Rapping for rights in Myanmar

Using music to criticize the military government in Myanmar was not all they did. Through poster campaigns, anti-government leaflets and video recordings, Generation Wave mobilized students and young people to speak out against the Myanmar government.

In March 2008 Zayar Thaw was arrested and in November that same year sentenced to six years of imprisonment. He was charged with forming “an illegal organization” and “illegal possession of foreign currency” because he had around 20 USD in his possession. On appeal his sentence was reduced by two years.

Rappers in other parts of the world started calling for Zayar Thaw’s release. In the Netherlands, a famous hip hop star, Umit C, together with singer Romagna, wrote a song called ‘Future in Your own Hands’ asking young people to take action for human rights in Myanmar. The video clip showed footage of monk-led demonstrations in Myanmar in 2007.

Amnesty activists in the Netherlands, France, Sweden, Italy, New Zealand and the USA also campaigned for Zayar Thaw’s release. In Deventer, in the Netherlands, an experienced group of Amnesty activists adopted his case. They immediately swung into action by publishing a summary of Zayar Thaw’s story on their website, collecting signatures at various venues and writing letters to the Myanmar government.

Like Generation Wave, this group too campaigned in innovative ways. During a local church event, visitors had their photograph taken with “Free Zayar Thaw” written on their hands; they made a video clip using footage of Zayar Thaw performing with his hip hop band, and they printed t-shirts with his photo which they wore when they were campaigning for his release. Three days before their next scheduled event, the activists heard the great news that Zayar Thaw had been released.

It was a joyful day for all who had campaigned for his release since 2009.

In a series of emails, Zayar Thaw told us about his three years behinds bars.

He was sent to a prison 1260 kilometres from his hometown Yangon, which meant that it was very difficult for his family to visit him more than a few times per year.  Since 2007 the government in Myanmar has frequently placed political prisoners far away from their families, which creates additional hardship for all concerned.

Prisoners rely on their families to provide them with medicine if they become ill and for additional food as the prison rations are often inadequate.  It also means the families of the prisoners need to spend large amounts of time and money to travel to the distant prisons to see their loved ones.  Zayar Thaw has told me that he had no access to a pen and paper during the three years he spent in prison and the only reading material that was regularly available were the state run newspapers.

The prison diet was flavourless and lacked nutrition. With the exception of a meat stew served twice a week, diluted pea or vegetable soup and rice was the staple diet every day, month after month, year after year. The healthcare provided at the prison was very inadequate, he said.

Zayar Thaw has told Amnesty International that he plans to continue to work with young people, guided by a policy of non-violent protest, to bring about social, political and economic changes which will benefit all the people of Myanmar. We are inspired by his vision and courage and will keep on campaigning until “They’re All Free”.