In August 2007, a sleeping giant had awoken; a rebellion rumbled loud enough to remind us that there are countries in this world that have fallen under lock and key. While the BBC aired shaky footage of monks, military, tear gas and gunshots, Burma (now Myanmar) was thrust back into the Western consciousness. The country had closed its doors in 1962, and bolted them tighter still, after a student uprising in ’88 ended in a bloodbath. August 2007 marked the beginning of the Saffron Revolution; after decades of suffering, starvation, deprivation and a constant climate of fear, the military junta removed the subsidies on petrol and fuel, forcing prices to rise between sixty-six and one hundred per cent in only a week. This was the catalyst that united a nation against its cruel tormentors.
Skum (left) and Crash (right) in Yangon, 2013. Photo by Greg Holland.
The deeply religious country had a fanatical and superstitious junta who ruled with an iron fist wrapped in barbed wire, but whose one point of weakness was being blessed by Buddhist monks on a weekly basis. It was during the 2007 revolution that monks chose to withhold their spiritual services from the generals. Peaceful marches started in Yangon and Mandalay with Buddhist monks—usually forbidden to engage in political matters—leading the marches. Demands were made for lower commodity prices, national reconciliation and the release of political prisoners, including Aung Sang Suu Kyi, daughter of the leader of independence, General Bo Gyoke Aung Sang.
The revolution came to a bloody end, but it awoke the senses of the now united population of Burma, and the world’s eyes began to focus on the country and its military regime.
Four years down the line, after a sham election, an Obama visit, economic reforms and a name change, the generals switched out their uniforms for parliamentary dress and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar was born. This new era finally allowed foreigners in to the country, where they could try to unearth the untold stories of this country.
“My understanding of the country was that its pause button had been pressed for the past 50 years and nothing got in or out, but the Opeth, Lamb of God and Slayer t-shirts suggested otherwise.”
I arrived in Yangon in April 2013, camera in hand, Burmese language book in pocket and sweat dripping from every pore. It wasn’t long before I was drawn to the rumblings of live music in the city. My understanding of the country was that its pause button had been pressed for the past fifty years and nothing got in or out, but the Opeth, Lamb of God and Slayer t-shirts suggested otherwise. I followed the trail of death-metal t-shirts, was handed a flyer, and found myself at a daytime metal concert. In a dark nightclub, filled with cigarette smoke and swathes of sweaty youths, I heard the unmistakable high-pitched squeals of a grindcore band blasting out a brutal tirade of riffs and blast-beats. It made no sense and total sense all at the same time. These sounds, along with the ideas and aesthetics that came along with them, had trickled through an open crack into Myanmar and manifested in this supposedly airtight petri dish.
During a conversation with Darko, a guitarist and singer in the Yangon indie band Side Effect, I admitted I played the drums in metal and punk bands when I was younger and he excitedly informed me that his best friend needed a drummer and I should speak to him.
“Who is this guy then?”
Skum, who was born in 1981, is the lead singer of Kultureshock. I’d heard of him through a photo essay penned and shot by a wonderful British journalist, Matt Grace. Through conversations at gigs, I’d heard that Kultureshock were the godfathers of all things heavy in Yangon, and Skum was a demigod in the eyes of the young Yangon punks and metal heads.
I finally got round to meeting Skum at his apartment—a small one-room flat with a pile of clothes in one corner, a sleeping mat in another, empty beer bottles everywhere and a laptop hooked up to some speakers. We got some beers, rolled up some Burmese bush and started chatting about metal and punk. A night of “have you heard …?” ensued. “Pig Destroyer? Yes. Municipal Waste? Yes. Sodom? Yes. Nuclear Assault? Yes.” But for his first track that night, Skum played me Manic Street Preachers’ If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. I was in fits of laughter, astonished that I was sitting in front of this leather-clad Myanmar punk listening to Wales’ finest.
“Through certain unrestricted websites, the young punks of Myanmar were able to download songs from Russian websites directly to their cheap Chinese smart phones.”
A couple of days later I went to see the bassist, Crash, at his auntie’s house and he played me (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?—“easily the best Oasis album there is,” he confirmed. There wasn’t a single band I could impart on them; between the Kultureshock members they knew everything. Through certain unrestricted websites, the young punks of Myanmar were able to download songs from Russian websites directly to their cheap Chinese smart phones, which enabled us to listen to Napalm Death in the taxi on the way back to town, much to the disgust of the driver.
I joined Kultureshock without hesitation and we rented a practice room for one U.S. dollar an hour and started jamming. We’d drink beers afterwards and they’d get cranked on cheap crystal meth while we discussed music. Skum had gained an eloquent grasp of the English language through studying at Yangon University. Crash was younger than Skum, in his early twenties. He’d done a year of monkhood before casting the robes aside for a life of sin, and had been a permanent member of Kultureshock ever since he left the monastery.
Crash had grown up in a fairly rough patch of Burmese history: after the ’88 uprising and before the Saffron revolution. This was a period in which the government emitted an absolute climate of fear, and the country was swept with frustration and helplessness as political prisoners were hauled into Insein jail for anything the Special Branch deemed to be disapproving of the government’s ideas. Crash told me he once got an official flyer through the door that stated: “Any citizen caught with a copy of Rambo will face seven years in jail.” For those unaware, the film is set in northern Burma, where Rambo brutally destroys the Burmese Army.
