‘Scream for human rights’: Punks, monks and politics in Myanmar

Kyaw Kyaw and the Rebel Riot Band use music to stand up against oppression and anti-Muslim hate speech in Myanmar.

Rebel Riot, a punk band from Yangon, is among a growing number of musicians rallying for human rights and democracy in Myanmar.

They use their music to combat oppression and speak out against Buddhist monks instigating hate and violence against Myanmar’s mostly Muslim Rohingya minority. The Ma Ba Tha, nationalist Buddhist monks organisation formed in 2012, spearheaded most of the rhetoric that fuelled anti-Muslim hatred in recent years.

Kyaw Kyaw, the band’s 31-year-old guitarist and lead singer, who believes that “monks should do monk’s job” and promotes religious coexistence, shares his views on monks, military and music in Myanmar.

‘The monks … were heroes’

“We founded Rebel Riot in 2007 because of the Saffron Revolution … one of the biggest protests in Myanmar against the military government.

Everybody wanted freedom. Everybody wanted human rights. Everybody wanted democracy. The monks led this revolution. They were heroes at that time.


One day, the military army came and shot lots of people on the streets. They were killing lots of people in front of me. I felt so scared because I never saw people killing each other in front of me. I felt so sad and angry at the same time. 

After the Saffron Revolution, we asked ourselves, what can we do to fight back? We had no power, we had no weapons at all. How about the music? Music is one of the biggest weapons. Music can speak out to the youth. Also, music is a universal language. So, we wanted to use music to scream for justice, for equality and for human rights. That’s why we created the Rebel Riot Band.

‘Politics, covered by religion’

It’s been since 2013 that people are hating each other because of religion. Buddhists and Muslims are fighting. So, they fight for religion and that’s why we say ‘f*** religious rules.’ This is stupid. Religion is to be yourself. If you think in groups, it isn’t religion. This is politics, covered by religion.

Politicians use religion to get power to control people. It is very easy to use religion for politics if you [people] are not educated or open-minded. Politicians do it the political way. I don’t understand the political way. I only understand humanity. I only believe in humanity.

“I think the monks [in Myanmar] are split into three groups. One group is like the Saffron Revolution monks who support democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi [the country’s de-facto leader]. They are against the military. The other group supports the military. They are called Ma Ba Tha. Other monks [the third group] aren’t interested in politics; they are only interested in meditation and peace for themselves.

The Ma Ba Tha monks are mostly the ones who hate Muslims, not the other two groups of monks. For me, they are fascist monks.

Monks in the Ma Ba Tha monastery in Yangon's Insein township [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
Monks in the Ma Ba Tha monastery in Yangon’s Insein township [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

For me, Buddhism teaches everyone about kindness and love, compassion. Not about hatred or killing each other. Buddhism is meditation. Vipassana [Buddhist meditation practice] means men or women or what kind of skin colour, it doesn’t matter; we are all the same. But they only discriminate against different people, so I feel like it’s hypocrisy.

I saw a lot [about Ma Ba Tha] in the newspapers and I felt this is not the right way. We were angry. That’s why we wrote a song [criticising fascist monks and the nationalist 969 movement] and started shouting, because this is not the right way. Monks should do monk’s job.

‘Food not bombs’

I can’t change the world. I can’t even change my country. But I can change two things: myself and around me. Now it’s already changed a little bit … In Myanmar, I cannot say so much but people can come up with concepts and it’s not as difficult as before when there was military everywhere. Now, a lot of young people can hang out, meet and talk, so for me, this is change.

We work on a lot of [different] projects but they are all about humanity, sharing love, kindness and supporting each other.

One project is called ‘Food Not Bombs’. Every Monday night we give food to homeless people.

Another project is called ‘Books Not Bombs’. We are going to schools outside of Yangon to teach the kids positive ideas about love, kindness and compassion. We support the kids with music, reading and cooking together.

Another project is called ‘Free Mobile Shop’. Everybody has a lot of stuff in their home they don’t really use. So why keep it at home when you can share it with someone who really needs it?

I will do a lot more before I die. Maybe with music, maybe with action, maybe with some movements. They are all the same way.

'I can't change the world. I can't even change my country. But I can change two things: myself and around me,' says Kyaw Kyaw [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]
‘I can’t change the world. I can’t even change my country. But I can change two things: myself and around me,’ says Kyaw Kyaw [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

‘My revolution is love’

My revolution is love. Love is very important between everyone. Between different religions, between different people, between men and women. You know, everyone needs this [love]. Without love, there is violence. So revolution can’t exist without love. This is my philosophy. 

Monks or punks, it doesn’t matter. One day we will all die for sure. So, everyone should ask himself am I wrong or am I right? Because you should know how much you destroy and how much you create. For me, everyone should create beautiful things. This is my advice. Not only for monks but for everyone.

My revolution is a molecular revolution. We don’t directly attack the power of politics. You don’t need to think about the power of politics. You only need to create things by yourself every day. For example, you create and create and create and then one day something [positive] will happen.

If we go to a dark room, we don’t complain about the darkness. We want to create our own light. That is our revolution.”

Source: Al Jazeera