Making music in Myanmar

First published, Guardian online

Photograph by Htet Wai

The lead singer of one of Myanmar’s most popular bands has spent his life songwriting in code.

Forming indie/post-punk group Side Effect with three friends in 2004 under a military dictatorship – when all forms of public expression were outlawed, all forms of popular culture vetted and controlled, and dissident artists of all kinds featured among the pariah state’s vast cohort of political prisoners – meant Darko C had to be scrupulously careful not to offend the generals. Taboo subjects included sex, politics and expressing disdain for life in general.

The country’s strict censorship programme meant all songs destined for the recording studio had to be checked by officials and approved first, a process Darko describes bluntly as a “pain in the arse”.

This oppressive protocol officially ended in 2012 when the Ministry of Information relaxed Myanmar’s censorship programme following the establishment of a semi-civilian government the year before, but, such is the ingrained fear in musicians like Darko, it’s taking its time to take effect. Ironic, as the forefathers of punk built an enduring sub-culture on anti-establishment principles.

“For a long time we were an underground band and we didn’t push ourselves to release any songs because we didn’t want to deal with the authorities,” says Darko, 37, who lives in now up-and-coming Yangon, and clarifies that his band is more indie rock by sound but punk rock in spirit. “But a good thing came out of this – it pushed me as a songwriter to think of ways to express my thoughts and feelings in an indirect way, so I would use a lot of metaphors and symbolism. This made our music more interesting and our songs more thought provoking. We found freedom this way.”

In 2015 the National League of Democracy (NDL), with – now controversial for her inaction over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims – Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as leader, won the elections with enough seats to form a government, ending 54 years of military rule.

Darko’s answer is “yes and no” when pressed on whether things became any better for musicians. “There’s a song by the British punk band the Notsensibles which goes, “I’m in love with Margaret Thatcher…she’s so sexy”,” he says. “Do you think you could joke about Aung San Suu Kyi? No. You would definitely be put in jail. So can I say I’m free? No.

“But freedom is something you have to fight for in Myanmar and now is the time to question how democratic the government really is. We need to keep pushing for our rights,” he says clapping his hands together. “Our job as musicians is to point out the problems, to make them listen to us, but of course they don’t. But our fans do.”

Darko taught himself how to play guitar by borrowing his father’s “hollow” (acoustic) guitar and watching his older friends play, while the band’s drummer Tser Htoo learnt how to play drums on stacks of books.

“I started writing songs, not giving a shit about what people would think,” recalls Darko, who is the Myanmar director for global not-for-profit social enterprise Turning Tables, which works to empower marginalised youth in the developing world through music and film. “It wasn’t until I was a teenager when I realised how fucked up things were in my country compared to the rest of the world.”

In 2011 the band attracted the attention of the international press when $2,800USD raised via the US crowdfunding site Indiegogo for the release of their debut album, was frozen by the US due its economic sanctions towards Myanmar. A demoralising setback. The following year the group played their first gig outside Asia, in Berlin, and in 2014, they became the first band from Myanmar to play at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.

Their high-energy songs are catchy, positive, and embody the resilience of Myanmar’s youth while challenging widespread public perception formed by decades of oppression. Underpinning most are rousing political, albeit codified, messages: Meikhtila decries the violence against the Rohingya Muslims, New Outfit speaks out about the new government making no significant difference, and on the cusp of being recorded, Rejection is about Darko C’s meeting with a young Rohingya man in Northern Rakhine who told him, “I wish I wasn’t born in this place. I just want to die.”

“Growing up, there were a few bars and clubs which were expensive to hire, but no music venues as such,” explains Darko. “You could organise your own gig in a public place, but for a fee, which we couldn’t afford at first, so our gigs were very DIY.

“When we played concerts, it was always a risk; there would be many plain clothed policemen around and military informers who might not like something you did. So I was scared, because I didn’t want to go to prison,” says Darko. “But we found ways to cheat the system,” he continues. “We’d give away demo CDs ahead of the release of our debut album Night Dreams, to our fans and one time, an official underlined all the lyrics he wanted us to change in red pen, but I sang the original version on the recording anyway. We were made to feel that connecting our art to politics was dirty.”

Musicians still require permission to perform publically from six different authorities including from the ward authority and the police department, a process which takes at least two weeks. But in recent years there’s been an influx of new bars, though for many, karaoke takes precedence over live bands.

“Fear was everywhere under the military government,” Darko reflects. “We were scared the whole time. But we were born into that. Everyone was scared of getting in trouble with the authorities. If someone knocked on your door in the middle of the night and wanted to take you away for interrogation, then they could just grab you, do what they wanted to you, and give no reason.

“Whenever you spoke about Aung San Suu Kyi you had to make sure no one was listening, you didn’t want to say the word ‘democracy’ out loud.

“We appreciate our freedom more now, I think a lot of people want to push things and get more rights and more freedom, and fix the problems we have in our country.

“But the NDL is still a very young government. So far, I’m not impressed by the Aung San Suu Kyi government when it comes to how they deal with freedom of expression and ethnic minorities especially the Rohingya. I expect them to stand up for all citizens, for all minorities.”

So, while Western punk rockers continue to challenge the authorities with the sort of blatant confidence only possible in the free world, far away in Myanmar, indie-punk rockers have to embody a far more subtle version of the sub-culture, but a far more authentic version too. Maybe that’s the real irony.