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Fresh blood for a new decade

Joseph Allchin

Dec 30, 2009 (DVB), Amidst calls for fresh blood in Burma's official opposition, a young generation exists underground who will carry the weight of Burma's future beyond the elections next year.

I sit in front of one rapper, one freshly released prisoner, and a dedicated campaigner and de facto leader of activist group, Generation Wave (GW). They are telling me about their slogan campaign playing on the important acronym in Burma: CNG. The term usually refers to Compressed Natural Gas, a popular commodity in the smog-choked cities of many of Burma's trading partners, and a lucrative export for the junta. But Min Yan Naing and Generation Wave have 'subvertised' this acronym to 'Change New Government'.

There is a cutting edge, youthful air about the group, fostered not least by the graffiti adorning the walls. The fresh faced bravado is tempered however, by the simple statement; "I just want to go back home".

Indeed it an element that is forgotten about when talking to rebels and brave activists: what do their parents think? "When we arrive in Rangoon or our place, we don't inform our parents, because if we inform them by phone they will say 'don't come back! Go back to Mae Sot!' At the time [on returning] I felt really bad; how can they not accept their son at home?"

These sentiments are echoed in a song on their latest album; "Mother do not stop me again/ Do not shed your tear for me/ Mother be proud and hold your head high". Their parents know that these family ties could enable their capture by the military, and judging by the treatment of other student activists and peaceful campaigners, could land them with a life sentence in jail. "So they just say go, go, go." And so, in a suburb of Mae Sot, in a secret hideout, they have a new base, from where they seek to inject new life into the Burmese democracy movement.

There are always questions about the most effective form of non-violent resistance; about what really can be done with large doses of dedication but little else. For GW, education and communication are the "weapon of choice". Min Yan Naing explains that Burma has already proven its appetite for change, for democracy, and for the winner of the last election, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's leadership. But for young people, many of whom were too young to participate in the last election, the issue of communication is key.

In the repressive environment of modern Burma, many have grievances but are too scared to share them, trapping individuals in their own misgivings, deceived into believing they are alone in their deviant feelings about the government, and therefore blanketing a common cause. For Min Yan Naing and GW, the youth need to know and articulate these feelings to express the democratic consensus.

Generation Wave therefore has a number of ongoing programmes and sporadic actions. These have included graffiti campaigns in large cities, plastering not only their familiar, red upturned thumb logo onto walls, but also other more ironic or humorous ones similar to the CNG campaign. They have also carried out banner-drops from major road bridges and, daringly, small protests, including a dozen people outside of Insein prison. They attempt to educate people inside Burma through direct action and politics.

And then there is the music, ever a challenge in an environment like Burma. Not only is distribution problematic because of the police and military, but many inside Burma do not have internet access to distribute the material, nor CD players. Furthermore, open internet distribution carries the risk of being spied on and harassed. Like many popular music artists, however, the group was forced to release their 'black album'.

A black cover replaces their logo and the CD is left in tea shops or other public places for people to find. Among the songs on their latest album is one reflecting on the difficulty of being away from home and in exile, joined by other more angry tracks.

There are some 30 members of Generation Wave in jail. Amongst this number is the famous rapper, GW founder, and perhaps one of Burma's most iconic young artists, Zayar Thaw. He was one of the first to bring the hip hop genre to Burma, a step that has proven inspired in many ways; combining a combative, angry style with indigenous poeticism. The depth and meaning of his politically-driven lyrics soon led to Zayar Thaw being arrested and imprisoned.

GW formed in 2007, originally a group of four high school friends. The ensuing September 2007 uprising shocked the world and galvanised the four. But today, in exile, Min Yan Naing sits and explains that "in 2007 I was working in shipping and I escaped. I left Burma on 12 March – they were arrested at midnight that night". One of those arrested was Zayar Thaw. Min Yan Naing and another founder, Moe Thwe, made it to the border with Thailand, from where they now run their underground movement with a host of other committed young people.

There is a faint element of anger and cynicism which sits interestingly next to GW's ethos of education. They are perhaps the first generation to come of age in a political desert, amidst the brutal crackdown of the 2007 uprising. Their era is one of consolidation of a brutal and unrelenting military rule, which has steadily grown to destroy ethnic opponents, and to exile anyone with a voice. Perhaps reflecting this more cynical age, not permeated by real hope, Min Yan Naing says that the group would just be happy to see the junta change, let alone removed.

With the older generation, he says, "some ideas are a little different". "They are always against…but inside, if the junta can be changed a little, not 100 percent but at least 50 percent of people would be very happy. They need any change."

He uses the example of sanctions; most of the older activist generation are staunchly in favour of sanctions or any measures 'against' the government; measures that Min Yan Naing claims are only helpful to those trading partners that have filled the vacuum.

Next year could prove decisive for this generation. GW are not prepared to share what they have in store or in planning, but it is a year that could make or break a generation, could assign even a modicum of hope through a tiny amount of accountability. Or it could be a year where another generation is consigned to a prison of life without hope. "Mother remember my word of promise in your chest/ I will return bringing peace".


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