Rock the Junta

In Burma, a band of heavy metal Christians speaks of liberty between the lines.

One night in Rangoon I had a hard time sleeping and got up early, while it was still dark, and walked a few blocks down to the harbor along the Irrawaddy River, near the Botataung Pagoda where they keep a single strand of the Buddha’s hair. It’s a sacred relic for the Burmese, more than 2,000 years old, encased in gold. During the Second World War the British bombed the pagoda to rubble, but when the monks dug through the heap they found the hair in perfect condition inside a small box, a miracle, and they rebuilt the shrine around it.

There were dogs sleeping on the street like they owned the place, and a line of 30 or 40 young monks walking single file, from tallest to shortest, exiting the pagoda after early morning prayers. On a concrete runway along the river, which was perhaps a half-mile wide, men and women were exercising in the dark, doing tai chi and walking backward, listening to the bbc or voa in Burmese on transistor radios. The sun came up through the thick air, dark red and monstrous. The river turned from slate to blood to pea soup.

I was depressed. We’d come to Burma to see if there might be some hope of a revolution, but people seemed more concerned with making money to buy Game Boys and cell phones, even though a cell phone sim card cost $3,000, the equivalent of 12 years of work at the average yearly salary of about $260. I don’t know how many people had told me they were hoping the United States would invade. The doorman at our hotel said, “I want you to tell President Bush to send his army. They will be welcomed by all Myanmar people. Tell them we have plenty of beer for them to drink.” But President Bush…President Bush…oh, I was depressed.

Along the water, the concrete benches under the palm trees were mostly filled by sleeping teenagers, boys and girls, one to a bench. But at the end of the pier, six boys lay fully awake, listening to their friend sing and play a guitar. He was maybe 16 years old and the guitar had an iron cross acoustics sticker on the front of it. I sat down a few feet away, rolled a cigarette, and listened. The kid had a clear voice, a strong voice, and he was pouring his heart out in a love song, as real as Willie Nelson. They’d been up all night, maybe high on methamphetamines, but their clothes were clean, shorts and baseball hats, and they were polite. I didn’t have a lighter, and the youngest one noticed this and waved to a man walking by and told him to give me a light.

So I sat there and listened and started disintegrating. This has happened twice before. The first time was in the Tiki Room at the Bombay Oberoi, listening to a Bengali play guitar and sing “My Way.” The second time was in a Zapatista village in the mountains of Chiapas, listening to a young woman from Montana play guitar and sing “Redemption Song.” Both times I was left in little pieces that took a long time to push back together. And there along the river, listening to our music, all about yearning for freedom, I again felt overwhelmed by the same juxtapositions and ironies.

Burma is a forgotten country. You might have a hard time finding it on a map, and it may not even be called Burma on the map you’re looking at. It might be called Myanmar, as that’s the official name for it now. It’s an extremely fucked-up place, the size of Texas, located between Thailand and India, south of China. For the past 44 years, it’s been cut off from the rest of the world by a junta of xenophobic and superstitious generals calling themselves the State Peace and Development Council. Others call them mendacious assholes and hungry ghosts.

The population is about 50 million, and they live like imprisoned children, with very little knowledge of their own history and very little opportunity to learn. Their government controls nearly every aspect of their lives—what they can read, what they can say and think, where they go, how they make money. Nothing much comes into the country, and nothing much goes out— except opium, teak, and jade by way of the black market, which is also controlled by the military. Strangely, Burma is open to tourism, but not many people care to visit.

I lied on my visa application, saying I was a college professor; my travel companion wrote in “Spiritual Adviser,” partly as a joke and partly because we were supposed to be visiting the Buddhist temples that dot the landscape. The country is sometimes called the Golden Land because the bell-shaped pagodas are often covered in gilt. Before going to Burma, I’d read how its people are living through an Orwellian nightmare, how in 1988 they turned out in the streets en masse shouting, “Dee-mo-ka-ra-see!” This protest ended with at least 3,000 dead, shot by their own military. A couple of weeks later, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the founding father of Burma’s democratic movement, made a speech from the steps of the Shwedegon Pagoda in Rangoon calling for a second Burmese revolution, and she’s been under house arrest pretty much ever since—even after she won a national democratic election in 1990, making her the rightful leader of the country; even after she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

