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The coup in Myanmar three years back came at the expense of the country’s people.  Its roads have been flooded with their blood ever since. Those who opposed the coup have been attacked with live ammunition on the ground and from the air by the Myanmar army. Since Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seized power on 1 Feb 2021,  his junta has driven some 2.6 million people from their homes. Army attacks have damaged more than 80,00 households.  The economy has also been devastated: annual inflation is running at 20 percent.

People from all walks of life - doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, lawyers, politicians, artists, actors, students and many others - have had to leave their homes. Some of those who opposed the coup have had to flee the country, giving up their birthrights to become exiles in neighbouring lands.

When violin music is deemed criminal

Of necessity, a small rented room now serves as the home of Shwe (alias), a violinist from Myanmar, and his family. A total of 4 people live there together. The room acts as a bedroom, living room, kitchen and practice room. There are no dividers; the whole room can be seen upon entry. Shwe and his wife nonetheless welcomed our visit with smiles. Their 2 children were still sleeping on the bed. A keyboard was set up at its foot, next to a table where a violin was placed.

Inside the rented room where Shwe and his family live.

Shwe used to live a normal, middle-class life in Myanmar. He and his friends ran a studio teaching music and art in Yangon. In 2022, a year after the coup, he became worried about his family’s safety, however. On the evening of 26 January, his building was raided by around 20 soldiers and police officers. They were looking for him but entered the wrong flat, so he was able to make an escape. He fled with his daughter. His wife and young son followed later. Initially, his family moved around, staying in hotels and friends’ houses, so that the soldiers could not find him.  Later they decided to leave the country.

“I was still in Yangon but couldn’t go home. I had to sleep two nights at a hotel, then change to someplace else. I had to keep changing sleeping places. My friend eventually said, “Hey, doing this definitely won’t make it. Just get out.”

The friend suggested that they avoid detection by renting an expensive car with a driver to take them to the border and then find a way to cross over. 

Shwe and his violin

He chose to flee Myanmar for Thailand out of concern for the safety of himself and his family. He left behind everything but the family violins. The military began monitoring him after he and his friends at the studio, together with around 100 of their students, gave a performance to express the view that the coup was illegitimate. Not only was the studio complicit in performing anti-coup music, but one of its members was arrested his involvement with one of the ethnic militias fighting against the government. For these reasons, Shwe decided they had to leave the country. 

The army has no mercy for coup opponents

He explained why he chose to speak out against the coup as follows:

“Before the 2021 coup, people in Yangon heard our studio’s music.  When people came out to protest, we couldn’t stay quiet. The people were experiencing hard times. We needed to cheer on the street protesters.  So I decided to do it.”

“Initially, things were not so violent.  But later, people were shot and students died.  At night we would go to sit in the places where they were killed and play the violin to mourn their deaths. After that we were monitored. In Myanmar, this starts with junta supporters monitoring fellow civilians. They were not in uniform so we couldn’t tell who they were. It could have been civilians or spies from the police or military who gave us away,” Shwe said.

Shwe not only lost his music studio in Yangon, but everything in his life. “If there was no coup, if I didn’t participate in the protests, I could have continued with my life. My income was okay and I liked the work too. But when I decided to come out and fight, I threw away everything.”

“If I decided that it was better to stay quiet, if everybody thought like, when would the people win? When would our country develop? The junta would continue like this forever. We only did what we could. We expressed our feelings. We had to show ourselves, so that the world could understand the lives of the people in Myanmar,” Shwe said.

Shwe opposed the coup because of Myanmar’s innumerable coups in the past. People lived under military rule until 2015 when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the election. As he explained it, it was the first time in a long time that “the air we breathed was very clean … and our country began to develop. But then this coup happened. It was like we returned to the past again.”

“The younger generation didn’t agree with the coup and stood up to fight. I also came out to fight, but not with weapons. I used art, music, to fight along with the others because I also didn’t agree,” Shwe said.

Shwe practicing the violin in his rented room

A fight between the Myanmar army and people armed with little more than music may look impossible – but Shwe’s music conveys deep support for the people fighting against the junta.

“Music vs guns. If we look at things in a straight-forward fashion there is no hope of a victory. But we use our music to support those fighting against the coup and hold activities to help fund their struggle. Not just our country, but elsewhere, when there is a coup, military plotters are often wary of writers, actors and singers - people who can use their voices to express opposition. Our dissent finds funds to support others,” Shwe said.

