Punks Break Burma’s Silence on Religious Attacks

Youths dressed as punks await a punk music show during the Burmese New Year Water Festival in Rangoon on April 12, 2013. (Photo: Reuters / Soe Zeya Tun)

RANGOON — Punk rockers draw double-takes as they dart through traffic, but it’s not just the pink hair, leather jackets or skull tattoos that make these 20-somethings rebels: It’s their willingness to speak out against Buddhist monks instigating violence against Muslims while others in Burma are silent.

“If they were real monks, I’d be quiet, but they aren’t,” says Kyaw Kyaw, lead singer of Rebel Riot, as his drummer knocks out the beat for a new song slamming religious hypocrisy and an anti-Muslim movement known as “969.” ‘‘They are nationalists, fascists. No one wants to hear it, but it’s true.”

Radical monks are at the forefront of a bloody campaign against Muslims, and few in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people are willing to speak against them. For many, being Buddhist is an important part of being Burmese, and monks, the most venerable members of society, are beyond reproach. Others are simply in denial, or buy into claims the Muslim “outsiders” pose a threat to their culture and traditions.

The silence is as dangerous as the mobs razing mosques and cheering as Muslims are hunted down and beaten to death with chains and metal pipes, says Michael Salberg, director of international affairs at the US-based Anti-Defamation League.

“It’s not perpetrators that are the problem here,” he says, pointing to conditions that paved the way for the Holocaust in Germany and the genocide in Rwanda. “It’s the bystanders.”

After half-century of harsh military rule, a quasi-civilian government installed two years ago has implemented sweeping reforms, releasing pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, relaxing restrictions against peaceful assembly, opening up the media and throwing away the censor’s pen.

The same freedoms have also given voice to monks like Wirathu, a charismatic speaker and supporter of 969. His following is growing as he crisscrosses the country calling for boycotts of Muslim-owned shops and a ban on marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men, and warning that a higher birthrate could one day bring Muslims from 4 percent of the population to a majority.

“All I can really say is, people should look at the teachings of Buddha and ask themselves, is this what he meant?” says Ye Ngwe Soe, the 27-year-old frontman of No U Turn, the country’s most popular punk rock band. He wrote the song “Human Wars” after violence against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State started spilling into other regions. “When I go to some urban areas, I hear talking about 969, hating Muslims, being violent. It shouldn’t be this way.”

Hate speech experts say the best way to counter people like Wirathu is to seek the voice of moderate Buddhists.

But outside of a handful of monks and civil activists who have gotten together for interfaith dialogues, few are stepping up. Westerners working in Burma are often surprised when their otherwise progressive Burmese subordinates softly defend the monks or say nothing when discussions turn to religious violence.

“I’m sure a lot of them think this is total madness, but they don’t dare to say that openly,” says Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who has written several books about Burma. “If they do they will be attacked by these new nationalists, religious bigots, accused of being friends with Muslims. … It’s a very difficult situation.”

Arker Kyaw, a 20-year-old graffiti artist bursting with an electric creativity, has several friends—mostly musicians and DJs—who are Muslims and was very upset about the violence that has wracked their communities in the last year.

He and others of varying religious backgrounds put together a music video expressing solidarity, saying basically, “Don’t worry, at least between us, everything will be OK.”

But when asked if he isn’t tempted to answer to 969 when he sees their stickers and signs on the walls of Rangoon, he says: “No. It’s very complicated. On this one, I think it’s better to be the audience, not the show.”

President Thein Sein, embraced by the United States and others for his reform-minded agenda, banned an issue of Time magazine that splashed Wirathu on the cover and called him “the face of Buddhist terror,” and issued a statement saying he supports 969 and considers the extremist monk a “son of Lord Buddha.”

With national elections scheduled for 2015, opposition leader Suu Kyi has said nothing, worried, analysts say, there will be a backlash at the polls if she is perceived as anti-Buddhist.

That leaves the punk rockers, who know what it’s like to be outsiders.

During military rule, the tiny punk community practiced and performed in secret, often in abandoned buildings, by the railroad tracks or in private, before a small group of close friends. While others were cowed by the constant threat of arrest and imprisonment, they screamed out about abuses at the hands of the army and asked why politically connected businessmen were getting rich while everyone else suffered.

Today they have a new battleground, religious intolerance. And they aren’t about to shy away.

Kyaw Kyaw of Rebel Riot likes to say that while he can’t change the world, or Burma, or even Rangoon, he can at least influence those around him.

“They can arrest us, we don’t care,” says this 26-year-old son of a police officer. “Or we can be attacked by certain groups. We don’t care, we’ve prepared ourselves for this mentally. But we want to speak our minds.”


