Burma's Punk Scene Fights Repression Underground

PHOTO: A punk arrives at the Bogyoke market during the first day of Thingyan in Yangon.
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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 show initial signs of greater open-mindedness, which included the released 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."

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