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Rocking out to hip-hop in the new Myanmar

Ploy Bunluesilp is the NBC News Bureau Producer in Bangkok. She has reported from Myanmar five times since 2006. She was most recently on assignment in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, in early December for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meeting with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

YANGON, Myanmar – A thumping rock and hip hop beat, entranced teenagers clutching beer cans, hundreds of people smiling happily – it sure wasn't the Myanmar I am used to.

I've had plenty of memorable experiences in Myanmar, most of them unpleasant. I've been kicked out of the country by officials not once, but twice.



In 2007, when journalists were forbidden from covering the so-called "Saffron Uprising," I posed as a tourist to get into the country and played cat-and-mouse with the security forces to grab some footage when escalating political protests, initially led by monks, were crushed by the military. I watched soldiers beat cowering Burmese men and women with batons on the streets of the capital. It was an exceptionally dangerous time: a Japanese journalist was among those killed
 
The following year I was back again to cover the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis.  I saw people who literally lost everything – I remember one man who was clutching photographs of his wife and children to help officials find their corpses. Reporters were banned from the whole cyclone-hit area, so again we had to film in secret. Eventually our team was spotted, and police later tracked me down to a hotel in the capital and threw me out of the country.

 

During all of my previous trips, most people I met were terrified to talk, fearing they could be jailed just for speaking to a journalist. Even the guide who took me to the barricaded house where pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned begged me not to take photographs, saying it could put him in danger.

So it was wonderful to be able to move freely around Yangon during my last visit, and to find optimistic people unafraid to talk. That alone showed me how profoundly things have changed already.
 
This time I was there on Dec. 2, 2011,  the same day U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Suu Kyi. I went to a huge rock concert, and I had a lot of fun.

Rocking out of a rut
Myanmar has stagnated for decades under the oppressive rule of a paranoid military dictatorship, but over the past year the country has suddenly started to make progress toward greater democracy and freedom of expression – and more tolerance of rock and hip hop.

So I found myself at a nearly-sold-out concert at an indoor stadium in Yangon. Burmese stars belted out rock and hip hop tunes to an audience of girls in tight skirts and young men in skinny jeans, instead of the traditional sarongs usually worn in the country.

The music was full of energy, and got me moving, but there was little boisterous enthusiasm and dancing among the audience – most stayed seated, tapping their feet and nodding their heads to the music.

They were mostly rich kids, teenagers who arrived at the stadium in expensive cars while poor children in tattered clothes collected garbage around the stadium.

“Only rich or middle class people can afford to buy a ticket as you have to spend at least 50 kyats ($7),” a Burmese friend told me. That would be cheap for a concert in most countries, but Myanmar remains mired in poverty and most people earn just a few dollars a day.

There were still plenty of reminders of the old repressive Myanmar: the atmosphere at the concert was not helped by the presence of several stern-looking armed guards.

Singing for change
Backstage the celebrity musicians were hanging out before the concert started, and I met the hip hop group ACID in their room. Their first album, also Myanmar’s first hip hop album, was the country’s best seller in 2000.  But their non-traditional style, lack of deference for authority and controversial lyrics about the hardships of life in Myanmar eventually got them in trouble.

 “Our music was new to people. The government doesn’t like us because we did not follow the traditional style,” said Anegga, a 32-year-old ACID band member who goes by one name.

Two of the band's members were arrested in 2008 for allegedly illegal political activities. One of them, Zayar Thaw, 32, was dressed in shorts, a tee-shirt, a baseball cap and his arms were covered with tattoos – not exactly the traditional Myanmar ideal of a quiet, well-behaved young man.  
 
He was released from prison in May, and told me he still has to watch his words. “I have to be careful about saying things now, Big Brother is watching.” 

But now, the band is back together and ACID is performing again. They are among more than 50 musicians and singers who have pledged their support for the election campaign of Suu Kyi, who has been released after years of house arrest and is now running for a seat in parliament. 

Suu Kyi's musical supporters are producing a special album, with songs designed to raise awareness about politics and encourage people to stand up for their rights. One of the songs contributed by ACID asks: “How can I talk, How can I see, If you close my eyes and ears?”

The musicians hope their songs can help push the boundaries and educate people in their country after 49 years of censorship and military rule.

“Everything for Aung San Suu Kyi, we love to do it for her. We love her,” said female pop singer Than That Win.

After elections in November 2010, which were widely condemned as rigged, Myanmar's ruling generals exchanged their uniforms for civilian suits – but few expected much to change.

Then beginning in October of this year, the government introduced a series of dizzying changes: The new government led by a former general, Thein Sein, eased censorship, released political prisoners, introduced a limited right to strike and protest, and started a dialogue with the Suu Kyi.

The United States has shown its support for the political reforms – Clinton was in town when the concert was held, to see the progress for herself.

Like many Burmese, the musicians worry that the recent changes could be a false dawn. They are optimistic, but still wary.

 “This is the beginning of change in the country," Anegga told me. "We hope nobody will be arrested this time.”