Mun Awng, the famed exile Kachin singer and songwriter, rose to popular prominence in Burma during the 1980s. He fled his country after the military’s brutal crackdown in 1988 and now lives in Norway.
The musician, who has been part of his homeland’s struggle for democracy for more than 20 years, talked in a recent interview with The Irrawaddy about his beliefs and hopes for his country.
He is also preparing to help launch an anti-Nobel Peace Prize campaign against Burmese President Thein Sein in Norway next month. Participants plan to raise questions about whether the Norwegian government’s support, in the form of its citizens’ tax money, for the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) has been beneficial to the Burmese populace.
And while he still has deep-seated misgivings about the current government, Mun Awng said he aspires to return to Burma and travel across his native country performing again one day.
Question: We were able to listen to your song ‘Doh-Pyan-Lar-Mae’ [‘I Will Be Back’], which you recently uploaded to YouTube. When and how did you record it, and with whom? What inspired you to write this song and why did you put it up online?
Answer: I wrote it in the year 2000 and recorded it with a Norwegian amateur band as an experiment. I was thinking of inserting a mixture of Burmese and other ethnicities’ traditional music in the background but couldn’t do so in recording. So, I just left it as a draft and decided that I would let my audience hear it only after I had done revisions to my satisfaction. When I wrote this song, I reflected on the situation around that time, but I put it online recently because of the violent attacks and anarchistic actions against Muslims in Meikhtila, Mandalay Division.
In fact, Muslims in Burma have been living together with us for years. They are also humans. Such anarchistic and irresponsible acts are ugly and will affect the reputation of our nation and race. People can coexist only if they are equal and respect each other.
‘I Will Be Back’ is not directly related to the Meikhtila incident but its meaning is that we all need to be united to make our country peaceful. And ‘we’ means everybody in Burma, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
Q: We know you haven’t sung for quite a long time, but we saw you singing when Aung San Suu Kyi came to Norway to receive her Nobel Peace Prize and in a protest against President Thein Sein when he was on official state visit to Norway. What drove you to sing on those two occasions?
A: When Suu Kyi came to Oslo, I went to sing for her as an honor to the Nobel Peace laureate from Burma. I didn’t care if she heard me but I deliberately went there to sing because I wanted the place she was at covered by music. Unlike Suu Kyi, when Thein Sein came, I just went to Oslo to protest against him and didn’t have any plan to sing. When I arrived at the place where we planned to stage the protest, I suddenly saw protesters marching and singing my song, ‘Ah-yay-kyi-bi’ [‘Moment of Truth’]. I later found out that they were not allowed to chant any slogans but [were permitted to] sing, so they were singing and shouting slogans against Thein Sein and his government at the same time. That’s why I ended up singing that day.
Q: We understand that you will be participating in an anti-Nobel Peace Prize campaign against President Thein Sein, which will begin during the first weekend of May. Who will lead the campaign? What brings you to be part of it? What will you do and what do you expect from it?
A: We, me and Burmese activists, are planning to organize campaigns every Saturday, starting May 4, to oppose to the nomination of Thein Sein for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.
As a military leader, Thein Sein took different responsibilities in the previous military regimes. He finally changed his uniform for civilian clothes and became the president according to the will of former junta chief Sr-Gen Than Shwe and other generals. This kind of person doesn’t deserve a Nobel Prize, that’s why we are trying to begin our campaign to oppose his nomination.
We will brief the current events in Burma in handouts and distribute them. We have also planned to collect signatures from our supporters and send them to the Nobel Committee responsible for the Nobel Peace Prize. Furthermore, we have planned to sing while distributing pamphlets and collecting signatures.
In addition, during our campaign, we will try our best to inform the Norwegian people and news agencies about what is going on in Burma.
Q: As an ethnic Kachin and someone who used to be on the Burma-Thailand border after the 1988 military coup, what do you think of the Norwegian government’s financial support for the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), which was initiated by the Burmese government? Is it doing enough to address ethnic issues in the country? Do you think that Norway’s support has been effective?
A: A government-initiated peace committee can never be neutral. My understanding is that the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has called for international observers in its next rounds of talks with the Burmese government because it doesn’t trust the latter’s peace committee.
I don’t think Norway’s support of the MPC has been effective. Besides, the assistance seems to go to the MPC one-sidedly. I think both the Norwegian and Burmese governments don’t have accountability and transparency with regard to this financial support. So, what we can do is to urge the Norwegian people, the tax payers, and opposition parties to raise questions about the effectiveness of their government’s assistance to Burma, and we will. In Norway, those who are in the administration cannot do whatever they please because of the power they have. Their power came from their people.
Q: By being part of Burma-related political campaigns in Norway, you are different from other artists who have already returned home. Do you have any hope of going back and singing on stage in front of a home audience?
A: The right to go home is more important than actually returning. President Thein Sein invited exile Burmese to come back but restrictions have been imposed on them since they applied for visas to Burma. I will be satisfied only if I have to follow an application process like other ordinary foreigners. But it seems to me that overseas Burmese, who are currently holding foreign documents, have been discriminated against.