So I expected to see a military presence on the streets in Rangoon, the capital city, or what used to be the capital city until late last year when the astrologers of the chief hungry ghost, Chairman Than Shwe, foresaw that it would be prudent to move all government offices 200 miles north to a small malarial city where they could be better defended from enemies foreign or domestic. I expected to see tanks shaking the ground, or soldiers inside bunkers at the intersections, or checkpoints and roadblocks...something demonstrating who was in control and who was not. Up in the mountains, the Burmese military was busy burning ethnic tribal villages to the ground, systematically raping women, and forcing hundreds of thousands into slave labor camps. But in Rangoon it took two days to even see a policeman—traffic cops dressed in white coats and white British Raj helmets, armed only with whistles. The traffic became gridlocked and no one even honked a horn.

And the people on the streets, who I imagined would be huddling and scurrying about like caged rats, seemed rather calm and even happy, strolling along, the men sashaying in long skirts and sandals, some sitting on the broken sidewalks in kindergarten-sized chairs, drinking tiny cups of tea. The women, some of them, smeared light brown cellulose paste in circles on their cheeks, which looked sort of wild and exotic, but is actually a traditional way to protect their skin from the sun.

At one of the busier intersections downtown there was a government billboard that said, in English:

PEOPLE'S DESIRE
Oppose those relying on external
elements, acting as stooges, holding
negative views Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
Crush all internal and external destructive
elements as the common enemy

But up above the billboard, on the rooftops of the apartment buildings, there were fields of satellite dishes gazing up to the sky like sunflowers. It didn’t make sense. Inside their homes people were watching cnn, bbc, hbo, and mtv, while out on the street they were supposed to be wary of stooges.

Everywhere we went, we were watched. Long, intense stares coming from every direction, as if we were out of place and out of time, and it was hard to tell whether the Burmese were wondering if we were “external destructive elements” or some second-rate soap opera stars they’d seen on TV. They did not, however, appear to be very friendly, and some of them laughed at us. Yes, a mockery, seconded by legions of squawking crows in every tree.

Men did approach us, trying to sell us shoes, postcards, offering to change money, always some kind of business, and we’d try to talk to them. But it was always a pretend conversation. The reason I say this is because the minute we’d ask a question about their lives, like “What’s it like to live here?” the response would be the same—first a turning away, moving the body and the head to the side, then a glazing over of the eyes, a gaze without focus. It was a turning inward, pulling a shell around their bodies.

“It is dangerous for us,” one man said. “There are spies everywhere.”

He was a young social worker for the government, out drinking whiskey with two friends in the Chinatown part of the city. “Everyone in Myanmar has either gone to jail or knows someone who has gone to jail for saying the wrong thing. I have a friend in Insein [pronounced “insane”] Prison who held up a sign at a protest. The sign said only one word, ‘Freedom.’ His sentence is seven years.”

Even other Western tourists spoke in whispers, turning both directions to see if anyone was listening. This syndrome has a name among some ngo workers—"Burma Head." In a 1977 book called Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault discussed the social effects of surveillance, using a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in 1787, called the Panopticon, as a model. The cells are arranged in a circle around a central observation tower, so that one person inside the tower can see into every cell at all times, but the prisoners, while able to see the tower, never really know whether there is a person in there watching them, or not. The observer can see out, but the observed can’t see in.

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.

This was why there was no visible military presence in the city. It wasn’t necessary. The people controlled themselves. Even tourists were not immune. In the Panopticon of Burma, you were a prisoner among prisoners, each with your own cell. The effect was a deadening of desire, a flat-lining of curiosity and humor, and loneliness hung in the air, heavy as the smog cloud that covers all of Asia. There was not a buzz or a whir or a whisper of testosterone among the men, and the women, although many were beautiful, had not an ounce of glamour, not a scent of sensuality among them. The food was horrendous, cooked in the morning and left to sit through the day at room temperature, so that by dinner the stuff on the plate looked like dark brown entrails and tasted like pure msg. And while there was a lot of rock and pop music being played all over town, most of it was just awful. For instance, while on a bus we were subjected to a video of a girl dressed like Britney Spears singing, “She’s a maniac, a maniac, on the floor. And she’s dancing like she’s never danced before.” Only she stood like a frightened child. Behind her was a large photograph of Mother Teresa, and every time she came to the refrain she’d turn around and sing to it.

