November 28, 2022

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Myanmar rebel troupe takes aim at junta with folk satire

Myanmar rebel troupe takes aim at junta with folk satire

A troupe of Myanmar folk singers and satirists are taking their new show on a jungle tour, hoping to rally anti-coup fighters far from their families with barbs against the junta and jokes about home.

Myanmar has been in chaos since last year’s coup sparked renewed fighting with ethnic rebels and sprouted dozens of “People’s Defence Forces” that have battled the junta across the country.

In eastern Kayin state, the “Peacock Generation” activist troupe are trying to boost morale with traditional “Thangyat” performances of poetry, comedy and satirical songs against the junta.

Near the Thai border, their makeshift tour bus — with a three-finger salute popular with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and Thailand painted on one side — bumps along a dusty track en route to a camp.

Upon arrival, the unfazed troupe of around 15 mostly young performers rehearse their lines.

“We are expecting the battle like we hope for rains,” they sing, stepping in unison across a makeshift stage, accompanied by drums and cymbals.

“Let’s start the bullets raining.”

Slam-poetry-like “Thangyat” is traditionally performed around the new year, and has been used for centuries in Myanmar to poke fun at politics and society and vent against injustices small and large.

But the military has waged a brutal crackdown on dissent since the February 2021 coup.

More than 1,700 civilians have been killed and over 13,000 people arrested, including dozens of journalists, according to a local monitoring group.

A handful of media outlets have also been forced to shut down.

At the camp, a handful of young fighters in camouflage uniforms sit cross-legged, some clapping along.

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“We also want to live like you — peacefully with cigarettes and coffee,” the troupe sings to a row of smartphones in the audience — a message that will reach those sitting at home when the performance is broadcast online later.

“We are still young and we are missing our mothers who always scold us.”

The few dozen at the camp are some of the hundreds, according to analyst estimates, who have trekked into border areas held by Myanmar’s established rebel groups to receive weapons training.

‘Freedom’

“Thangyat gives us some freedom of expression in our culture,” said veteran performer Zay Yar Lwin, 32, who fled to the jungle after the coup and refounded the Peacock Generation group he had performed with in previous years.

Thangyat performances are usually held in streets and parks at the Thingyan festival that welcomes in the new year and is usually marked by boisterous water fights in the streets.

But celebrations this year have been muted as many stay away from junta-sponsored events.

“Most of what we’re saying is targeting the military dictatorship,” Zay Yar Lwin said.

But they also tease the shadow ‘National Unity Government’ dominated by lawmakers from Suu Kyi’s ousted party that is working to overturn the coup for failing to secure the weapons anti-coup fighters say they need.

“Are we getting weapons from the NUG?” calls the troupe leader. “Yeah we are, but only wind guns,” comes the response, a jibe implying the opposition body is all talk and no action.

Rebel recruit Ma Yu, 30, said she feels especially homesick during Thingyan because under normal circumstances she would celebrate with a feast at home with her parents and family.

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“But I felt blessed while watching others practising for the performance, and so I joined it to have a new experience,” she said.

Thangyat performances were prohibited under the previous junta regime which ruled for almost 50 years, and it was not until 2013 that the ban was lifted.

But even after democracy hero Aung San Suu Kyi’s government was sworn into power, there were strict limits on free speech — especially when it came to the armed forces.

In 2019 Zay Yar Lwin and several other “Peacock Generation” members were jailed for a performance that a judge found was “disrespectful” to the military.

Living in the jungle, he said it was satisfying to perform Thangyat and rebel against the military.

“You can rebel against them with hip hop or electropop or Thangyat. People are ready to support you during this time,” Zay Yar Lwin said.