YANGON, Burma — This commercial capital might be a daylight city, but 19th Street in Chinatown comes alive after dark. Visitors down rounds of 80-cent mojitos and sip Myanmar Beer, but locals seem to prefer imported lagers, like Singapore’s Tiger or Thailand’s Chang. Whatever their poison of choice, it’s the perfect way to wind down and wash away the unavoidable dust and grime. Even among the Southeast Asian countries, Burma is cheap, and remains relatively untouched.
A stroll in downtown Yangon means exposure to all manner of sensory assault. Masticated betel nuts and their juice stain red the sidewalks and outer walls of every building. Car horns never stop. Loudspeakers blast looped messages asking passers-by to drop a few spare notes into an alms bowl. Sugar cane juicers, dessert mixers, and mohinga noodle sellers never stop slinging out their offerings. Color, smell, sound—it never ceases as long as there is daylight. Under technicolor tents, it’s impossible to miss the hawkers selling pirated DVDs and MP3 collections. The Interview can be bought for 400 kyat, or a little under US$0.40. A disc holding thousands of songs, collecting Ariana Grande and Metallica into the same volume, goes for about the same rate. There’s no shortage of foreign media in Burma’s biggest and most famous city, and it’s being consumed like never before.
Over chilled bottled beers and barbecued chicken bits, Moe Lone shared his love for heavy metal. “I like [Iowa-based] Slipknot and [Osaka-rooted] Crossfaith,” he said, “but I listen to so many others too.” Moe is the lead singer of a Burmese heavy metal band called Darkest Tears From My Heart. They’ve been around since 2007, growing from two members to a roster of the current five. Last year, Moe Lone’s band released a joint-album with three other Burmese heavy metal bands, and it is currently the seventh best selling album in the country, but they still only play two or three shows a year. The permits for public music performances in Yangon are too expensive, usually in the range of US$700 to US$1,000, and venues aren’t too receptive to their style of music. Worse yet, in a city prone to power cuts, playing a live show means blowing the fuse several times when the band is on stage.
Pitch black falling over a wild electric guitar solo is reminiscent of the nation’s military rule, which didn’t officially end until 2011, at least in name.
Art is one of those things that so easily captures the fears and paranoia of dictatorship. Junta rule meant the Burmese art community had to live under 60 years of censorship. The color red couldn’t be used in art, as it suggested blood, revolution, or the National League for Democracy. Black and white couldn’t be used together either, because that could carry the symbolism of good versus evil. Activist writers faced three layers of filtering: themselves, their editors, and finally the government.
Moe and his bandmates are all members of the country’s dominant Bamar ethnic group, but he says they write for the entire nation, and every ethnic group within. Burma, officially known as Myanmar, remains rife with sectarian and ethnic strife, including the ongoing violence toward Rohingya Muslims perpetuated by Buddhist mobs, as well as the conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and the government in the northern province. The eastern half of the country also sees clashes between the Shan, Lahu, and Karen minorities with each other. Burma is pockmarked with constant rivalry traced through identity and bloodlines.
Even in the reforming climate of Burma, it still takes guts to stand up and speak one’s mind. “People have told me not to pursue my music,” Moe said, “but we sing for all Burmese people. We want them to rise up.” He was referring to pursuing one’s ideals and aspirations, a sentiment that was once smothered by superstitious military rule. “Things are changing, and many things are very different compared to several years ago, but we will only get what we want if the people work for it.”
But this new wave of music in the makeshift home studios of Yangon and Mandalay isn’t just a symptom of liberalization and governmental reform. It’s also a reaction to theocratic authority. Theravada Buddhism remains the dominant religion practiced in the country, and some of Burma’s internal conflicts are sectarian, like the friction between Burma’s Buddhist government and Chin State Christians in the western slice of the country, or the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, just south of Chin. Within the Buddhist theocratic hierarchy known as the Sangha, bad seeds abound. First on the list is a monk called U Wirathu, who once called himself the “Buddhist Bin Laden.” His fiery, intolerant, authoritarian vision of Buddhism is seen a major element that encourages the ongoing ethnic violence in Burma.
One of Moe Lone’s metalhead associates was critical of such religious figures and their followers. He mentioned Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Burma, where pilgrims flock every day to pray before visages of the Buddha and picnic under bodhi trees in the marble-floored complex that surrounds a pagoda plated in solid gold and crowned with diamonds and rubies.
“Visit Shwedagon Pagoda and you’ll see so many people sitting and meditating, like they are seeking peace or enlightenment,” he says. “But they don’t understand that people need to live together here. They think Buddhists should be at the top and nobody else should be here.” He continued, “Monks gamble and drink and use prostitutes too. But people don’t say it aloud.”
Burma is full of jade, gems and gold. It has oil and natural gas. Its crops are diverse and its soil is fertile. Yet nobody outside of the upper echelons of the government knows where all the profits from the sale of those resources end up. Where it exists, Burmese infrastructure is shoddy. Public buses seem to be decades-old castoffs from Japan and Korea, brakes and suspension absent. Sidewalks are treacherous, full of potholes ready to swallow ankles. Trash collection is erratic. A few things are slowly improving, like banking and telecommunications, but that’s just candy, not significant leaps in the standard of living for the average Burmese.
As the night wound down, the metalheads walked down Anarwahta Road, one of the five arteries in downtown Yangon that stretch from east to west. Almost timid, Moe Lone said, “I need to start writing my lyrics in English.” He has done this once already, but his audience remains completely Burmese, and his fans like to hear music in their native tongue. And are his bandmates fine with their music being paired with the colonial language? “Most of them are,” he said. “We need to reach a wider audience. And singing in English is the only way to do that. Maybe Thailand, Cambodia, even further if we can.”
Those are big dreams, and previously impossible to even think about but now planted with a grain of hope. “It will be many more years of hard work,” Moe Lone said, “but we will keep working for it.”