This is how it went the first few days in Rangoon. However, things changed, dramatically, on a Sunday evening when we saw a young man carrying a guitar. Just a guitar.

We were standing outside the Baptist church across from the Sule Pagoda. The sun was going down and the sky was turning orange and red, and the spotlights were coming on and illuminating the golden dome of the pagoda, traffic circling around the perimeter. We’d just come out of the Sunday service. Christianity is permitted, but the rulers have a problem with anyone who professes a belief in a power higher than them, so being a Christian in Burma is a radical thing and Christians suffer some discrimination because of it. For instance, they can’t rise very far in the military, and they can’t hold high positions within the government.

“You know,” my spiritual adviser said, “Buddhists pray and meditate alone, but Christians do it together, in a group, and I think this is why people here become Christians. Did you see how they stood up and sang those hymns in there? They were really into it, not at all like the solemn and glum singing in the churches my parents dragged me to as a kid. There was a lot of energy in there.”

Before I had time to agree with her, a young man about 18 or 20 years old came walking by carrying a guitar. He had long, straight hair down to his shoulders, a little goatee under his chin, and a gold ring in his ear—a hipster. A hipster with a yellow acoustic guitar in his right hand.

My friend ran over to him and desperately asked him if he would play a song. He smiled and said he didn’t know how to play, he just liked carrying the guitar around.

“Well,” I said, “if you could play, who would you play like? What music do you like to listen to?”

And he said, “Chit San Maung, number one guitar in Myanmar. Iron Cross, number one band.”

“He lives here, in Rangoon?”

“Yes, he lives here. All Iron Cross live here.”

“Do you know where we can find him?”

“No,” the kid said. He smiled and walked away.

I guess we just hadn’t been paying attention that well, because now we started seeing Iron Cross bumper stickers on the beat-up taxicabs around the city. Sometimes the cabs had stickers that said, in English, “Drive Safely.” But the only other sticker on any car was either iron cross acoustics or iron cross unplugged.

Also, we started seeing more teenage boys with guitars—sitting in doorways or outside apartment buildings, strumming, trying to learn how to play. They all knew Chit San Maung. One kid said he was “the best guitar player in all of Asia, no question.”

We heard Iron Cross songs in taxicabs, coming out of apartment windows, and from large speakers set up on the street by kids selling sunglasses. Some of them sounded like Metallica, some sounded like Hawaiian cowboy music, some were covers, some were original, but the lyrics were always in Burmese.

Those kids selling sunglasses on the street with the big speakers, the song they were listening to was a good example of a typical Iron Cross song. It started out with kind of a sultry funk, sort of the same mood as the way people in Rangoon walk down the street, kind of relaxed and cool, no problem, or maybe like watching a girl in a summer dress, but then it exploded into heavy metal and loud screaming. It was the two sides to life in Burma—one calm and relaxed, the other brutally painful.

When I was seven years old, in 1964, I went over to a friend’s house after school. He had a teenage sister, and we were in her bedroom, and she put “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” a 45, on her little box record player. She hung her head and swayed back and forth so her hair bounced off her cheeks. Then she started dancing with her arms up in the air, twisting her ass, jumping up and down. I’d never seen anything like it, but I knew it was dangerous.

The first time we saw Iron Cross was the same. We were in a coffee shop for tourists, where a TV screen showed European models strutting around in pajamas. Then the channel changed to an Iron Cross live performance. The sound was off, but it was clear they were into something loud and fast…and powerful. The singer with a shaved head screaming into the microphone, the drummer in a frenzy, and Chit San Maung playing lead guitar as if he were struggling to tame it. We didn’t need to hear the sound to know what the song was about—sticking it to the man.

It seemed very strange these guys were not in jail.

