Burma is a country that despite its many problems – including continued concerns about human rights abuses, ethnic conflict and the detention of political prisoners – is making steady process towards becoming a democracy. It is widely expected that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, will assume power at the 2015 elections and she will, after years in the political wilderness, much of it spent under house arrest, become Burma’s President. A remarkable turnaround and one that few dared dream of even a few years ago.
Earlier this year 43 by-elections took place, all on the same day, and 42 of those seats were won by the NLD. One of those new MPs is Zayar Thaw.
He’s better known in Burma as a rap artist, the guy who released Burma’s first rap record and inspired other young people to form bands or become artists in what is now known as the ‘first generation’ of Burmese rap. In interviews he’s spoken about how he discovered rap/ hip hop music as a teenager, buying Niggaz with Attitude and Dr Dre’s The Chronic. Athough he didn’t understand the words, he was captivated by the music and the rhythms of the words being spoken over it. Then he discovered Tupac Shakur, and was inspired by him and by the realisation that the words could be a powerful tool in speaking up for the angry and the oppressed. His band Acid released Burma’s first rap album in 2000 and it stayed at no. 1 in the album charts for two months.
The lyrics weren’t overtly political but spoke about the hardships suffered in Burma, which was still enough to unnerve the authorities. It is said “his lyrics hung on the razor’s edge of censor acceptability but he scraped by”. But then came the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’, when monks led the people onto the streets to protest against the military rulers. The protests were brutally crushed by the regime, and Zayar decided that rapping at concerts was not enough.
In October 2007 he set up a student pro-democracy movement called Generation Wave to inspire and motivate young people to speak out against the military rulers and the abuse of political power. Their actions included going around sticking CNG stickers on cars – which could stand for Compressed Natural Gas but also stood for Change Government Now. They also collected and passed around anti-Government films including, somewhat bizarrely, Rambo IV which portrayed Burmese soliders as murderers and rapists.
Zayar said: “Our young people need to lead in demanding fairness. I don’t have the heart to ignore injustice, that’s why I have taken part in the politics. For some time I have thought the pain and feelings of our people were also mine because I’m one of the Burmese people. But I had to take enough time before I took part in the politics because I needed to ask myself whether I could make personal sacrifices or not.”
In March 2008 Zayar was arrested and, according to Amnesty, beaten under imterrogation. In November of that year he was sentenced to six years in jail, for offences under the Unlawful Association Act and the Foreign Currency Act. At the time of sentencng he said: “I feel sad, but not because of my imprisonment. I feel sad for the future of our country…” He urged people to “Have the courage to reject the things you don’t like and even if you don’t dare openly to support the right thing, don’t support the wrong thing.”
As a political prisoner he was banned from listening to music or watching TV in jail, but he kept music alive in his head and by singing to himself. “In the prison I analysed which songs I liked, which sings I learned off by heart, and which lyrics I really understood.”
In April 2011, he was released after serving two and a half years under a general amnesty, but continued to ruffle feathers. In August 2011 he was barred from taking part in a concert in Rangoon – the organisers were told that the concert woukd not be allowed to go ahead if he was on the bill – and interviews with him were banned by the censors.
But then things began to change. As the by-elections approached he was encouraged by Aung San Suu Kyi personally to get involved in party politics. Fast forward one year, and there he is, in parliament, not just as an MP but as ASSK’s parliamentary aide. And he’s still organising concerts, still trying to mobilise and engage with young people through music.