Lyrical sound of the underground

By Andrew Buncombe

First comes the sound of hand drums, followed by a voice that is steady and persistent. As Ngwe Toe leans back and angles his words towards the microphone, his lines are met by a chanting group which takes up his theme and sings back at him.

"The religion in our country," sings Toe, as the group answers for him, "is Theravada Buddhism". The activist continues: "The colour saffron is growing everywhere."

The group responds: "The monks are very graceful, but now their power has been drained. They are hiding in remote areas."

As the drums continue, Toe implores: "Tell me why."

The chanters tell him: "The military devil is rising up."

This is a traditional Burmese protest song with a modern twist. For generations, the people of Myanmar marked their new year by performing Thangyat - songs and skits that gave voice to local grievances.

In 1988, when military authorities violently crushed a series of democracy demonstrations with the deaths of at least 3000 people, the junta decided it had endured enough protest and banned the tradition.

But the generals could not stop Thangyat, merely driving it overseas. Now exile communities around the world put together their own collections of protest songs, which are sold on CDs and even broadcast back into Myanmar, where people listen secretly on their radios.

One of the most famous and popular groups, of which Ngwe Toe is a member, is based in New Delhi. Ahead of the traditional four-day new year celebrations, or water festival, this week, the activists released a new collection of songs, music and poetry Gaining Victory for Us and Defeat for Them.

"During the festival, it is a tradition that if there is something the people do not like, it will be criticised - be it politics, social affairs or food," said Zin Naing, who escaped to India after the 1988 uprising and who helped produce the recording. "Now, inside Burma, Thangyat is not allowed, so ours has become one of the only ones that people can get."

There are around 6000 Burmese exiles in Delhi, mostly from Chin state, on India's border. Many took part in the 1988 uprisings and came to India, which at the time was critical of the military authorities and welcomed the refugees. Most have never dared to even visit their home country since.

Ngwe Toe, now 40, fled when he was just 19, leaving behind all his relatives. His father died in 2003, but he dreams of returning to the country with his wife and young son. In the meantime, he takes comfort from imagining his family furtively listening to the songs of protest he and his friends have recorded. "It's like a rap," he said. "It's a call and response, and when I am singing, I am shouting these slogans with emotion.

"I am very focused on the song. I would be happy if my mother hears it, and would be able to give the message that her son is involved in the politics."

The lyrics for the song performed by Ngwe Toe were written by a Buddhist monk, forced to escape to India after taking part in the so-called Saffron Revolution of September 2007, when tens of thousands of monks and citizens took to the streets of Rangoon and other major cities, demanding democratic reforms.

The monk, U Dhamma, a smiling, round-faced 23-year-old, fled after he and several other monks from his monastery joined the demonstrations in the northern city of Mandalay.

"I thought there would be a revolution. I believed in democratic rule for Burma," said the monk, who crossed into north-eastern India in January 2008 and now lives in the same dusty Delhi neighbourhood as many other exiles.

"After the marches, I stayed at the monastery for some months, but then a minister came to give food. We were very angry and refused to accept this. The minister put pressure on the abbot to expel us, and the next day our names were put in the newspaper, saying we were to be expelled. We had no chance to stay in Burma."

It is not just the junta that comes in for criticism in the Thangyat. While the songs indeed condemn the regime's alleged nuclear ambitions, the election and the country's poverty, the NLD and even politicians in exile are also subjects of satire.


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