The next morning we were both sick, coughing up yellowish green phlegm, so we took a taxi to a health clinic inside one of the more expensive hotels in town (Burma has close to the lowest health care standards of any country in the world). The driver had an English-Burmese dictionary on the dashboard and wanted to talk. He said he’d grown up in a village in the mountains along the border with Thailand, but his life there was so boring he left and came to the city to seek his fortune.

“I have not one good thing to say about the government,” he said. “They ruin my country. They lie about everything. Nobody knows the truth. We cannot. Have you seen our newspaper? Only good news. All a bluff. First thing children learn in school is not ask questions. At university you pay for grades, nobody learns, nobody knows how to make what we need. We export rubber, we don’t know how to make tires. When we buy them, very expensive.”

“Could you leave the country if you wanted to go?” I asked.

“Yes, we can go out, if we have money we can go out, but I don’t have money, only military, black market men have money.”

“But if you could leave, would you stay away or would you come back?”

“I love my country, you understand? I want to die in my country because I love my people. If government says we live on 500 kyat [43 cents] a day, we live on 500 kyat a day, okay. We can do this and be happy with each other, love each other. But this government is very bad men,” he said.

“Do you know the band Iron Cross?”

“Yes, my friend is friend with Chit San Maung, guitar player.”

By the time we came out of the clinic with some antibiotics, the cab driver had the phone number.

I called Chit and he spoke enough En­glish to understand what I was asking. Mainly he said yes, yes, yes and that he’d send a car to pick us up. The car came at 8 p.m., a new black Land Cruiser with tinted windows and bumper stickers I hadn’t seen on any other car—one of the Jesus fish, and “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace,” “Never Say Die,” as well as iron cross acoustics—the name of their new album. I asked the driver, a young man who said he was in Chit’s family, if Chit was a Christian, and he said, “Yes, for sure.”

“So are Iron Cross songs religious songs?”

“No,” he said, “it’s not allowed. No words in English, no Christian words. Only love songs.” Then he stuck in an Iron Cross cd and turned it up loud, maybe to get me to stop asking questions, maybe because it was a beautiful song.

The boulevards in Rangoon are lined with palms and banyan trees. It’s not a bad city, the way it’s laid out, and better at night, weaving through traffic at 40 miles an hour, listening to a song that sounds like it’s about a train coming down the tracks while passing buses packed tight with people, arms and heads hanging out the windows, flying by frog-legged men pedaling tricycle rickshaws, too fast to really see strange animist shrines with Christmas tree lights or a karaoke bar with women modeling onstage.

Chit’s house had a wall around the outside and a sign out front that said ptl Digital Studios. I asked the driver if ptl stood for “Praise the Lord” and he said yes. But when I asked him if he’d heard of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, he said no.

Downstairs there was a small recording studio—a sound room and double-paned glass separating the control room. We were taken up two flights into the production room—carpet on the floor, a large computer and big speakers sitting on a desk, 10 guitars hanging on the wall, Iron Cross concert posters, including one from a 2003 tour to America.

Chit came in and shook our hands, and he was like a 140-pound lightbulb, so happy we’d come. He was with an older man he introduced as his uncle, who, he said, was going to help translate. He didn’t look like Chit at all, more like a wiseguy type, but at the time I just accepted the thing without question.

Chit said he’d started playing in church when he was five years old. He grew up in the village of Henzada northwest of Rangoon, along the Irrawaddy River. The church had a good choir and they sang “Amazing Grace,” things like that, and he also had a Chet Atkins tape that he listened to a lot. When he was a teenager, he moved to Rangoon and studied with the most famous guitar player in the country at that time. He was the one who came up with the name Iron Cross with respect, Chit said, to the World War I German medal for heroism, bravery, and leadership.

I asked him where they played in the States, and he said New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

“Have you heard of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker?” I had to ask.

“No, who are they?”

“Oh, just a couple who had a TV show in America called The PTL Club. It doesn’t matter. Your driver told us your songs aren’t religious, that the government won’t allow it.”

“Yes, we give them the words and if they don’t like them they change the words.”

“Does that bother you?”

“No, they do their job, we do ours. We only play love songs, and sometimes it’s hard to say who writes the words. Sometimes the words are not important.”

