Can the Young Bring Change to Burma?

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Photograph by TIME

Youth in the picture Painter, performer and installation artist Ma Ei poses in front of a pagoda at a monastery outside Rangoon

MC J-Me is in the house. More specifically, he is in a house of worship — crumbling St. Theresa Catholic Church in downtown Rangoon — bleary-eyed and recovering from a late night. As the 25-year-old rapper spins rhymes in English about his ambitions ("I'm gonna put Burma on the map/ With a girl on my lap") an elderly nun strolls by. "Good morning, sister," the churchgoing J-Me says, bowing his head like any other young Burmese who knows how to respect authority while gently subverting it at the same time. Bells toll as he describes how to "play it tight on the mike" in one of the world's most cloistered countries — that is, how to slip allusions to drugs or politics or sex past Burma's notorious but often clueless censors. "I ain't saying I'm doing it," he cautions. "I'm just saying if a brother wanted to do it, he could play it on four, five, six levels, and the censors wouldn't know nothing about what's flying above their heads."

Cut off from much of the world by a repressive junta that has ruled for nearly five decades, and further isolated by international sanctions against the regime, Burma (officially renamed Myanmar by the ruling generals) might feel like the last frontier of hip-hop. But to sample J-Me, "Burma is back in da house, yo." The hackneyed argot of Western rap may sound tired to more worldly ears, but in Burma it is a startling clarion call. Responding to it is a generation of urban Burmese youth that is finding new ways to express itself — and hopefully change Burmese society in the process. Conditioned to view politics as a dirty and dangerous word, young people are flocking to rock and hip-hop concerts in order to "say what we feel in a way that old people in the government don't get," as one fan, Yadana, describes it. Contemporary galleries, too, are filled with art that subtly — and not so subtly — critiques the military regime. Even community theater groups are getting in on the act, sneaking references to Burma's HIV-AIDS crisis and explosive ethnic tensions into their traveling performances. The world may shake an anguished head over pictures of bloodied monks and the silent suffering of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but few outside Burma are aware of such significant shifts in its youth culture. In a country where one-third of the population is believed to be 15 to 24 years of age, these cautious appeals for change could be truly transformational.

It isn't just artsy types who are driving the youthful revolution. A local NGO network came of age after Cyclone Nargis killed some 130,000 Burmese in 2008 and exposed the government's inability to care for its own people. This so-called third-force, which is neither the government nor the beleaguered political opposition, allows youngsters to directly aid the third of the nation that lives under the poverty line. Given that Burmese universities have banned nearly all humanities courses, lest students use what they might learn in political-science or philosophy lectures to advance agendas other than those laid down by the military regime, the rise of an NGO sector is something of a watershed.

Through their varied channels, whether it's performing a rap anthem or kick-starting an environmental campaign, Burmese youth are striving to alleviate the misery of life in a country where pirated DVDs of The West Wing serve as political guidance and Prison Break is viewed as a reality show. "Hollywood usually has happy endings," observes Thila Min, a 33-year-old former political prisoner and playwright. "We have to write our own."

It is safe to say that the happy ending young Burmese seek will not come at the voting booth. Nationwide elections are scheduled for Nov. 7, the first since the 1990 polls that the regime lost badly and duly ignored. Most of the population knows that the elections will be neither free nor fair. The military has reserved top leadership posts and a quarter of parliament for itself. Voter intimidation or bribery, particularly in rural areas, will likely hand the army's proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party a fair chunk of the ballots, while another junta-associated party, the National Unity Party, may also lure votes away from a disparate political opposition that is contesting less than half of the legislative seats.

The junta has spent the past two decades consolidating its power, having violently crushed various democracy movements, including the 1988 student-guided protests and the peaceful monk-led demonstrations three years ago. Meanwhile, the party that won a landslide electoral victory in 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been weakened by, among other things, the imprisonment of its top leaders. Suu Kyi, who should have become Prime Minister 20 years ago, will see her latest stint of house arrest expire just days after the forthcoming elections. Loath to contest polls in which its revered chief could not take part, the NLD has decided to boycott them.

Dozens of other opposition parties are taking part, however, most notably various ethnic blocs and a breakaway NLD faction called the National Democratic Force that includes a number of young members. The reason is plain: for many Burmese youth, a flawed poll is preferable to stasis. "For 20 years, we have not moved forward," says Moe Moe Yu, a 24-year-old civil-society activist in Rangoon. "These elections won't build democracy tomorrow. But people are expecting change to come, maybe in 10 years or so, and for young people like me, this gives us hope."

The looming elections have also created a climate of debate into which young people are tentatively venturing. On the streets of Rangoon, barely a palm frond sways in the tropical torpor; there is none of the energy of a normal campaign season — few flyers, even fewer posters. (In the days leading up to the polls, Burma's Internet service was also interrupted, presumably to keep the country's citizens further in the dark.) But while they may not be busy campaigning, young Burmese are scrutinizing the government's failings in areas like education and health care, and acknowledging the futility of waiting for official redress. "I was working at a hospital and saw so many people die because there was no basic health care," says Thei Su San, a 24-year-old medical graduate. "I wondered, Why doesn't the government take care of them? But saying bad things about the government doesn't do anything. We as part of society have to move things forward ourselves. That's our responsibility."

Lessons in Change At the Myanmar egress conversation Club in central Rangoon, young English-language students are dissecting the chorus of the Black Eyed Peas song "Where Is the Love?" ("People killing, people dying/ Children hurting, you hear them crying/ Can you practice what you preach/ And would you turn the other cheek?"). In a country where the most innocuous phrase can take on a dangerous political overtone, I wonder what the students make of the lyrics and chat after class with a 20-year-old woman wearing tight jeans and black nail polish. She gives me a knowing look and talks about the government and the people and the "social contract" that supposedly binds them. She recently learned the phrase in another class she attends. (In Burma, English classes are often the easiest places to sneak in political lessons.) "In other countries," she says, "governments do things for their people. Here ..." She trails off and shakes her head.

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