IN BURMA, it’s not just the pink hair and skull tattoos that make punk rockers stand out.
It’s their willingness to speak out against Buddhist monks instigating violence against Muslims while others are silent.
Radical monks are at the forefront of a bloody campaign against Muslims, and few in the predominantly Buddhist nation of 60 million people are willing to criticise them.
“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.”
After half a century of harsh military rule, a quasi-civilian government installed two years ago has implemented sweeping reforms in Burma, 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 such as Wirathu, a charismatic speaker and supporter of 969. His following is growing as he crosses 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 per cent 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 Rakhine 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 such as Wirathu is to seek the voice of moderate Buddhists. But apart from a handful of monks and civil activists, few are stepping up. Westerners in Burma are often surprised when otherwise progressive Burmese defend the monks or say nothing when talk turns 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, accused of being friends with Muslims … It’s a very difficult situation.”
That leaves the punk rockers, who know what it’s like to be outsiders.
During military rule, the tiny punk community played in secret, often in abandoned buildings or in private, before a small group of close friends. While others were cowed by the threat of arrest, their lyrics screamed about abuses at the hands of the army and asked why politically-connected businessmen got rich while everyone else suffered.
Today they have a new battleground, religious intolerance.
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. “We’ve prepared ourselves for this mentally. But we want to speak our minds.”