His idol is Bob Marley, his credo is peace and his band is One Love, a name inspired by what he describes as cosmic “oneness.”
With dreadlocks spilling out of his rastacap, reggae musician Saw Phoe Khwar stands out, but insists that he is just one of millions of Burmese who want peace to prevail in their conflict-torn homeland. He is an advocate for peace, freedom and equality, and he thinks his music can help further those ends.
A rare public presence in the past, the 45-year-old songwriter’s profile is on the rise as concepts like peace and national reconciliation—long a distant prospect—are increasingly discussed by laymen and government officials alike.
“Love Each Other,” one of his most popular songs, is a favorite of President’s Office Minister Aung Min, leader of the government’s peace negotiating team. Aung Min’s visits to Rangoon almost always include an invitation to Saw Phoe Khwar from the minister, who enjoys hearing the ethnic Karen musician strum out a few casual tunes.
Saw Phoe Khwar was also invited to perform at Burma’s first peace festival concert in July, which was attended by thousands at Rangoon’s Thuwana National Stadium. He said he planned to hold another peace-themed free concert in January 2014 in Rangoon.
Mindful of how some artists are used as political pawns, Saw Phoe Khwar said he spurned public appearances in the past and avoided attending big events where other well-known Burmese singers performed. But with the Burmese government now negotiating with armed ethnic minority groups to end decades of civil war, Saw Phoe Khwar feels he too has a part to play in determining the outcome of those talks.
He understands that his songs, with lyrics that heavily draw on themes of peace and harmony, are of particular relevance to Burma these days, and for this reason agreed to get involved in the peace festival in July.
“What I believe is that we can only build peace with real love and kindness. What’s happening in our country now is that we lack love for each other. That’s why we now face nationalism and religious problems. I want to give the message to the people about the reason for the conflicts we are facing now,” said Saw Phoe Khwar.
Born to a Christian family in Rangoon’s Ahlone Township, Saw Phoe Khwar was surrounded by music since childhood, but it wasn’t until the age of 17 that he heard his first reggae. After listening to a Bob Marley album that was given to him by a friend, Saw Phoe Khwar saw a kindred spirit in the Jamaican singer and songwriter.
“I like the taste of freedom,” Saw Phoe Khwar said. “His [Marley’s] reggae is full of freedom. When I watched the way he sang, I became addicted to reggae. His mood is full of freedom.
“I was moved by this reggae music. It motivated me. I wanted to listen to it until I died. Now, it [reggae] is my life. You can easily know that I’m crazy for reggae by seeing my outfit,” said Saw Phoe Khwar, whose chin is inked with a yellow, green and red tattoo as another testament to his dedication to the genre.
It was in order to spread reggae’s message, and not the prospect of striking it rich, that Saw Phoe Khwar got into the music business.
“Even singers like the famous singer and songwriter Htoo Eain Thin—he is a favorite singer for many people, but he is not rich,” said Saw Phoe Khwar.
“I even put a song on one of my albums about my [financial] situation. I have to struggle to meet daily basic needs. I hardly have a good dinner. But, I have freedom in my life. This is what I want.”
Referring to Marley’s alleged last words—“Money can’t buy life”—Saw Phoe Khwar said he believes life is a priceless commodity. “I can’t exchange my life with Tay Za’s [one of Burma’s richest business tycoons] life,” he said. “You can’t buy my life.”
There is, however, one material legacy that Saw Phoe Khwar hopes to leave behind when his life on this earth has passed: the establishment of a museum dedicated to the music he loves.
Saw Phoe Khwar has produced four albums, but expects to make more music and hold more peace-related concerts in Rangoon, Kachin State and Karenni State.
Recalling the days of his youth, Saw Phoe Khwar said he used to feel strongly about his ethnic identity.
“When I was young, I was proud of being an ethnic Karen. I used to put my nationality first.
“But one day, I was really ashamed when I looked at myself,” he said Saw. “I was ashamed of having such a mindset and ideology. I changed myself. It was also because of Bob Marley. He didn’t side with white or black people. He sided with human beings because he was a human being.
Saw Phoe Khwar also blamed the attitudes of older generations, whose deeply rooted distrust of other ethnicities was holding back national unity, he said.
“Our grandparents, parents guided us in the wrong way sometimes. They left us many bad legacies. They said, ‘Don’t trust Burman people. They are bad people.’ This is what our elders used to teach us.”
He said hatred, ethnic pride and a lack of love for one another were leading causes of the religious violence and decades-long armed conflicts between ethnic groups in Burma.
“With reggae singers, we have same mood, feelings and ideology. If you see a reggae singer in Chiang Mai [Thailand] or in Paris, you will think about me as you see me now in Yangon with this reggae outfit,” said Saw Phoe Khwar.
“We believe in oneness and equality. All human beings must be treated equally. This is the message I want to give to people.”
Saw Phoe Khwar condemned the ethnic pride, which is passed off by some as “patriotism,” and equal disdain for other ethnicities that has led to decades of conflict in Burma. That goes for ethnic minorities like the Karen, as well as the majority Burman people who have long oppressed the country’s minority groups.
“In one of my Karen songs … I give a message with a question: By killing and destroying Burman people, is this how we love our Karen people? By defeating other nationalities, is that a patriotic mindset?”