Myanmar/Burma: Interviews with rapper Thaw after his release from prison

27 May 2011
The Burmese rapper Zayar Thaw is ‘hot news’ after he was released from prison. Two exiled Burmese news agencies have published interviews with him, republished below with their kind permission.

Irrawaddy reporter Ko Htwe spoke to Zayar Thaw shortly after his release and discussed his life as a political prisoner and his plans for the future.

As a famous singer, how did you feel when you found yourself in prison?

“Once you get involved in politics in our country, you have a 90 percent probability of ending up behind bars. I took this into consideration before I decided to take part in politics, so I don’t feel sorry for myself. In fact, I feel honored.

Why did you decide to get involved in politics?

As an artist, I am always in touch with people and their feelings. Their hardships and sufferings always touch my heart. That’s why I tried to give voice to their feelings.

Can you please tell us about your arrest?

I was with five other people in a restaurant, having a meal, when Military Security Unit agents came in and arrested me.

We heard that you were tortured at the interrogation center. Can you tell us more about how you were treated?

I was taken to the nearest police station — the Bahan Township Police Station. Then, in the evening, I was blindfolded and taken to another, unknown location. During the interrogation, there was some bloodshed. I don’t bear any grudges against them. I don’t hate them. I am saying this because it was the direct result of a bad system. Because of the existence of this bad system, we have two sides. I am on one side, opposing the bad side. But the agents who interrogated me were defending that side. If we can get rid of that bad system, we will not have either side. I am therefore talking about that unjust system. I want to be crystal clear that what I am saying is not based on any grudge.

Can you describe more specifically what they did to you?

I don’t want to go into the details, because people might think that I am bearing a grudge. So it’s better not to talk about it in detail. As I said, there was bloodshed. That should be enough, I think.

How many days were you interrogated?

Each of us was put into a cell alone under a dim light bulb, so we really lost our sense of time. Later, after coming out of the interrogation cells, we shared our different experiences with each other. We talked about the length of our stay in the interrogation cells, and the degree of interrogation. I can’t speak for the others. They should talk about it themselves. After the interrogation period, I was taken to the Insein Prison, where I received my verdict. Then I was transferred to Kawthaung Prison.

Did you meet any other political prisoners in Kawthaung Prison?

Ko Pyone Cho, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation students group, was the only political prisoner in Kawthaung Prison when I arrived there.

Source: The Irrawaddy

Mizzima News Agency, which has its head office in New Delhi, India, published an in-depth interview with Zayar Thaw where he tells about his time in prison as well as about his background as a rapper and a musician. This is an excerpt of the article:

Prison was hard. For the young singer who had grown up with music, the ban on listening to music in prison as a political prisoner was particularly tough. “Because I was a political prisoner, I was detained in the extraordinary prison ward. We were not allowed to watch tv while other prisoners were allowed”

But the musician could not be silenced. “I sang the songs I liked,” he told Mizzima. “In the prison, I analyzed which songs I really liked, which songs I learned off by heart, and which lyrics I really understood.”

“There were both good things and bad things in prison. But, I wanted to make a three-point demand. I told the prison officials to be frank, treat prisoners with mutual respect and shoulder responsibilities. If the prison authorities fulfill our demand, the conditions in prisons will be better than the current conditions.”

The first years
The 30-year-old Burmese hip hop singer is used to attention but little did he realize when he starting out ‘rapping’ and singing about the frustrations of youth in Burma a decade ago that he would end up on Amnesty International’s worldwide list of ‘prisoners of conscience’.

“Our young people need to lead in demanding fairness. I don’t have the heart to ignore injustice, that’s why I have taken part in the politics. For some time I have thought that the pain and feelings of our people were also mine because I’m one of the Burmese people. But, I had to take enough time before I took part in the politics because I needed to ask myself whether I could make personal sacrifices or not.”

Zayar Thaw raised money with poets Saw Wai and Aung Way for a charity run by the now-jailed comedian Zarganar to help HIV-positive orphans. He also went with rapper Nge Nge to the orphanages to teach the children English.

While they drew the pulsing crowds, Zayar Thaw’s music and lyrics hung on the razor’s edge of censor acceptability but he scraped by. Then came the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’, when monks led people onto the streets in protest against the military government.

The young hip hop star said he was connected to the people through his group’s concerts and songs. And when people’s protests and aspirations were brutally crushed by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Burma’s military rulers, rapping at concerts was not enough.

Generation Wave
In October 2007, Zayar Thaw co-founded with three other activists an organisation called Generation Wave, a youth movement that called for change. He had a way with words and before long a tongue-in-cheek campaign was launched to put CNG stickers on cars. CNG stands for ‘compressed natural gas’ but Generation Wave made it known that it also stood for ‘Change New Government’.

They also enlisted Rambo to fight for change. The group copied and passed around anti-government films including Rambo (or Rambo IV), a Hollywood movie that premiered in January 2008 in which actor Sylvester Stallone’s character fought against the Burmese military in Karen State. The film was banned by the Burmese authorities because it depicted Burmese soldiers in a particularly negative light as brutal murderers and rapists. The movie was reportedly a hit with the Karen, who even are said to have adopted Rambo’s ‘Live for nothing, or die for something’ call.

Rambo’s frenzied shooting up of Tatmadaw soldiers may have been the last straw. It was not long after bootlegged copies of Rambo made the rounds that Zayar Thar was arrested in a restaurant in Rangoon on 12 March 2008. The game was up. Although he doesn’t speak publicly about it, Amnesty International claimed he was beaten during interrogation.

According to media reports, he told reporters before his sentencing: “I feel sad, but not because of my imprisonment… I feel sad for the future of our country and people when I think about these facts.”

He told the reporters he had a message for the people: “Have the courage to reject the things you don’t like, and even if you don’t dare to openly support the right thing, don’t support the wrong thing.”

Suppress freedom of expression
“Laws such as the Penal Code, Immigration Emergency Powers Act, Electronic Law and the Unlawful Associations Act are conveniently used against journalists, bloggers and artists on the grounds of committing crimes, where in reality they are used to suppress freedom of expression,” explained Mizzima News editor-in-chief Soe Myint in an Action Alert e-mail calling attention to the plight of journalists, bloggers and artists who remain detained in Burmese prisons.

“For example, the authorities arrested some of them for being associated with ‘exile’ organisations. They arrested others for crossing the border to Thailand to interact with other Burmese in ‘exile’, etc. That’s why Burmese government officially say there are no ‘prisoners of conscience’ or ‘political prisoners’ and that all of them are ‘criminals’, arrested under criminal charges. The reality is these various laws are used to arrest them and to suppress the freedom of expression,” Soe Myint said.




Zayar Thaw

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Read the interviews

Mizzima – 26 May 2011:

‘Rapping on the frustrations of life in Burma’

The Irrawaddy – 25 May 2011:

‘Interview: “Music is in My Blood”‘

More information

The Irrawaddy News Magazine – 19 May 2011:

‘Burma’s Amnesty Program Receives Widespread Criticism’

Democratic Voice of Burma – 18 May 2011:

‘Freed hip-hop star says Burma ‘regressing’ ‘

The Irrawaddy News Magazine – 3 March 2010:

‘Rapping the Regime’


Google News – continuously updated:

Search: “Zayar Thaw”

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