Burma's Punk Scene Fights Repression Underground


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.

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