Protests in Myanmar are scarier because they shoot with real bullets here
09/02/2022, Xavier KRUTH
On 1st February 2021 - exactly one year ago - the army in Myanmar took power. The 2020 election results, in which the National League for Democracy of Nobel Prize winner and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi again obtained an absolute majority, were wiped out. Since then, there have been violent protests and the civil war has flared up again in the country.
Myanmar also has a committed punk community. The Rebel Riot is one of the most important bands and is at the forefront of the fight against the coup. We had a conversation with singer Kyaw Kyaw.
On the first of February, it was one year ago that the military coup took place. Back then, the military promised to hand over the power to a civilian government after one year but of course I don’t think this will happen. What do you think will happen?
I think things are well out of hand for them. The revolutionary movement is too strong. After the English colonisation, in 1948, we gained independence. In 1962 the military took the power. In 1988, we had a big revolution but the military took power again. After the coup in 2021, things are totally different than in the past. After one year, people are still fighting and they keep on fighting. The military didn’t manage it well. They didn’t get what they wanted. People fight back in many different ways. People are still protesting, keeping up the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), they are fighting with the armed force and so on. Artists and politicians are still showing solidarity with the protest movement. In the past, the military could control any protests after two or three months. This time, they don’t control the land. After one year, the people’s revolutionary mind and spirit are still big.
So you don’t think the military will make any concessions to the people at this point?
No, I don’t think so.
On the first of February last year, you heard about the coup. Was it a surprise for you or not?
I was surprised but I had also thought before that they would take power. I was informed but when I heard they took power for real, it was a surprise and shock. But that drove us to do something against that coup.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the coup?
I walked around my township and checked how people felt. A lot of people were shocked and sad. I felt sad too. I didn’t know what to do in the future with this military system. I was also very sad for the young people and the next generation. These were my first feelings after the coup.
You were one of the first to go out on the street to protest the coup, which started a few days after the coup. How did that go?
It started on 5th February. I’m not an organiser. I just wanted to show my solidarity with other people. I got a message that we should demonstrate at 4 pm in this specific area. I went to support this crew but the organiser didn’t come. We didn’t know what to do. The media were also waiting. Many other people were there. We were confused. Should we start on our own or just leave? 4:30, nothing happened; 4:45, still nothing. When we left, my friend started showing three fingers on the street (the three finger salute was inspired by the movie ‘The Hunger Games’ and became the symbol of the protests, xk), and then everybody started showing three fingers. The media noticed it. We didn’t talk, we didn’t pull the banner, we just showed the three-finger salute and walked on. A lot of people were happy and were clapping for us. They were applauding from their flats and from the buses. The media took pictures and made videos. I was so shocked and scared. I didn’t know what to do. A cameraman from the media told me: ‘Kyaw Kyaw, you should leave now.’ I tried to leave. I tried to take a taxi but the taxi drivers were very scared. They didn’t want to take us because they didn’t want trouble with the police. It was difficult to take a taxi, so we went to another area and took a taxi there, then went to meet our friends. After this, I deleted my facebook account and I hid myself.
You had to hide? So, you cannot walk freely in Yangon?
If they recognised me or other people in the newspaper, they would arrest us for sure. But we were lucky because after we went to demonstrate … the next day, a lot of people were on the streets. So, our demonstration disappeared. On 6th February, a lot of people were showing solidarity against the coup. That was good luck. Otherwise, I would have been arrested.
One month after the military coup, you released the video for ‘One Day’. It was a song that you were already working on before the coup. It was a great video, also with the three fingers salute that you just mentioned. What was the impact of that video?
This song was already made before the coup. We imagined … One Day … a future without any discrimination, we don’t want any oppression, we don’t want any military, no corruption, no wars … because our country has known so many civil wars. We have the longest civil war in the world! We have a lot of discrimination between Islam and Buddhism and we have had a military system for so long. From 2010 to 2020, we had so-called ‘democracy’, but people didn’t really have human rights and were not free to speak. In the parliament, the military power was still there. They controlled it from behind the scenes.