18 Responses to Punks Break Burma’s Silence on Religious Attacks

  1. Great Job………best wished to your band…always do good deed :)

  2. It’s always easy just to speak your mind (right or wrong, true or false), as these youngsters don’t have a broader view on the world. Well, that’s the reputation of these type of youngsters, punckers, all over the world.
    Youngsters also don’t have to consider the wider impact of statements. They are hardly contributing anything to society. If they really wnat to do something, take responsibility and not just shouting or yelling out that ‘things must change’.
    In any case, these are just a bunch of kids, let them be young and bold. In time they will learn that the real world does not work like that.

    • How patronizing! Just because many of the Burmese punks are young doesn’t mean to say they don’t know what they’re talking about. They have themselves been subjected to oppression and prejudice for years. So, they are an informed position to speak out. Further, societal changes takes place on many levels including music, style and lifestyle (this has been consistent throughout history). Good on these punk bands.

      • “Or we can be attacked by certain groups. We don’t care, we’ve prepared ourselves for this mentally”. – In Muslim society they would not be even allowed to step outside their home with their hairdo. Their look is not halal.

        And does anybody in Burma remember those Arakan people who lost their relatives and property or only Muslims deserve sympathy?

    • Yes! The real world works with racism, bigotry, hypocrisy and hatred. That’s the real world! The only one we have, so the good one! Let those “youngsters” accept that Evil is real, that we cannot, and must not, fight it. That nothing is black or white, but numbingly grey. Let the Rohyingya die because, hey, the world is in that way. Mass killings are happening, but, hey bro, the world works that way, who am I to speak against a such well established system?

      Just to be sure, I am being sarcastic here. The world is this way especially because of people like you. And you dare to call yourself “Concerned”?? Concerned about what, your status? Your respectable reputation?

      • I totatlly agree with you simblanco, the world is this way due to people like “Concerned”, he is a hopeless hypocrit. I applaud those kids and may god bless them.

  3. Brave guys. Fighting for the innocents. May God bless you young men. For the development of our poor nation peace is ver important. Let Mr. Thein Sein support 969 and Wirathu. His wrong intention
    will take its course. From my point of view he is still an army man
    holding power in a civilian clothes fooling the international community.

  4. this is just a punk rock song
    written for the people who can see something’s wrong
    like ants in a colony we do our share
    but there’s so many other f****** insects out there
    and this is just a punk rock song
    (like workers in a factory we do our share
    but there’s so many other f****** robots out there)

    have you visited the quagmire?
    have you swam in the shit?
    the party conventions and the real politik
    the faces always different, the rhetoric the same
    but we swallow it, and we see nothing change
    nothing has changed…

  5. Bravo and kudos to these progressive minded young people. Their voice will be heard. Their music video will be more effective in countering the Wirathu discs especially among the younger generation. It’s not for nothing that Wirathu is a cheerleader for Thein Sein.

  6. Everywhere in the world, in every time, the bravest people have always spoken up for compassion, tolerance and respect, often at extreme risk. WHERE ARE THE LEADERS? History has seen this too many times. WHY ARE YOU NOT SPEAKING UP?

  7. Suu Kyi wrote a book called “Freedom from Fear” (I read it a while ago; it’s mainly fluffy stuff and I really can’t remember anything that’s important in there!)
    Burmese Punks should now write a book called “Freedom from Religious Fervour”
    I will read it. LOL

  8. These young people are wiser than many elders. I salute them. Yet there are boundaries that they need to cross. If a group of people use 786, and another 969, there can hardly be any solution to the present problems of Burma. As we all want to see Burma as a deocratic and strong country competing with the tigers of today, there should be camaraderie among all the religions of Burma. Using any number of letter or symbol seems to divide the solidarity we see. Hope people will see a different kind of friendship develop with the performances of this group. Cheers!

  9. Brave, Lads! Congratulations for being brave enough to speak out against people who use weapons to attack and kill people; people who use religion and the yellow robes and call themselves Buddhists; and people who stand by and say nothing. They are people who do not care for peace, freedom, justice and fairness.

  10. Fantastic to see others who are thinking for them selves and trying to cause others too. How do I contact the band?

  11. Well my Buddhist friends in Germany, here is evidence that not everybody keeps mum on the religious riots in Myanmar. But the cheers, seem to come mostly from Burmese living abroad.

    Who knows? If the respected Elders in the country continue in their silence, more young people in modern Myanmar, with a sharp sense of what is true and what not, may turn to becoming punks. That is how the movement started in the west: rebellion against the authoritative set ways of the elders.

  12. They are just third-grade punks trying to ape the punks in the west, particularly in London, but turn out looking like a bunch of jokers in leather jackets in the sweltering heat of Asia. Well! I guess they will do anything to get attention.

  13. Some people, although they realize what is actually happening in Myanmar right now, tend to stick to their biased views.
    However we can all agree that Withura is not a good role model for monks in Myanmar. He’s an ultranationalist neo nazi, without a doubt. TIME magazine was right in portraying him as ‘the Buddhist Face of Terror’.

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