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East and Southeast Asia: Myanmar (A Day in the Life of a Monk)

The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (also known as Burma) was, for decades, essentially on permanent house arrest, much like the Nobel Prize-winning pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was in that suspended state for 21 years. Since 1962 the  the country has been beneath the thumb of an autocratic dictator or military regime. Through it all the Burmese people kept hope alive that one day they might attain political freedom, even occasionally rising up in conjunction with the many Theravada Buddhist Monks who maintain a position of some respect in Burmese society. Miraculously -- and it does feel like a miracle, considering how very rarely society-opening political change happens without severe unrest -- since 2010 Myanmar has begun to have democratic elections, giving people -- Suu Kyi's "National League for Democracy" and monks included -- the possibility to choose their leaders.  

There is much that is positive about that story, and one would be right to have hope for Myanmar's future...but life is complicated. The majority of Myanmar's people practice Buddhism, especially those in power, and there is continual conflict with the Muslim minority, including pervasive persecution of the most populous Muslim group, the Rohingya. Has Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's pro-democracy forces used their increased power to end internal oppression, or at least crusade for equality for all Myanmar's citizens? Well.... 

This week in class we sing:

We  sing "We Are Happy," a hello song from Uganda, to open every All Around This World class. This week we sing hello in Burmese: "Mingala Ba."

Abang Beca” takes us on a ride around the Malaysian port city of Malacca on a pedicab. (More.)  

"Let's Write a Song” is a Laotian melody that inspires us to invent  our own improvizational songs in the local style of Mor Lam. (More.)  

Poong Paang” is a guessing game from Thailand in which we simulate swarms of elusive fish. (More.)  

Arirang,” the most beloved Korean folk song, has inspired thousands of versions. In ours, we find hope wherever we go.  (More.)  


Since the 1930s Western music has become increasingly popular in Burma, starting with the classical music the British introduced during their rule, then, in the 1960's, '70s and '80s, Western rock (known in Burma as "stereo"), and more recently Asian pop and hip hop. Burmese pop stars were especially adept at reinterpreting songs by Western and other Asian artists, leading to an important distinction in Burmese music between cover songs and self-written "own songs." Successive Burmese governments have tried to control this music through unyielding censorship bureaus and laws such as the Press Scrutiny Board, the State Protection Law and the Myanmar Music Asiayon (MMA). Starting in thei1960's the government's Central Registration Board officially prohibited, according to

• "anything detrimental to the Burmese socialist programme;
• anything detrimental to the ideology of the state;
• anything detrimental to the socialist economy;
• anything which might be harmful to national unity and solidarity;
• anything which might be harmful to security, the rule of law, peace and public order;
• any incorrect ideas and opinions which do not accord with the times;
• any descriptions which, though factually correct, are unsuitable because of the time or the circumstances of their writing;
• any obscene (pornographic) writing;
• any writing which would encourage crimes and unnatural cruelty and violence;
• any non-constructive criticism of the work of government departments;
• any libel or slander of any individual."

As recently as 2010 Burmese protest singers had to live in exile or risk arrest--or worse--for breaking these rules.    

One musician from Myamar who found a way to attain fame in the country, criticize the government (through inference and metaphor) and still remain free was Sai Htee Saing. A once-beloved Shan-descended Burmese singer/songwriter, Saing's ostensibly simple, sweet songs from the '70s passed by Myanmar's Press Scrutiny Board even though they often contained anti-governmental political messages. Siang started his career in the early '70s as a member of an widely popular ethnic Shan band called The Wild Ones and embarked on a solo career in the '80s. (Saing sung and played guitar while Sai Khamlek wrote most of the songs.) Saing and The Wild Ones sang in the Burmese language of an idyllic and ideal Shan people, helping both define the Shan as "the other" and infusing Shan ethnic and political consciousness into mainstream Burmese popular culture. After the failed '88 rebellion Saing succumbed to the ruling junta and even began to sing songs written by a member of the Burmese military. As Saing gained privilege in Myanmar he lost popularity, though many still did appreciate his early material and especially extolled his virtues after his 2008 passing. In class we sing a version of Saing's "Chit Te Shan Yoe Ma."   



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