Interview: The Rebel Riot on Tour in the UK
In the Summer of 2017, Punk Ethics launched a crowdfunder campaign with the intention of making history – to hold the first ever UK tour of a Burmese punk band. Calling out to the global punk community and beyond we raised over £5,000 to bring The Rebel Riot to the UK for an 10 date tour of live shows and film screenings. Journalist, Gavin O’Toole sat down with the singer Kyaw Kyaw for an exclusive interview on behalf of Punk Ethics to find out more about what makes The Rebel Riot tick.
Few bands can claim to have been born in a revolution. As a member of this unique fraternity, The Rebel Riot has earned its place in history. The radical punk group kicking at the strict social foundations of Myanmar (Burma) embodies the explosion of freedom won in blood during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and it has tirelessly taken that spirit of activism to a new level on the streets ever since. It is now exporting its message – an intoxicating blend of anti-authoritarian social ethics and peace-loving Buddhism – with a recent UK tour, taking in seven cities including a benefit for the London Anarchist Bookfair with the legendary Conflict, focusing attention on its long-suffering homeland. The humanitarian crisis spawned by the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims – denied by the countries de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has come under intense international pressure for her apparent failure to act – epitomises the scourge of nationalism and organised religion that lie at the heart of The Rebel Riot’s mission. “Silence is violence,” insists charismatic Rebel Riot guitarist and singer, Kyaw Kyaw. “The problem is complicated, sure – but if she stays silent, does it mean that she supports violence? If you don’t say anything about humanity or rights, you are being violent.” One thing The Rebel Riot clearly cannot do is stay silent. The band’s aggressive punk music embodies the effort to rip away a distorted straitjacket of tradition suffocating Burmese sciety that has clear echoes of UK punk in the late 1970s. If it seems hard to associate the urban, western post-industrial phenomenon of punk with Burma, its resonance among youth becomes clearer once you understand the grip of history and how punk chimes with deep resentment about the legacy of military totalitarianism. Created in the capital Yangon during the so-called Saffron Revolution – three months of protests that provoked massive army repression – The Rebel Riot’s story reflects Burma’s painful transition from hard-line military junta to tentative, fragile democracy. Kyaw Kyaw explains: “A group of us who had been thinking about forming a band joined in this revolution because we had been living under a military system for over 50 years and we all just wanted human rights, justice, and humanity free from the fucking military government. When we saw people on the streets we were excited: they were fighting the system. But we witnessed the military shooting loads of people. People were being killed in front of us. “So, we decided: this is fucking shit. They have the power, they have the weapons, they are killing people on the streets: we have to fight them. We didn’t know how to fight, but we could make music. So, we created the band. We’d seen lots of people on the street, fighting the system, rebels. Rebels who demonstrate and riot. Rebels who change the system. So, we called ourselves ‘The Rebel Riot’.”
The punk ethos first struck a chord among youth in Yangon in the mid 1990s as the developing world was blinking in the new light filling the darkness as the Cold War ended. Enter Ko Nyan Lin, the first punk in Burma. The story goes that a Ko Nyan stumbled upon a copy of Melody Maker in a bookshop near the British Embassy in Yangon. In the magazine was an article on the Sex Pistols. He was intoxicated by the look and style of the band and this fashion of punk and began to learn everything he could about it. He and his friends started to make their own punk clothes and spike their hair, out of sight of the police and mainstream society. Ko Nyan asked a record dealer, who sourced western music by having sailors smuggle albums into the country, to get copies of The Sex Pistols, The Damned and other first wave punk bands. The rest is history. As with other cultural revolutions, the punk spirit spoke directly to the edgy youth of Yangon weary of oppressive conventions policed by a corrupt military. Kyaw Kyaw says: “Our society is very traditional. At first it was very difficult for us because when people saw punks they really angry. We had a lot of problems with our parents, our neighbourhood, the police, gangsters. They called us fucking idiots, aliens.” The Rebel Riot frontman felt more than most the metamorphosis of his generation: his father is a policeman and, unsurprisingly, was not impressed by his studs, earrings, tattoos and dyed, spiky hair. “At first he really didn’t like it. He didn’t want to talk to me, but he wasn’t against me either. Then I had a discussion with him and said ‘Look, I choose to be a punk. It’s my way of life and gives me lots of energy and freedom’. Later he understood that I don’t do drugs and I’m not useless – I make an income by myself. My parents changed their minds, and now they’re proud of me. Here I am in London, right? My mother is always boasting about it.”
