Living with censorship in Burma (Myanmar):
Mun Awng wanted to study music, but there was no music school in Burma. “I decided to study mathematics, but I never went to my classes”, he says. “I had met musicians in Rangoon and instead of studying I was playing music all night.”
In 1983, during his final year in university, Mun Awng recorded his first album. That year he failed the final exams, but in 1984 he passed the exams and at the same time his first album, ‘8/82 Inya’, was released.
“I didn’t like it. The censors had a strange taste. I remember this one song about organising. The lyrics were something like ‘You have to tune your strings – know the right position and the right place’. It was about finding the right sound position. The censors didn’t like words that had a double meaning or political words, for example ‘movement’. Most composers censor themselves in advance, avoiding such words.”
“I remember this one song that consisted of symbolic images. It was approved by the censorship board, but after the release, people started talking about the song. This resulted in a court case. Everybody was taken to court: the composer, the singer, the producer, the retailers… Somehow it all settled in the end – but all the copies of the record were confiscated.”
The military junta
It may be hard to understand what it is really like to live in a military regime. “There is no law in Burma”, says Mun Awng. “The law is what the military says.” Living in exile has given him perspective on the situation in his country: “When I was inside Burma, I thought that this is how it is – that there was nothing to do about it. It’s a mindset created by over 40 years of military regime. When they took power in 1962, they shot and killed a lot of people and they never tolerated any opposition or rebellion.”
Mun Awng tells that living in Norway has given him more self-confidence. “I know that I’m worth something here! I know that nobody could just come into my house and grab me. In Burma, the military can just come and take you. You can go to jail for no reason. People have to accept it because there is no other choice. They don’t talk about it – but of course they whisper…”
“There was this one song that I really wanted to record, but my friends told me that I was crazy. They said: ‘If you sing such a song in Europe, you will be famous. But if you sing it in Burma, nobody will know you anymore.”
The song was ‘Battle for Peace’ – a song Mun Awng recorded later on, in exile. “The song is written by one of the best composers in Burma. He is good at twisting words.”
Mun Awng took part in the demonstrations on 8 August 1988. He thought that they would achieve democracy, but instead he witnessed the military shooting at the demonstrators. “They shot at their own people, just shot into the crowd. It was in the capital and in broad daylight. I thought: ‘What can you expect from a government like this one?’ They crossed the line and I didn’t want to live under their rule.”
Mun Awng decided to leave the country because of the shootings, but also because he knew that if he wanted to continue his career as a musician he could not stay in Burma: “I wanted to sing about real life, not with the censorship board controlling my art.”
Battle for peace
The recordings resulted in the ‘Battle For Peace’ album (1992). It includes some songs by unknown composers that Mun Awng collected in Burma and on the Thai border. The songs were passed on, from person to person and that is why some of the composers are unknown.
“I was very pleased after recording. It was like a burden was taken off my shoulders. I felt responsible. I had to let people hear these songs. I was the only one who could do it, because you cannot record this kind of songs inside Burma. There were no protest songs on tape, only played live on guitar.”
Spreading the music
Back then, Mun Awng didn’t know for sure how well the songs were distributed. But during the student demonstrations of the ‘June movement’ in 1996, friends told him that the students were singing his songs. “I didn’t believe them until I saw it on video tape. A couple of hundred people were singing and it looked like they really knew the songs. I was quite touched.”
At the Thai border, Mun Awng met an old friend, a musician who decided to go back to Burma after three months. “I told him not to go back. They would know that he was a part of the resistance.” But his friend went back and for the rest of his life he had many difficulties with his musical profession. “He became like a ‘black sheep’ and could only give concerts along with others. He was very depressed and died around the age of 40.”
One evening the Burmese lieutenant came over to the village where Mun Awng was staying. “He was drunk and he asked for me. Apparently he had known all along whom I was.” The lieutenant wanted Mun Awng to come over to the village and perform. It turned out that he was a big fan when he was in university. “I was a little bit nervous. They must have known very well that I was a part of the opposition. The lieutenant kept asking me: ‘Sing one more song… One more song…’”
At one point during the informal concert somebody started shouting “Democracy!”, but people were just laughing in response. “In the end I picked a song about longing to a lover living far away. I chose it just to touch him and I could see that he was touched because he missed his wife and daughters living far away. It all went well – but the lieutenant could be in trouble too. I don’t know what happened to him afterwards.”
Mun Awng still lives in Norway with his wife and daughter. He is working in a wood factory. “Right now I don’t even feel like touching my guitar anymore. My work is very physical work so I’m exhausted when I come home.”
He has a big part of his family and friends in Burma, but does not very often speak to them. “When there is an over-sea call, they are often tapped”, he says. “I don’t want to case trouble for people.”
Mun Awng says that there are a lot of drug-related problems in Burma today. “The youth have no hope, no jobs. And drugs are available everywhere, even in the smaller cities. If you’re into politics, it’s a big problem. But if you’re selling drugs, it’s no problem.”
Nothing exists forever
Even though he does not have that solution, he still sounds full of hope when he says: “Nothing exists for ever. It’s the rule of the universe. Nobody lives forever. Freedom will come one day. It’s just a question of how and when. People in Burma deserve a better life. And the time will come!”
Mun Awng was interviewed by Kristina Funkeson on 13 June 2008.
About the songs
8/82 Inya (1984)
Tempest of Blood (1992)
It will not disappear
Battle for Peace (1992)
It is time for us to harvest what we have sowed
Mun Awng is an artist name, given by his mother. It means ‘you will succeed’, similarly to the meaning of a name such as Victor
Short information about Burma
1820 – 80: Burma was taken over by the UK.
4 January 1948: The Independent Union of Burma became independent from the UK. Burma had a democratic government and parliamentary elections.
1962: Military coup. General Ne Win became dictator of Burma.
August 1988: Mass uprising throughout the country. The peaceful demonstrations were interrupted by the military and about 3000 people were killed and many imprisoned.
24 September 1988: Formation of the political party National League for Democracy (NLD) with Aung San Suu Kyi as general-secretary.
1990: NLD won the elections but the military junta refused to leave power.
1991: Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”.
August – September 2007: The military violently cracked down on demonstrations in which several hundred monks took part. Many people were injured or died.
According to Amnesty International, there are at least 1,850 political prisoners in Burma today. There are many cases of severe torture sometimes resulting in death.
In total, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent more than 10 years in house arrest without charge or trial. She still refuses to follow the request of the authorities to leave Burma.
‘Burma’ or ‘Myanmar’?
This is Mun Awng’s opinion about the name of the country:
“When speaking English I say ‘Burma’. The military junta changed the name to ‘Myanmar’ and I cannot accept it. It’s their way of showing authority. The junta say that ‘Burma’ is the name the British gave to the country, but it is the name I grew up with. The official English name is now ‘Myanmar’, but for us as opposition we say Burma.”