yangon calling: exploring burma's underground punk scene
We interview the director behind a new documentary shining a light on the Burmese punks fighting against military dictatorship and standing up for human rights.
It's rare, these days, for punk to shock; in the west it's become a cartoon, especially that first wave fashion of bondage trousers, leather jackets and spiked hair. Whether it's snotty Sid Vicious or Joe Strummer's right on attitude, punk, over the years, has become easy short hand for teenage angst and mindless rebellion.
So it's heartening to see that in some places it's revolutionary energy and anti-everything anger still burns strong. Because in Burma, an ex-British Colony that'd been ruled as a Military Dictatorship for 50 years until 2011, punk rock has been challenging the status quo or a conservative nation once more. A deeply religious and conformist society, where fashion and music are largely limited to traditional Buddhist forms, and where the temple is the heart of life, a group of punks have been standing up for democracy and speaking out against human rights abuses and for freedom. Punk didn't make its way to the country until the 90s, and the scene didn't really exist until after the government crackdown on the Saffron Revolution in 2007, in which hundreds of unarmed protestors were killed by the military, the punks aligned themselves with Aung San Suu Kyi's movement for reform, and, influenced by UK and US punk bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Ramones, began crafting punk's nihilistic revolutionary message towards the political situation in Burma.
Yangon Calling, being premiered at London's Asian Film Festival next week, goes underground in Burma's old colonial capital, Yangon, to speak to the punks on the street, as they organize gigs, record music, and shock Burmese society. We spoke to Alexander Dluzak, one of the filmmakers behind the project.
How did you come across the scene and what motivated you to start filming and documenting it?
I was in Burmafor the first time in 2009, with my girlfriend, just traveling. We were in Yangon and suddenly I noticed one of these guys on the bus, he looked like he'd come straight out of the early 80s. It was amazing, I hadn't seen anything like it for 20 years. I was really fascinated by this because I didn't expect something like punk to exist in Burma, in a country that was so isolated for so many years.
I couldn't forget this moment, and when I was back home in Berlin, I started to do some research and found a pretty bad video recorded on a cell phone at a punk gig in Burma so I got in touch with the guy who had uploaded the video and that's how everything started. We started to email and he told me a little bit about the scene. I teamed up with my partner Carsten and we booked a flight and flew there, we had to sneak in on tourist visas, as journalists weren't allowed in Burma, and we recorded on cheap cameras, stayed in hostels, and there was always this fear that we'd be caught and loose everything.
What interested you, their interest in the music or how they approached punk, living under a military dictatorship?
Punk is such a rebellious youth culture, and Burma at that time was under a military dictatorship, it's this contrast that really fascinated us. We wouldn't have done the movie about punk in Belgium you know. The first punk tapes didn't arrive till the 90s and by the 90s punk in the west was pretty much dead. All these details were quite amazing because they also told a story about living as teenager in an isolated society.These guys are really somehow like... I wouldn't say freedom fighters, because that's so cheesy, but they have issues, more issues than the average punk in the West. That was what interested us the most.
How do they view their relationship to the US and UK punk scenes? Do they see themselves as being part of that or very separate?
They have some connections now. The internet changed everything. They can connect to Facebook and use YouTube, and they have some connections to Western punks, especially the Rebel Riot guys who have a following in the West now. I think for the Western punks, these guys are somehow exotic. There is the impression that they are pure punk, so guys in the West respect that.
How difficult is it to be a punk in Burma? I know the dictatorship has kind of ended now, but do the police harass them? How difficult is it for them to organize gigs?
It's still quite tricky. On the one hand you have a political situation where all kinds of gatherings and demonstrations and public performances are very restricted, you always need permission and if you're a punk you will never get permission. So they have to meet at rundown warehouses and put on their shows illegally. And the society in general is very conservative, very traditional, very Buddhist, and in such a society being a punk is really difficult.
Their style and their behavior is very uncommon in Burma, and it's considered to be quite rude, so they definitely face a lot of criticism from average people, because most of the people in Burma have no idea what punk is so they see these guys and think "why do they look so weird." There is a lot of misunderstanding and criticism.
Do they kind of like that though? Their commitment to the fashion of punk is incredible…
Well they're just 30 years behind us, because everything started so late there. In Burma it might as well be 1982 or something. But of course they love the attention because it's a way of life for them, getting dressed like this is their way to show their resistance to society and the government.
How politically homogenous is the punk scene there? Are they all anti-military dictatorship? Do they all come from a similar political position?
Most of the guys are supporters of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi's party. They have a lot of political lyrics, their mission is definitely to wake the youth up and spread their message through music. The whole scene is a melting pot of frustrated, angry youths.
You were saying that you were in Burma in 2009 and that was before the dictatorship ended and you were back again afterwards. How much had the country changed in that time?
I was there in 2009, and we started to shoot the documentary in 2011, it was still under the military dictatorship rule then, but compared to today, obviously there is more freedom, especially, for instance there is censorship but it's a bit easier today. But there's mainly more freedom in terms of doing business. Today if you have some money to invest in Burma and you want to open a business or run your company, it's much easier. But if you're involved with political activism that doesn't support the current regime you're monitored. For instance there was a demonstration a few weeks ago where a lot of students went on the streets to protest for better universities, and there were a couple of hundred policemen beating these guys with sticks and throwing them in jail! There might have been some changes but I'm afraid it will take a while until there is something like a real democracy. I'm not a political expert; this is just my impression, and the punks from the movie they are not so sure about the situation, either.
Text Felix Petty
Photography Matt Grace