Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Burma's youth rapping for change

This year looks set to be a crucial one for Burma.
The military government plans to stage the first elections for 20 years and international attention is likely to be focused on the detained pro democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
But there is another group working to bring about change in Burma whose methods are less conventional.
Generation Wave is a group of hip hop-loving, young Burmese, dedicated to overthrowing the military government.
Their campaigns are run inside Burma, but the group has a safe house in the town of Mae Sot, just across the border in Thailand.
9KT has a mischievous grin, a warm handshake and an unmistakable aura of cool.
He is 27 years old and, clearly, 9KT is not his real name.
The members of Generation Wave never use their real names in public.

Music is the only language everyone understands
But given 9KT's role in the organisation, the alias fits perfectly. His official title is head of artistic projects but essentially he is Rapper-in-Chief.
9KT's latest brainchild is a CD featuring songs written and performed by Generation Wave members.
I was treated to an acoustic medley when I visited the group's safe house in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.
The singing was full of passion. But the guitar was badly out of tune, and the cigarettes and teeth-staining red beetle nuts being chewed intermittently softened the impact a bit.
Serious risks
Generation Wave "unplugged" is not likely to win any Grammys. More importantly, it is not likely to inspire an uprising.
But the group is hoping the recorded version, a mixture of hip hop, rock and pop, will be an underground hit back in Burma.
The CD will be distributed by volunteer activists and 9KT is clearly very proud of it.

The frontier town of Mae Sot is full of people from Burma
"Music is the only language everyone understands," he told me.
"We've recorded different types of songs so everyone, whatever their age or gender, can listen to it and know what's right and what's wrong."
Generation Wave wants to encourage the Burmese people to rise up and overthrow the military government.
That may seem like a naïve notion. But the organisation grew out of what became known as the saffron revolution - the 2007 protests led by saffron robed monks, which were violently put down by the Burmese military.
So Generation Wave is grounded in harsh reality.
The group has a strict policy of non violence. No-one under 17 or over 35 years old can join and anyone who does sign up must officially live in Burma and be prepared to take risks. Serious risks.
About 30 Generation Wave members have been imprisoned.
So the safe house, just across the border in Thailand, is an important refuge.
It is in a quiet lane in Mae Sot, a frontier town with at least as many Burmese as Thais living in it.
The transient population is a mixture of migrant workers, traders and political exiles.
The Generation Wave house is a place to plot and scheme, and learn.

The Burmese people are like the boxer's right hand. They are the ones who can deliver the knock out blow
The garage has been turned into a permanent classroom, complete with a white board, overhead projector, desks and laptops.
Visiting speakers are invited to provide training on everything from leafleting to graffiti designs.
The concrete walls surrounding the house are covered in brightly coloured spray painted slogans.
The Generation Wave logo, a clenched red fist with the thumb pointing up, features heavily.
When I visited a special tutorial on internet security was being given by a young, long-haired, Thai media expert. There was a lot of talk about Googlemail contacts lists, and Facebook privacy settings and encrypted messages.
Or at least I think that is what it was. The session was being translated from Thai-accented English into Burmese, though to be honest, a lot of it would have been impenetrable to me in any language.
But for Generation Wave members, learning to cover your tracks and protect your sources is a matter of survival.
Internet cafes, mobile phones and e-mail accounts are monitored closely in Burma.
Over lunch the talk turned inevitably to the latest news from across the border.

Bright graffiti slogans cover the walls of the Generation Wave house
Kitchen duties and menus are divided between the housemates according to a rota pinned up on the wall.
As bowls of Burmese chicken curry and steamed rice were placed on the long wooden table, an earnest 24-year-old called Gali was engaged in what seemed to be a intense political discussion with a slightly older man who had been acting as the translator in class.
I could make out the words "constitution" and "Than Shwe", the name of Burma's military leader.
Gali, another alias, is Generation Wave's logistics man.
Given the might of the Burmese military, I asked him, what could he and his group really do to bring about change?
"We're like the left hand of a boxer," he told me.
"Generation Wave can soften up the government. But the Burmese people are like the boxer's right hand. They are the ones who can deliver the knock-out blow."
Generation Wave is punching well above its weight.
The group's ultimate goal is to inspire a revolution. And with an election scheduled in Burma sometime this year, they are planning a series of new ventures, including, of course, the CD.
My own copy is playing on my laptop as I write this. 9KT rapping over a lyrical riff about the need for the Burmese people to get up.
A musical reminder of a day spent with a group of young rebels with a very real cause - freedom and democracy in their homeland.

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