Myanmar is a mystery wrapped in a riddle and you need a pickaxe to even scratch the surface. The people of Myanmar are only just getting used to talking to foreigners without having to fill in a government form on the “what” and the “why” of each conversation. Through a number of contacts, I was able to piece the story together of how punk manifested itself in Myanmar, and every story pointed towards the Irrawaddy River, historically referred to as the lifeline of Myanmar.
“This was the early 90s and everything from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana was being reproduced and sold in Bogyoke market in downtown Yangon, while other cassettes were smuggled over the border from Thailand.”
Yangon’s port has often been seen as a weakness from a military standpoint. The former capital was assumed to be an easy target for an aquatic-based attack, but it was this port that brought in the merchant navy from around the world. Burma, as it was then, still needed outside produce and products to survive, and sailors—although not able to stay in the country for more than a day at time—managed to drop off cassette tapes of mainly alternative music. This was the early 90s and everything from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana was being reproduced and sold in Bogyoke market in downtown Yangon, while other cassettes were smuggled over the border from Thailand. Magazines and posters were coming in too and the youth of Yangon were finally able to see what a punk or a grunge kid looked like. Eager music fans were able to pre-order a cassette that would take a week to copy, and metal-studded belts and cheap leather jackets were starting to appear allowing these young punks to start expressing their ideas visually.
The one constant thread among the people of Myanmar is their traditional dress; the longyi, a simple wrap dress, has always been prominent throughout the history of Myanmar. From parliament members to school children, men and women, young and old, the longyi is an important component in the identity of the people of Myanmar. A studded leather jacket and a Mohawk however, is a direct “fuck you” to the traditions of Myanmar, and to wear them in public is a very dangerous protest. The idea of dressing head-to-toe in black leather and studs, with as many band patches as possible, is a hard-lined response to being enslaved in the junta your whole life, where survival depends on blending in and keeping quiet with eyes watching you wherever you go.
The junta existed to extort the citizens of its labour whilst fattening the pockets of the cronies and the generals and in order to do so had to emit a climate of fear to maintain complete control. The last thing this crooked junta needed was a bunch of punks running round Yangon upsetting the status quo. It’s response was to throw some in jail on phony drug charges. But that’s how you turn a citizen into an activist: by locking them up with others who share trade secrets. It’s a well-known fact that Myanmar’s greatest minds pass through and are sharpened in the over-crowded jails.
Skum was jailed in 2004 for possession of some grass he said was thrown at his feet by police officers. He’d been drinking with some other punks in a beer station when the police descended on them—they were clubbed, arrested and dropped off at Insein prison with no access to a lawyer; so it goes. After six years between Insein and a labour camp, Skum finally got out and formed Kultureshock, flying his punk flag high.
“Punks risked it all for that one moment where they could scream their lungs out; their whole existence depended on this one opportunity to express themselves, an opportunity the government flat-out refused to grant.”
The live music scene at that time existed in a very DIY manner where each show could be the band’s last. Forced to play during the daytime due to curfews, bands would hire a PA system, cobble together their instruments and thrash the hell out of them while getting wasted on cheap whisky. Shows descended into a riot of fighting, spitting and screaming, and audiences left staggering into Yangon’s power-cut darkness before the police turned up. Punks risked it all for that one moment where they could scream their lungs out; their whole existence depended on this one opportunity to express themselves, an opportunity the government flat-out refused to grant.
I played my last show with Kultureshock in May ’14 in an old rice factory. When the police showed up, bribes were paid and, after they left, Kultureshocks’ loyal punk army crept out of the shadows at the back of the factory and fiercely tore it up for the entire twenty minutes of our set.
Here in Yangon, punk seems to exist in its purest form, as a direct result of hopelessness and frustration. Punk is a battle cry that screams, “WE’RE SICK OF THIS SHIT,” loud enough for the world to hear. It exists in brief moments, rarely burning bright enough to last. But each show is a battle won and each new punk is another mind that the government won’t own.
Just as Rock Against Racism displayed its ideals on racial unity by musicians in the UK in 1976, the Burmese music scene—and in particular the punks—have stated a solid stance on religious unity for Myanmar in the face of the recent persecutions of Rohingya Muslims in the north of Myanmar by the government. Younger punks with DIY t-shirt stalls in Yangon are selling religious unity t-shirts alongside Sex Pistols and Discharge shirts.
In the face of growing discrimination towards the LGBT community in Yangon, and a sense of domineering masculinity in the punk scene, Skum turned Yangon on its head once again by staging a brave visual protest. In the streets where even a studded leather jacket would cause instant controversy, Skum forced people to question their attitudes by cross-dressing in female clothing and makeup, once again, taking on the struggles of a community in the shadows.
Punk is happening in Myanmar just as it did in London and New York in the first half of the 1970s—it’s an idea to hold onto in hopeless times and it’s a tool to separate your mind from your surroundings. It’s an aesthetic that removes you from tradition as well as being a means of education. In a country where silence is a survival tool, punk has helped the youth gain hope by screaming and shouting its way out of Myanmar’s dark history. Skum helped pave the way for underground music in Yangon and took on faceless brutes to do so. His bone-thin, leather clad silhouette in any dusty street in Yangon will cause curiosity, alarm, disgust and hope amongst locals, but his mind, ethics and fearlessness will help the next generation fight for their identity.