;They said, 'Why don't you paint the women smiling?' “;