Freed hip-hop star says Burma ‘regressing’

One of the handful of political prisoners released yesterday in the much-criticised amnesty has said that little has improved in Burma during his three years behind bars.

Zayar Thaw, a prominent hip hop artist and member of the outlawed Generation Wave youth activist group, yesterday arrived back at his home in Rangoon, one of around 30 political prisoners of a total of 17,000 released in the amnesty.

Critics of the government variously called it a “sick joke” and a “pathetic” attempt by President Thein Sein at carrying through his pledged reforms. The 31-year-old says that despite three years in jail, the outside world is much the same as before.

“Our country is still in a state of regression,” he told DVB. “Every sector – education, health – is going backwards. The economic system only favours one’s close aides and our human living standards are dropping.”

Zayar Thaw rose to fame with Acid, one of Burma’s first hip hop groups whose veiled anti-government lyrics earned them an enthusiastic following. The group’s first album, Beginning, also hailed as Burma’s first home-produced hip hop offering, spent several weeks at the top of the charts.

Following the September 2007 uprising, he co-founded Generation Wave (GW), known for their guerrilla-style methods of distributing subversive material in coffee shops around Rangoon. Fifteen members of GW remain behind bars.

“I would like to tell them, as well as their families and all the parents and siblings of all prisoners of conscience that I very much sympathise them and I will work personally to ensure their freedom, just like mine.”

Of the three years he spent in Kawthaung prison in southernmost Burma, he is more reserved. “In terms of food and living conditions, I don’t want to say whether they were good or bad because there are regulations and restrictions according to prison standards.”

He said however that healthcare was scarce, and the medical staff incompetent. His fellow inmate, Pyone Cho, a prominent leader of the 1988 student uprising, was in urgent need of help for hypertension.

“The doctors noted in his medical record that his blood pressure needed to be checked on a daily basis, but it has been six months that he has not received any medical help at all.”

He is also wary of putting too much emphasis on his release. The amnesty reduced all prison terms by one year, and commuted death sentences to life imprisonment. But more than 2,000 political prisoners remain in detention, some serving sentences of more than 100 years.

“Our brothers and sisters are yet to be released. It would be very sad for future generations if we, the youth, cannot fulfil the responsibility of pulling our country out of this downward spiral.

“It would be hard for us to call this government a truly democratic one without releasing the prisoners of conscience.”

He said that the draft text for the constitution that was brought into power with the convening of parliament in March was released before his sentencing in March 2008, giving him enough time to study it.

“I expected that any government elected under this constitution would be a dictatorship or at least those who are puppets of dictators. And I still haven’t changed by belief on that.”

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