We wrote this song six months before the coup. But after the coup, we thought it was the right time to release it. We wanted to do it like many political bands like Pennywise, Rage Against The Machine or System Of A Down. They influenced me a lot. We wanted to shoot a video during the protests but it’s scarier here because they shoot with real bullets. Protests here are different than in other countries. In other countries, the police might beat you and arrest you. But here, they shoot with real bullets.
We were scared but we had to do it. Everybody was aware of the danger. We asked everyone: ‘does it feel good to participate? If you don’t feel safe, you don’t have to be part of this. If you agree, we will do it together.’ That’s the way we made the music video for ‘One Day’.
The release of the CD ‘One Day’ was delayed because people were afraid to work with you. The printers didn’t want to work on it. What happened?
It was very difficult. We knew that it was risky when we released it. It’s like walking on a string. I think: ‘they do their job, we do our job’. They took the power and try to manage it, and we wanted to release this CD. It’s not just music, it is showing our attitude. They try to show how they control us, and we want to show that we are free. They’re trying to push us down and we are trying to stand up. That’s how we relate to this idea.
That’s why I wanted to release it, especially during the coup. It is very dangerous because we sell merchandising and so on … and they don’t want any artists against the coup. I wanted to do a DIY-release but because of the colours, I could not make a DIY-print. So, we had to go to a printing shop but every shop said no. They didn’t want to do it because it was political stuff. They were afraid their business would be shut down but one of my friends who is also a political activist said that he knew one shop who would do it. So that’s how we succeeded in printing it.
But as we keep on doing what we do and keep on fighting, we get less attention than other political leaders and activists. We are punks, we are underground … so we are not so influential to their big society. We influence mainly young people, alternative people and some political activists. We are not as influential as people like Aung San Suu Kyi. That’s why we stay under the radar.
Is the military aware of the CD with harsh criticism of the coup? Does it have any impact for them?
I don’t know. They focus on other protests, political leaders, activists and they might forget people like us. They are more focussed on others that are maybe more dangerous and more important for them but we are on their list for sure, I think.
You sing about the protests in ‘The Night Will Not Be Silenced’. At first, the protests were peaceful, as you sing in the song. It was civil disobedience, banging on pans and pots but there has been an evolution towards a civil war. There has always been a civil war since the independence of Myanmar in 1948 but it has broken out in a much harder way. How was that evolution between peaceful protest and armed protest?
95% of the population hate the military. We have been in a military system for so long. A lot of families have people missing or killed. So, people deeply resent the military. When the military took the power again, this anger was coming back but we never start the violence. The peaceful protests were right but the military shot at us, in the head, in the body … so, the anger exploded and people wanted to fight back. Some people don’t believe in peaceful protest anymore. Because even if we stay peaceful, they will never stay peaceful … That’s why a lot of young people, teenage people, a lot of my friends, people whose family or friends died … choose the armed resistance.
They think the Civil Disobedience Movement is not fit anymore because the military arrests new people every night. People are not safe. They think the city is not safe anymore. That’s why they choose to go and join the armed resistance. A lot of people are joining the People’s Defence Force (PDF, an armed movement that has been active since MAY 2021, xk) and do fight the military with weapons.
The PDF is a new force but there are also the armies of the ethnic minorities. You sing about them in the song ‘Destruction of Humanity’ …
The ‘Destruction of Humanity’ song is about how the military attacks minorities, burning their houses or villages. We are criticising this.
In a way, you already answered my question. A lot of young people are leaving the city to fight with rebel groups, also ethnic rebel groups or the People’s Defence Force. Is this a big movement?
Yes, it is a big movement. In the past, the Burmese army attacked the Shan people, the Kachin people… Then the Shan and Kachin people fought back. But with the PDF, the Burmese people are attacking the Burmese army. There are now two Burmese armies fighting each other.
And I have heard that the official army – the Tadmadaw – are afraid to leave their barracks. They are attacked on multiple fronts. Is that right?
Yes. They are very afraid right now. They have too many enemies at one time because the PDF and other groups are all fighting them at the same time. So many people are dying right now. That’s why they are afraid.
Another song on the album is ‘Genocide’. I think this is about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in 2016-2017. You said already that muslims are still persecuted. How is the situation with them now?