“You know, the first time we saw you was on a TV and the sound was turned off so we couldn’t even hear the music, but I saw you have power in your guitar. It was obvious, just in the way you were playing, and I wondered why you weren’t in jail. Why does the government let you play anything at all?”

Up to that point he understood my questions and answered them by himself, but suddenly he acted like he didn’t understand the question and turned to his uncle for help. They talked for a minute in Burmese and then the uncle said, “Iron Cross songs are not about politics.”

“But,” I said, “have you seen Woodstock, the movie of the concert?”

Chit nodded his head.

“There’s a part where Jimi Hendrix...you know Jimi Hendrix?”

Another nod.

“There’s a part where Jimi Hendrix plays ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ our national anthem, only he tears the hell out of it, kind of makes it burst into flames, and this was during the Vietnam War.”

Another nod, only barely.

“I know you can play like that. I saw you do it on TV.”

By that time he was turning around and looking at his uncle.

“If I were the generals, I’d be worried, big time.”

Chit grabbed his cell phone from his pocket. It hadn’t gone off but he looked at it like it had and he excused himself and left the room.

I was so stupid. I’d lost my head and was talking to him like he was a rock star in America, immune from prosecution, thinking his uncle really was his uncle and his friend. But the guy was a spook, there to monitor the interview, for sure.

So we sat there in silence for a minute with the uncle, and then my companion tried to break the tension by asking him if he meditates.

“Yes,” the uncle said, “more when I was younger than now. Now not as much as I would like.”

“What do you like about it?”

“Meditation makes you free,” he said. “No worries, no anxiety.”

“See?” she said to me. “You should meditate, it would make you less crazy.”

And I must have been crazy because I just couldn’t shut up. I asked the uncle, “Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you understand what I’m saying about the guitar?”

“Yes,” he said, “I think it sometimes might be true, but what you say will not happen here. People listen to Iron Cross to be happy, to forget their lives. They gamble on football, English Premier League, for the same reason. It’s a diversion.”

“So you don’t see another rebellion coming, like what happened in 1988?”

“No, people are busy finding money to buy things they want. Boys today want to fight in video games, not in the street.”

“Then what can help?”

He thought for a minute and said, “I’m afraid nothing can help this.”

Chit came back into the room, apologized again, and sat down. There were beads of sweat on his forehead and his light had gone off. I’d blown it. The interview was over. But as we were leaving, Chit said Iron Cross was going to play on Friday in the park, outdoors, and if we wanted to come, he’d have some tickets brought by our hotel.

The next day we went to an Internet café to try to find some information on Iron Cross. We’d gone in once before but left when the guy behind the counter told us to write down our passport numbers and the name of our hotel, and we noticed that his computer screen showed the website addresses that every customer in the room was visiting. But people on the street would only tell us that Iron Cross was the best band in the country, nothing more. And there had to be more, a lot more, than this. So we went in and wrote down our information and Googled Iron Cross. Only a few stories came up, but enough to realize the band was under pressure.

The first incident happened in 1995 when the band’s lead singer, Lay Phyu [pronounced “pew”], came out with a solo album called Power 54. The title was approved by the censors and the cd was on the shelves in the stores before the authorities realized that 54 is Aung San Suu Kyi’s address on University Avenue in Rangoon. The government sent men out in the streets with bullhorns demanding that anyone with a copy of the cd bring it out and hand it over so that it could be burned. They called Lay Phyu in for a meeting, whereupon he insisted that the name had nothing to do with Aung San Suu Kyi, it merely connoted the number of songs produced by Iron Cross to date, nothing more, and if they wanted he would change the name to Power. Iron Cross was banned from performing for a period of time, I don’t know how long, but Lay Phyu didn’t stop causing trouble.

He refused to sing propaganda songs, and a tour to America was canceled. His hair reached his waist and the government told him to cut it, so he shaved his head. Iron Cross was asked, or ordered, to perform at the wedding of a military officer’s son, and Lay Phyu refused, saying, “These are not our people.” Lay Phyu was a rebel, very popular among the poor as well as among the sons and daughters of the military junta.