During his 1 year in Thailand, Shwe has continued to play the music he loves. But he has to be careful of the local police.  He has identification and legal documents but there is always a risk that they will try to extort money from him. Shwe has been lucky so far.  However, his friend, a doctor, was arrested by someone claiming to be a Thai police officer, who demanded 200,000 baht. “They told him, even if you’re a doctor, you don’t have the right to treat patients here, to work here. They arrested him and asked for 200,000. In the end they negotiated until they came to an agreement.”

Shwe lives in Thailand, hoping that one day his country will be at peace and he will be able to return to home. He has no plan to relocate to a third country.

“If we don’t win this time, what will the future of our children be? Our generation has to fight and win. The coup this time deprived us of our freedom, harmed the lives of the people who used to live freely. Now people only feel depressed. The news we see and hear doesn’t make us smile. Every day, people’s tears fall,” Shwe said.

When asked what he would like to say to the coup group, Shwe replied, “put your guns down, please stop.”

Rapping against dictatorship

San Jay is not the real name of the 28-year-old Myanmar rapper who fled to Thailand after the coup in his own country. For his safety, we cannot call him by his real name or reveal his location. Tall, suntanned, and simply dressed, he doesn’t look like a rapper who satires others. He appears calmer than that, more like a doctor. He stays at a house in Thailand along with 6-7 other Myanmar teenagers who moved there after the coup. It is quite a creative group.  Its members include a producer, a singer and a song writer. The second floor has a makeshift recording room, an indication that the artists in this house take their music seriously.

On stage, San Jay is able to capture an audience as well as any other rapper. His songs on YouTube, both the MV and live performance, make it clear that he has a professional rapper inside of him. All of the songs he showed us were about the coup in Myanmar.

San Jay

Before the coup, San Jay worked at a government agency in Yangon. He was like any other salaryman. But when the army seized power from the democratic government, he joined the people’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM).

“We came to understand the kind of development our country had before the coup and the difficulties it faced afterwards.  The young were left without a future. I joined the others in the protest, expressing my disagreement with this coup. If we don’t succeed, the next generation will have to face the consequences,” San Jay said.

San Jay assured us that his and his friends protest actions did not use violence; instead, they were exercising their right to disagree with the country being held at gunpoint. To do so, he gave up his position and joined the CDM.

“A governmental officer can’t protest. They aren’t allowed to. After joining the CDM, people from my workplace searched for me. I hid in Yangon, then escaped to Karen State and crossed over to Thailand.  Compared to what others sacrificed… I think that losing my job is no big thing,” San Jay said.

Notebook San Jay uses to write his songs

While in hiding, San Jay met a Karen who wrote anti-coup songs.  He began writing anti-coup songs too. When the fighting spread to Karen State, San Jay started to feel unsafe and in 2022 he fled to Thailand. “After coming to Thailand, it was quite difficult. But it’s not just us. Many others have been affected and are also going through tough times.”

Like Shwe, San Jay has been using music and songs to fund the battle against the junta. He fights with music, and despite the risk involved, he plans to continue doing it.

“Fighting against the coup isn’t about possessing power. Even if their side has weapons and kills people, our songs can change their hearts. Our songs can empower listeners by helping them to understand the problems our country is facing. We’re fighting alongside the people. We haven’t left them and we’re not alone,” San Jay said.

San Jay knows only too well that the coup claimed the lives of many young people who came out to demonstrate against it. “I used to think that our country would not have any more coups. Our country was developing but then the coup happened. And when there is a coup like this, the people, the students and villagers, are the ones who face losses. They didn’t just die. Those that died came out to protest, to raise their voices.  Their deaths were caused by the coup.”

“The coup this time returned us to a past we already knew, shutting people’s mouths and eyes so they couldn’t talk or see. It took away our country. The coup leaders threatened people, killed people, intimidated people. But this time, the people - adults and children alike, spoke out. And this time, we’re confident [of winning]. Soon, its hard to say when exactly, but definitely soon, ” San Jay said.

An MV of a song San Jay participated in.

Coup leaders, where did you get the idea of staging a coup?

You must have the brains of a shit-eating dog.

You cut down the lives and hopes of the people.”

These are the lyrics to one of San Jay’s songs. He wrote it to address the coup group.  After three years of continuous fighting, he believes that the situation in Myanmar will soon change. “Not long now, it’s almost finished, it’s about to end.”

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