Punk Rock’s Message in Myanmar

Kyle Seasly

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Illustration by Eddy Vazquez

In George Orwell’s essay/short story “Shooting an Elephant,” where he was stationed in Burma (now Myanmar), he remarked: “I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” It seems that certain punk rockers in Myanmar share a similar sentiment today.

In Myanmar some radical Buddhist monks are leading a movement referred to as  “969” that promotes anti-Muslim sentiment in this largely Buddhist country. According to “The Hindu,” “[969’s] following is growing as [they] criss-cross the country calling for boycotts of Muslim-owned shops and a ban on marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men and warning that a higher birth-rate could one day bring Muslims from four percent of the population to a majority.”

Yet, few are speaking out against this movement, except for, oddly enough, punk rockers. Punk musicians across the country are seemingly the only ones who are acknowledging this movement and its flaws. In interviews, these punk bands mention that this movement is nationalist and largely fascist. They also emphasize that the perpetrators are not necessarily the biggest problem –– it’s the people not speaking out against the discrimination against Muslims.

Punk rock has always been a form of expression as well as rebellion. Johnny Ramone hated long guitar solos and his style brought rock and roll back to its roots. The Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains pushed for political reform and protested against the norm. Stiff Little Fingers wanted a change in the culture and pushed for an “Alternative Ulster.” Even today, we see bands like Pussy Riot in Russia pushing for change against Putin’s repressive regime. Why is punk rock such a tool for rebellion and reform?

My answer would be that punk rock’s message is usually straightforward and full of energy. This allows rockers to deliver messages unhindered by pretentiousness and ready to inspire those who feel frustrated at the norm. Kurt Cobain said it best: “Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want. In Webster’s terms, nirvana means freedom from pain, suffering and the external world, and that’s pretty close to my definition of punk rock.” 

Punk can express ultimate frustration while still bringing an uplifting message. Punk, similar to some of the most successful political movements, is grassroots and can appeal to a wide audience. In Myanmar’s case, the message is simple: ending religious intolerance and rightist extremism. I can only hope that message gets through.