Myanmar/Burma: Interview with exiled musician Mun Awng

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Living with censorship in Burma (Myanmar):
‘Nobody will know you anymore’

Musician Mun Awng left Burma to be able to make music free of censorship and in hope of improving the political situation in his country. He started his musical career in the 1980s while studying in Rangoon, but being a musician in Burma meant dealing with the censorship board for every song. Today he lives in exile in Norway.

By Kristina Funkeson, Freemuse


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.

Red ink
It was mostly the producers that had to deal with the censorship issues. “I have never been to the censorship office”, says Mun Awng. “The producers went there and they had to deliver all the lyrics for approval. The lyrics came back with red ink indicating things to change.”

“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.”

Confiscated
The artists didn’t have much choice. “If you didn’t follow the censors’ advices you could not release your album”, says Mun Awng. But musicians could get into trouble even after their songs had been approved.

“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
Being a musician in Burma in the 1980s was risky, and today the situation has worsened rather than improved. “The military junta is afraid of poems, cartoons – everything! They have ‘thin skin’ – can’t take jokes or satires. Many people have gone to jail since the 1960s – writers, journalists, publishers and poets as well as musicians.”

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…”




Burma, the Union of Myanmar, written in Burmese


Frustration

From 1984 to 1988 Mun Awng recorded four albums in total. After each album he grew more frustrated with the pressure from the censorship board. “I just can’t tolerate censorship”, he says. “If I can’t sing what I want – then why sing?”

“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.”

8888
“Censorship is the worst thing. After I made my last album in Burma I remember thinking – I can’t live with censorship anymore! And that was just before 8 August 1988. It was almost like a prediction since I left the country shortly after that.”

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
Mung Aung wanted to fight the military junta who ruled Burma. From 1988 until 1992 he stayed with the rebels on the Thai border. “I was a soldier but I always carried a notebook with songs from Burma that I wished to record. It was like a heavy burden until I started recording in Bangkok.

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
When the album was ready, lots of cassette copies were made and quite a lot of them were smuggled into Burma: “We wanted to spread the music. On the cassettes it said things like ‘please pass it on to others’ and ‘allowed to copy’. The cassettes were copied over and over again and I heard that there are tracks that have been copied so many times that the sound quality has become poor.”

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.”




Mun Awng at a benefit concert in Tokyo, Japan, in 2006


Informers
“People underestimate the regime”, says Mun Awng. “They know everything. There are informers and spies giving all the details. Apparently there was a spy sleeping next to me when I was on the Thai border.”

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.”

Singing for the Burmese army

Mun Awng has not been back in his hometown since he left Burma in 1988. But in 1996 he was in the Kachin State: “I stayed with the rebels on Burmese territory on the border to China. It was a local village with refugees, like a project area. The Burmese army was close by, but at the time they had agreed to seize fire.”

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.”

Norway
Mun Awng ended up in Norway in 1992, while working for the radio station ‘Democratic Voice of Burma’ which is based in Norway. “They chose me to come to Norway!”, he says. “I had to look at a map to know where it was… I went there because I believed that the radio station was important to the struggle.” Mun Awng worked for ‘Democratic Voice of Burma’ until 1996.

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
“Talking about Burma makes me sad… and angry”, says Mun Awng. “It’s a sad situation. But I’m not giving up!” In his fight for democracy, Mun Awng has tried peaceful demonstrations and armed rebellion as well as getting a message out through his songs. “I think we need to find a new way, a new solution.”

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

Including free translations of some of the lyrics

8/82 Inya (1984)
The title of the song refers to room 8 in the student houses next to the Inya lake in Rangoon in the year of 1982. Mun Awng explains the story behind the song: “In Burma the girls are locked in and can’t go out in the evening. This is why there is a tradition of young men taking turns in playing music outside the young women’s dormitories at night. This is a way of approaching somebody you’re interested in. It’s a nice place for singing. You can sing freely since it’s not an area where families live.” Students are still singing this song in campuses.

Tempest of Blood (1992)
The lyrics are a poem by Min Ko Naing, a 88 generation student leader currently under detention. The song is about the blood that was shed on the streets:

It will not disappear
It flows down to creek to river and to the ocean
It was vapoured by the sun and formed clouds which made the sky turned red
Tempest of blood has begun to blow down old buildings and mop away indecent people
When the storm is over it will be like a beautiful painting and we will enjoy it

Battle for Peace (1992)
The song is about marching in brave steps towards the enemy:

It is time for us to harvest what we have sowed
There must be a battle for peace



Listen


Mun Awng on YouTube:

‘Battle for Peace’
‘Tempest of Blood’


Sources


Amnesty International – 25 January 2008:
‘Arrests of political activists increase in Myanmar’

Nobelprize.org:

‘Aung San Suu Kyi – Biography’

BBC – 26 September 2007:

‘Should it be Burma or Myanmar?’
 
  
Read more

Democratic Voice of Burma – homepage

The Irrawaddy – Newspaper covering Burma and Southeast Asia:
irrawaddy.org

Online Burma/Myanmar Library – continously updated:

‘Music’

The World (audio and text) – 4 October 2007:

‘Burmese musicians’



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’?

‘Myanmar’ is a part of the Burmese name for Burma. In 1989 the Burmese military officially changed the English version of the country’s name from Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar. In many cases the nation is called Burma to make a political statement.

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.”

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