YANGON, Myanmar — There’s no glitz, no glamour and no pretense about the small recording studio in the heart of Yangon. In fact, the studio and its environs are so unassuming, with no signs proclaiming its existence, that you might just miss its entrance.
But behind the unmarked doors is where one of Myanmar’s most recognized artists is recording his new album.
With long dreadlocked hair, denim jacket emblazoned with a peace sign and white socks adorned with marijuana leaves, you might be forgiven for mistaking Burmese reggae artist Poe Kwar for a Bob Marley impersonator.
A former Myanmar national soccer player, Poe Kwar is a force unto himself who may have drawn his inspiration from Marley but has made the reggae sound all his own.
His lyrics are about the mix of war and politics that have plagued Myanmar combined with his own message of hope and peace. Under the old regime of strict censorship, many of those lyrics were forbidden from being heard by the Burmese people, but with the relaxation of those rules in recent years, that has changed.
“We used to have censorship with everything, cartoons, magazines, even songs. But, about one year ago, there was no more censorship. In my first album three songs were rejected but now I might use them,” he sasy speaking through a translator.
Poe Kwar’s music carries his message, but across town in a small office inside a Yangon mall another woman’s message is being carried through her writing.
The bad prisoner
A small woman with a big presence, Ma Thida is perhaps the second most internationally recognized face of the fight for democracy in Myanmar.
A surgeon and writer, the one-time aide to Aung San Suu Kyi spent 5 years, 6 months and 6 days in the infamously brutal Insein prison for her work with the National League for Democracy (NLD).
After working with Suu Kyi and the NLD during the 1988 student demonstrations, the failed elections in 1990 and the subsequent constitutional meetings, she was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in October of 1993. While in prison, her health began to fail. Already suffering from a medical condition she contracted tuberculosis.
“Most of my health condition inside was bad and most of the people thought I might die in prison and most of the medical treatment I got while inside was pretty terrible,” she explained.
It was then that her plight was recognized by international human rights groups like Amnesty International.
“The authority always thought I was a pretty bad prisoner,” Ma Thida says. “I was always giving them the big headache for handling things… that’s why I was recognized as a bad prisoner.
“But at that time PEN International, Amnesty International and other institutions they make a lot of effort for my release.”
The international pressure along with her reputation as a ‘bad prisoner’ helped win her release.
Today, she jokes that the government did her a favour in putting her in prison. “I wish I could have my own prison memoir one day so as soon as I noticed I was sentenced I was a little bit happy you know,” she says with a hearty laugh.
Myanmar’s 88 Generation
Another of Myanmar’s well-known former political prisoners is Kyaw Min Yu, known by most in Myanmar simply as Ko Jimmy. Ko Jimmy was one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Student Group that participated in protests in 1988.
He and many of his colleagues were arrested for publicly advocating for democracy and writing about their hopes for freedom.
“I was arrested in August 1989 and released in 2005. I was in prison for 16 years for the first time and then in 2007 arrested again and again released in 2012. Everything is ‘again’ you know,” he says with a rye laugh.
“At the beginning of prison, life was too tough for us. The military intelligence control everywhere. Every crook and cranny you know. So we have no right to read, write or paint. Nothing! If authority saw a piece of paper in our hand we were punished severely.”
Having spent more than 20 years of his life in prison for his convictions, those years of harsh treatment may have taken their toll but have not broken his spirit.
Today, he and other former leaders of the 88 Generation who spent so much of their lives in solitary confinement are continuing the fight for democracy with a new incarnation of the 88 Generation still advocating for democracy.
“Reform is very important and the most important thing is to establish new political culture in our country which means dialogue culture. For 60 years, we lost dialogue culture in our country. We lost democratic culture in our country,” says Jimmy.
When asked if these elections are the answer to building on the reforms to freedom of expression and steps towards free elections Jimmy answers, “According to the democratic procedure we must accept the elections.
Cautiously optimistic about future of democracy
Ma Thida echoes Ko Jimmy’s cautious optimism about the changes Myanmar is undergoing. She too points out that although elections are important it isn’t the only thing needed to fix Myanmar’s political problems.
“The current constitution is the key problem for having the democratic culture that’s why we keep asking the government to change the constitution according to the democratic standards,” she says. “What we need is not only the result of the 2015 election but changing the systems more and more.” she says.
What they are talking about is changing what they say is a fundamental impediment to democracy. Article 436 states that any amendment to the constitution requires the approval of 75 per cent of all of the members of parliament,” Ma Thida explained. “But currently the majority of the parliament is party of the ruling military. That is not likely to change even after the elections on November 8.”
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Ma Thida and Ko Jimmy share a desire for change beyond merely having elections.
So too does Poe Kwar. He continues to make his music with a message of love and freedom.
“I believe I liked freedom since I was born but the country wasn’t free,” he says. “But when I listened to Bob Marley it gave me freedom.”
It’s a message he holds close to his heart. Lifting up his Bob Marley T-shirt he reveals a tattoo of Aung San Suu Kyi, a symbol of his hope for a democratic and free future.
When asked if she is still the answer he responds in English with a smile, “Maybe… Not sure.”
Melanie de Klerk travelled to Myanmar as a recipient of the 2015/2016 Asia Pacific Foundation Media Fellowship.