covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019



By Aung Zaw SEPTEMBER, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.7

The promotion of political ideas in a musical context has been a common feature of mass movements Southeast Asia. Like other political movements in Southeast Asia, music has provided a rallying point for the masses during political upheavals in Burma. It has served as a potent response to the rapid political and social displacements brought on by neo-colonialism, industrialization, and dictatorship. At the same time, music has also been appropriated to serve the establishment by strengthening national cohesion, promoting entrenched power structures and spreading selected values and information to the multitudes. In Thailand, the folk group, Caravan, became an icon of the anti-military dictatorship movement. Their blatantly political songs combined elements of Western folk with embellishments played by indigenous instruments, and were performed at public gatherings and helped to bridge the broad gap between rural farmers and students. Their socially conscious music spawned by the political turbulence of the 1970s gave birth to an entire genre known as "Songs for Life" which has remained popular ever since. Today, the "Songs for Life" torch is being carried by Caravan proteges, Carabao [see pg 20]. The Hukbalahap movement, which brought together communist and socialist forces in the Philippines during the 1940s and 1950s, was dubbed the "singing army" for their use of songs in spreading propaganda and inspiring confidence during battle. Years later, during the reign of Ferdinand Marcos, Freddie Aguilar earned the reputation as the Philippines’ answer to Bob Dylan. His popular songs challenged the injustices of the Marcos regime, addressed Muslim-Christian clashes and superpower arrogance, and became a voice for the powerless. Aguilar resurrected the song "Banyan Ko" (My Homeland)—written in 1896 as ammunition for the revolution against Spain—beside the coffin of assassinated opposition leader, Ninoy Aquino, and the tune became the anthem of the anti-Marcos movement. Folk songs provided a point of convergence for participants in the independence movement in East Timor against Portuguese and Indonesian invaders. The leading Timorese poet-musician, Borja de Costa, was singled out for execution by Indonesian troops in 1975. In Burma, the anti-British independence movement coalesced around songs such as "Nagani" (Red Dragon), which promoted national pride and education. "Nagani" remains popular with the opposition movement today. The traditional and modern music that criticized repressive rule and political injustices empowered Southeast Asia’s political movements, so it is no surprise that the melodious sounds were frowned upon by the region’s authoritarian rulers. Despite this resentment, Southeast Asia’s dictators, from Indonesia’s Suharto to Burma’s Gen Ne Win, understood the power of music and appropriated tunes and musicians to defuse political tensions while serving their own political agendas. In the early 1970s, a tempestuous Ne Win stormed the Inya Lake Hotel near his lakeside residence. Infuriated by the caterwauling of Burma’s only rock band that was playing a banquet hall at the time, the strongman kicked over the drums and screamed at a bewildered audience for reveling in the earsplitting music. Although serious political limitations remain, much of Southeast Asia now enjoys greater liberties and freedom of expression in the media and in art. But over the past 40 years, the attitudes of the regime have barely changed in Burma where the military junta maintains close watch on musicians through the draconian Press Scrutiny Board (PSB). The PSB censors all media content, including lyrics and songs. "We cannot sing words like ‘human rights’ or ‘democracy’ in our songs. We cannot even sing ‘dark’ or ‘tiny room’," says a songwriter in Rangoon. A few years ago, Burma’s famous pop singer, Htoo Ein Thin, released an album containing the song, "History’s Bride", also known as "Irrawaddy". Once the song gained wide popularity the authorities realized it carried a political message. This discovery came too late to ban the album but Htoo Ein Thin has since been forbidden from performing this song in his concerts. The PSB learned a valuable lesson from its "History’s Bride" oversight and now exercises greater caution. For lyrics to gain the board’s approval can now take several months. Mun Awng is all-too familiar with this protracted process. To pass songs such as "Demon’s Rule/Man’s Rule" by the censorship board, Mun Awng’s producer would offer up a few thousand kyat and treat PSB officials to expensive dinners. "They [PSB officials] have always been corrupt," the exiled singer says.

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