When we wrote the ‘Genocide’ song in 2018, some people agreed that this was a genocide but other people disagreed. The government, the NLD (National League for Democracy, the party that was in power between 2015 and 2021, xk), the Tatmadaw … they don’t want to hear about a genocide. They tell us that there was no genocide. That’s why we made a song that was called ‘Genocide’, to stress that it was an actual genocide. We don’t use the word ‘Rohingya’ but we wanted to stress that a lot of people in the Rakhine state were fleeing their houses and dying. Everybody knows that we mean the Rohingya people, right.
Another song is ‘Food Not Bombs’. We are aware of your Food Not Bombs project in which you distribute food to people in need in Yangon. I’ve understood from your facebook that you also have a Food Not Bombs programme directed to the Rohingya people. Is that correct?
Yes. But we are not in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Some Rohingya people are still in the Rakhine state (the part of Myanmar where the Rohingya live, xk). We are supporting the Rohingya people who stayed in the Rakhine state.
Yes but you live in Yangon. The Rakhine state is far away. So, the Food Not Bombs-project must be a big organisation…
No, it is not a big organisation. We have a lot of influence on young people. They like Rebel Riot and it’s not only about the music. They like our way of thinking, our way of living, they like our ideas … some fans of Rebel Riot who live in Rakhine state wanted to start a Food Not Bombs chapter in their own state because if you want to support our band, you should not buy the CD or merchandising but you should just show it through your attitude. That’s how the chapter in Rakhine state started. We don’t need to go there. We can meet with a zoom meeting and share our ideas and brainstorm. We are not only active in Rakhine state. We have chapters in Dawei, Mandalay, Mon state, Bago… sometimes I go and join but normally I live in the city. We are now also starting a new chapter in Kachin state. I don’t need to go. I just meet with people on internet and share my ideas.
Let’s go back to the start of Rebel Riot. You started the band after the Saffron Revolution in 2007. You already said that it was very different from now but the Saffron Revolution was also a big revolution against the military. What differences do you see between now and then?
Back then, the buddhist monks were starting the revolution. We are a traditional buddhist country, so everybody thought: ‘they can arrest everybody but not the monks’. People didn’t expect the military to turn on the monks. Usually, the people are afraid of the military but now they thought that they were many and the monks supported them. They thought the military could not kill or arrest a monk. They have to respect the monks but they did not. They shot and killed many people. So, people were very scared. A lot of people died. That made me think and I started making music after that.
What was different is: we didn’t have internet. Well … some people had, like the rich and the government people. But normal people didn’t have much information. We could not communicate. The Saffron Revolution mainly took place in Yangon. The news didn’t go out to the rest of the country. This current revolution doesn’t only take place in Yangon. The whole country is involved.
But especially the information technology is different. Everybody has a phone. We know what happened somewhere after five minutes. This helps us in our fight. The people have more knowledge. They understand what the military is doing. They have a lot of information and the information goes very fast. This is very different than in 2007. They could shut down everything after only one week back then but now, we have been protesting for one year and it is still going on. We keep on sharing information. Everybody is awake right now. We are less scared and better educated than before.
We also remember that the Saffron Revolution was lead by monks. What role do the monks play in the current situation? I think some of them support the Tadmadaw and others not.
Some monks are puppets of the military, as is MaBaTha (a radical right-wing organisation of buddhist monks, xk). They are supporters of the military. They are not talking about buddhism. They are rather spreading nationalist propaganda: ‘we have to fight for our religion, we have to fight for our people’ … They try to brainwash the people. But in these times, many people know their real face. They are not that successful with what they are doing. That type of monk had nothing to do with the Saffron Revolution.
We have three types of monks in Myanmar. The first type is apolitical. They are not interested in any politics. They just want to do the meditation, reach inner peace and spread the buddhist religion. The second type is the pro-democracy monk. These are the monks you saw in the Saffron Revolution. They support the NLD, they support democracy and human rights. They believe that they cannot be in peace if the people do not live in peace. They get food from the people, so they believe they must stand up for the people too. The third type of monk is the pro-military monk. They spread propaganda about how important the army is: ‘In this country, we cannot survive without the military’. They don’t trust Aung San Suu Kyi because she is married to an Englishman. She could bring in English and Western influences, so the Burmese people will lose their identity. They think that Aung San Suu Kyi is pro-muslim and will help the muslim community to get bigger. They want to defend their religion and identity. The pro-military monk is represented by MaBaTha.