It was the latter who came to the concert, which was by a lake in an arena the size of a baseball infield, the perimeter surrounded by trees and beer stands. The tickets cost $4 and the beer $1, and a teacher or a lawyer in Burma makes $20 a month, so the young people who came, about maybe 4,000, were not of this class. Boys arrived with boys, girls arrived with girls, and there was little interaction between them. About half the boys were dressed conservatively in button-up shirts; the other half, the hipsters, wore T-shirts with dragons or Nirvana on the front, blue jeans, chains hanging from belts, necklaces, earrings, sneakers. The girls, except for maybe five, pretty much covered up. I saw three in short skirts and tight shirts and two in dresses and high heels, but that was about it for the fashion show.

The band came out and launched into a cover of a song I’d heard before but couldn’t name, maybe Nine Inch Nails or Metallica. The hipsters danced with their hands in the air; the others stood motionless. No women danced.

And Lay Phyu wasn’t there. When the song ended, some of the crowd started chanting, “Lay Phyu! Lay Phyu! Lay Phyu!” But he didn’t come out, and the band played another cover of a song I’d heard before but couldn’t name, and then there was more chanting of “Lay Phyu!” But still no Lay Phyu.

I asked the guy next to me what was up, and he said Lay Phyu had been banned from performing. It had happened recently and everyone there knew about it—everybody but us. I wanted the revolution to start right there, but the band played on and the crowd forgot about Lay Phyu. The hipsters got drunk and danced with their shirts off, tattoos bared, thrashing around in sort of a mosh pit type thing, getting more and more crazy, shaking their long hair and screaming out the words to the songs. Everybody knew the words to the songs, and as the night went on the band slowed down and it became kind of a group sing-along, the same thing we’d seen in the Baptist church. It made me think we’d made a big mistake after 9/11 by responding with military force. All we’ve accomplished so far in the war on terrorism is to make more terrorists, like the sorcerer’s apprentice chopping up the broom with the ax. We should drop boom boxes instead of bombs. Tens of thousands of iPods falling with little parachutes...probably cost less than the smallest bomb we’ve got.

But when it was over, it was over. No encores, no lighters. And the crowd, which had trickled in slowly, left as one great mass, like they couldn’t get out of there fast enough, like they thought there was going to be trouble if they stayed, or they didn’t want to be seen as individuals. Strength in numbers, even when running away.

We ended up in a cab that had the three girls in short skirts in the backseat. Two of them spoke nearly perfect English, which I thought was a stroke of good luck, but when I asked them “What’s the deal with Lay Phyu?” they shut up and didn’t speak a word until they got out of the cab at their apartment building. It was one quiet taxi ride, for sure.

A lot of people wouldn’t talk about it, and from those who did I got four or five different answers: He was caught gambling at his house; he got into an argument with someone else in the band—an ego thing; he was a drug addict; and…he’d been out of the country and recorded a song that was critical of the government and they finally found out about it. Nobody knew for sure, and this was okay with them.

The day we were leaving the country, Chit’s Land Cruiser showed up at the Three Seasons and his driver brought in some Iron Cross dvds and cds, and I noticed on the back of one of the cds somebody had circled a song called “Butterfly.” We put it on the house stereo and got a young Burmese woman to translate as best she could. The song starts off with a woman singing a traditional folk song, just her voice, a loud forlorn wailing. Then she fades out and drums fade in, followed by Chit’s guitar exploding like a semi blowing its air brake down a steep hill. Then it calms down and Lay Phyu starts singing about the village where he grew up, remembering how he could hear his heart beat while walking down the street, the snow falling in winter, the green grass in the spring, how the town was like a story unto itself, but he was a child and had no idea of the outside world and he wanted to know, he wanted to learn. Then the music gets loud and hard again, violent and angry, and the refrain is something like “I don’t know what’s in front of me, I can’t see how the world will end, but I’m going to find out, whether I like it or not.” It’s a song about a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, being thrown into a world where time no longer runs in a circle but a straight line, a jet leaving a contrail that quickly evaporates, and there’s no turning back and no backing down, just a full-on plunge into an uncertain future.