Friday, March 26, 2010

NYT: Despite Authoritarian Rule, Myanmar Art Grows

March 25, 2010
Despite Authoritarian Rule, Myanmar Art Grows

YANGON, Myanmar — The dance music thundered through a crowd of thousands of drunken fans, past the pavilions where skinny women in impossibly high heels gyrated around metal poles and into the streets filled with taxis that ferried partygoers to this free, whiskey-soaked concert in the park.

“Our parents don’t allow it, but we do it anyway,” said Zun Pwint Phyu, one of the dancers who endured hours of lascivious stares.

Myanmar is a country where owning a fax machine without a permit is illegal, where even spontaneous gatherings of more than five people are technically banned and where critics of the government are regularly locked away for decades in tiny prison cells.

Yet despite this repression, or perhaps partly because of it, young people here are pushing the limits of what the military government, let alone their parents, considers acceptable art and entertainment.

Art exhibitions, some featuring risky hidden political messages, open nearly every week in Yangon, Myanmar’s main city. Yangon has a festival of underground music, including punk bands, twice a year. Fans of the most popular musical genres, hip-hop and electronic dance music, wear low-slung baggy pants to regularly held concerts here.

U Thxa Soe, a popular artist who mixes traditional “spirit dances” with something resembling techno music, said he believed that the government tolerated wild concerts in recent years partly because it suited its strategy of control. “You need to squeeze and release, squeeze and release,” he said.

“We live in fear,” he said. “We live under a dictatorship. People need fresh air. They release their anger, their energy.”

The success of artists like Mr. Thxa Soe undermines Myanmar’s often monochromatic image as a place of zero freedoms. This country, formerly known as Burma, is by many measures a brutally authoritarian place — human rights groups count 2,100 political prisoners.

But even if the generals willed it, people here say, the government would probably not be able to pull off North Korean-style totalitarianism. Society here is too unruly, disorganized and corrupt; people are too creative, the climate too hot for 24-hour repression.

The police are famously brutal, but they, too, suffer from tropical torpor: a common scene is a group of police officers napping in the back of a truck.

Over the past two years, entertainment options have rapidly expanded for residents of the country’s largest cities.

The government has nurtured the creation of a soccer league after years without any organized matches. Soccer games are famously raucous, with fans spewing invective toward the opposing side, ignoring government exhortations to be “polite.”

The number of FM radio stations in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, has gone from just one a few years ago to a handful that play both Burmese and Western-style music. Last year, a private company started up the country’s first television channel dedicated to music videos.

“The government is trying to distract people from politics,” said a Western-educated Burmese businessman who declined to be identified because he thought it might jeopardize his business. “There’s not enough bread, but there’s a lot of circus.”

The contrast between the military government’s heavy-handed authoritarianism and the surprisingly uninhibited entertainment scene can be jarring.


Read the full story (with photos and video) HERE.

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