Sometimes Aung San Suu Kyi is also called a Burmese or Bamar nationalist (the Bamar are the main ethnic group in Myanmar, xk) because she defended the army about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. She even went to The Hague to tell the World Court what happened was just an ordinary armed conflict, not a genocide. Some also say that she didn’t fully support the peace process with the different ethnic armies, which started in 2015, too. Is this true?
You know, most of the people who fight for democracy love Aung San Suu Kyi a lot. Since 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi is the icon of freedom and peace. Some people would even die for her. She has a lot of support. After 2010, we were on the way to democracy, and she was released from house arrest. She had massive support, also from ethnic minorities and from alternative people. They too see her as our mother. After 2015, when she won the elections, the Myanmar people put their hope in her. She was a top politician that had the power, you know.
But she didn’t stand for the students, or for other ethnic groups. She was also very close to the military. She didn’t show enough strength. She only took decisions on things that are not so important. For the people of the big cities, it was a big change. The tourists were coming in, it was good business. Human rights got a lot of attention. The people in the cities love Aung San Suu Kyi a lot but for the minority people, the civil war continued, the human rights abuses continued, a lot of violence is still happening … She doesn’t speak about them. They don’t hate Aung San Suu Kyi but they wonder why the mother doesn’t do more for them. They are angry but still with love for her.
Aung San Suu Kyi had less power than people believe. People are saying that she did wrong, that she should have created her own army before the coup … They are angry because she didn’t prepare anything. Now, people wish that after the coup and after the revolution, she would retreat from politics.
Let’s go back to the music. I like the way you mix the Burmese language with English in your songs. Why do you do that? You speak Burmese but you also fit in some words in English in many songs.
It’s our style since we created the band. As we write our music, the choruses are mainly English while the verses are in the Burmese language. We tried to translate it in Burmese but it didn’t work well. Our English is not so difficult. We use a type of English that everybody understands. We also have international people who support us, and they like it. But I cannot write a full song in English. I’m very bad at singing in English but even if people don’t understand the whole song, they understand the chorus. The Burmese language is more difficult to translate and more difficult to shout.
I have just one final question. You’re in a struggle with the military, there’s a civil war going on, there is still a civil disobedience movement going on … Do you think the people can win this struggle? Can the people defeat the military?
I don’t know what will happen. I’m not a politician. But I strongly believe that if we fight every day, we must win for sure. Also, we are already winning. People keep fighting and are believing in it. And the military, the Tatmadaw, are scared. Even if they have guns, they still fear us. So, we have already won. We’re doing what we believe in every day. They are doing what they’re fearing every day. We have a lot of artists defying the military. I cannot predict the future but if we keep doing what we believe in, we will win one day.
Is there anything else you want to say?
It’s not only Myanmar that faces problems. There are problems in every country but our problems are bigger. People are getting killed. This military must disappear. That is our duty. Don’t look only at Myanmar. We are just a small part of the world. Don’t fight only for Myanmar but for all people everywhere. We know no nations, no borders. We are one world. If we succeed in our struggle, we will also fight for your part of the world one day. All human people must show solidarity.
PANIC LIFT • 'I have been blessed with bands and producers giving me absolutely fabulous remixes.'
25 YEARS OF AHRAYEPH • Everything I do, right or wrong, is being determined by my autism
SOPHIA LUCIA • Blurring Boundaries
MOVMENT • Finding Truth Through Dakness
JAH WOBBLE • 'Bass was considered being among dying instruments for years. Dub pushed it to the front...'
GRAVE JONES • Bringing Rock Back To The Charts
WHISPERS IN THE SHADOW • I’m not a conservative songwriter and I’m not interested in the status quo; I’m interested in progress.
WINTERSTILLE • There are two contradicting aspects of individualism: the promise that you can achieve anything and the blaming of the individual for not achieving it.
HANTE • I broke away from the pressure you have as an artist to appeal to a certain type of audience, to create dance floor hits.
THE ULTIMATE DREAMERS • Dimitri from Wool-E Discs had learned that I was part of a band in the 80s and asked me to listen.