As a singer, it is my greatest expectation to sing songs for my audience in my native country. At the same time, I want to return home freely and with dignity, and want to sing for everybody, regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds. Apart from stage shows, if they want to listen, I also want to sing songs for people in the refugee camps, including the ones in my native Kachin State, crying people across the country, and soldiers from different armies who are fighting against each other. I want to sing for them without any discrimination of whether they are my friends or enemies.
Q: As a singer who has consistently been part of the democracy movement, what do you think of the relationship between art and politics?
A: I don’t want to discuss whether art and politics are separate because I am not doing politics. What I have been, constantly, is in a revolution. Why so? Because when I was young, I had to grow up under the shadow of civil war. When I was a singer, my songs were censored and I wasn’t allowed to sing them as they were originally composed. Also, in 1988, I saw ordinary citizens brutally shot to death by the army on the streets of our former capital, Rangoon. Since then, I have believed that there is no other means in Burma but revolution. I still believe that.
It doesn’t mean that I am being ignorant and denying the fact, with my eyes and ears closed, that reforms are currently taking place in Burma. Looking at the change process in sequence from Than Shwe to Thein Sein, I think the military is still trying to systematically cling to power. Over the past 50 years, the military has used various means to lie to its citizens many times.
In 1990, the then-junta chief Sr-Gen Saw Maung said soldiers would go back to their barracks after the election. However, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the election in a landslide victory, it refused to transfer power to the NLD and continued to rule the country.
To make itself legitimate, the military regime drew up a Constitution as it wanted and forcefully adopted it in 2008 while people were suffering from Cyclone Nargis. And then, it held an election in 2010 without the participation of the main opposition party, the NLD. The current ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won the election overwhelmingly with advanced and other types of voting, and Thein Sein became president.
After firmly taking bases in different sectors, the military released Suu Kyi and other political prisoners batch by batch in order to gain the favor of the international community. In fact, those people should never have been imprisoned in the first place.
If you look at the 2008 Constitution, it clearly states that the military can’t give the people a real democracy. It automatically allows 25 percent [guaranteed representation] for the military in the Parliament. It also allows the Tatmadaw [Burma’s armed forces] to take over power if necessary. According to that Constitution, someone must have military experience in order to take the presidential post. In fact, executive and all other main powers remain in their hands.
At the same time, the military launched offensives against the Kachin people, most of them are Christians. The army even attacked them via air strike on Christmas Day, the day they consider sacrosanct. So where is national reconciliation? In reality, the military is the one going around and fighting with ethnic nationalities, students, monks and others.
For me, I know the military is good at lying and by looking at their actions, I still don’t and can’t believe whatever they say. I recently heard Sr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the current commander-in-chief of the armed forces, saying that the military will maintain a leading role in Burma’s politics in the future. I think his statement is against democratic values.
Q: Tell us about how you came to arrange your ‘Battle for Peace’ album in 1992. Is it true that Htoo Ein Thin, one of the famous late artists of your time, wrote ‘Moment of Truth,’ the marching song on your album?
A: The ‘Battle for Peace’ album was recorded in Bangkok in 1992. It includes revolutionary sounds we took down from night singing events in our student days and new ones I was given when I was on the border. I sang them with the desire to encourage my fellow citizens and the democracy movement.
‘Moment of Truth’ was written by Htoo Ein Thin. I still remember the time I was together with him in a camp called Mae Talay located next to Thaung Yin River on the Burma-Thailand border. One night, while I was suffering from malaria, he was writing something the whole night by candlelight. The next day, when I felt better, he sang a song for me with his harmonica. It was the marching song he wrote the night before, ‘Moment of Truth.’
Q: Please also tell us about ‘Path to Freedom,’ an album you recorded in 1998 with Norwegian musicians. Your songs have become more jazz-oriented lately, so do you think they will go over well with a Burmese audience?
A: ‘Path to Freedom’ came into existence because a Norwegian citizen asked me to release an album to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and he took responsibility for everything needed. Back then, I didn’t have songs ready for recording, so he composed melodies for other songs besides the two written by well-known musician Ye Lwin and Ye Ni, an editor of The Irrawaddy’s Burmese edition. And I inserted Burmese lyrics into his melodies. Thus, most of my songs on this album came out with jazz melodies simply because the backbone creator of those songs is a jazz lover.
Q: Are you making any arrangements for your next album? Is it true that you will also sing Ye Lwin’s songs on it?
A: I have begun some arranging with a band to record my new album. It is not that I just started singing Ye Lwin’s songs. I have sung his songs with love since I was in Burma. I now have his songs and others written by Ne Win, another famous songwriter, to sing. Their songs have had an influence on me since I was a student. I feel excited whenever I sing their songs. I am hoping that one day I will go back to my country freely and sing songs for my people freely.