The Rebel Riot has, indeed, come a long way since its first performance in a shopping centre. Fearful of police bullying, for three years it played in secret at hastily arranged gigs under motorway bridges or on abandoned land. Other than the Pistols, its main influences have been second-wave UK street punk bands such as GBH, Discharge and The Exploited. Since then the band has now gained an international profile, playing in Indonesia and Thailand in recent years. This autumn saw The Rebel Riot visit the UK, where, for the first time in history a Burmese punk band visited the birthplace of punk. The tour was made possible by the Punk Ethics collective after a highly successful crowd-funding campaign, and a heroic battle with immigration authorities. Jay from Punk Ethics said “This is the first time a punk band from Burma has come toured the UK and we believe the first time any band of any genre has play the UK, outside of state-sanctioned performances. It’s truly historic.” The October tour took in London, Cambridge, Bradford, Bristol, Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester. The UK trip has been a game-changer, admits Kyaw Kyaw: “We want to come back: we’ve learned a huge amount from the UK, and we also share our ideas here, too. Something we learned from our friends Marginal in Indonesia is that punk has always been about DIY – Do It Yourself, but now it is time for a new version; DIT – Do It Together.”
Although Kyaw Kyaw rejects any effort to portray him as a leader, there is no doubt he is the intellectual centre of gravity within Burmese punk. With almost stereotypical introspection, he combines punk ideas with local belief to make powerful social statements. He says: “For me punk is a lifestyle, a way of living and thinking. When I hear punk music, it’s like a kind of education. Punk teaches me about freedom. Punk, for me, is like a mirror: when I look into it I see my face. It’s a philosophy allowing me to see myself, to see my freedom, to fight for it.” As a result, The Rebel Riot’s strong human rights and anti-poverty ethos forms the core of a social movement, determined to make its mark on emerging civil society. The band is the progenitor of Common Street, a punk collective whose energetic activism in a rapidly changing country has attracted the growing interest of journalists. Myanmar has changed rapidly since it began opening up after 50 years of isolation under the military. Elections in 2010 established a semi-civilian government, although the military still wields considerable power, human rights abuses persist, and competitive politics is still overshadowed by the in-built prerogatives and guaranteed parliamentary seats that the armed forces continue to enjoy. Greater freedom has, predictably, opened the floodgates to foreign money, which has flooded into the country and, in turn, swelled property prices and rents, generating a homelessness crisis. As a result, The Rebel Riot regularly acts to help the homeless in Yangon in solidarity with the global Food Not Bombs movement. It is also turning its attention to educational initiatives, has launched a project called Books Not Bombs to provide children with reading material, and has a long-term ambition to establish a children’s centre.
Buddhism – with its emphasis upon self-enlightenment, candour and a rejection of hierarchy – offers a point of departure for this activism, and Kyaw Kyaw identifies strongly with the religion’s pacifist ideals, even if some of his compatriots are less willing to do so. A recent film about the band produced by director Andreas Hartmann, My Buddha Is Punk, which the band screened before many of their UK concerts, explores this novel synthesis rejecting religious rules and political doctrine. “I hate religious organisation and religious groups, but at the same time I don’t hate Buddha,” says Kyaw Kyaw. “I just hate the way the organisation tries to control everyone through religion, but some religious ideas are like a map for life. Buddhism and punk are similar: punks hate the system, the government, countries. Why? Because punks think these are oppressive. So punk wants a Buddha world. Punks are always angry, but Buddha is always teaching peace, love, kindness and compassion, so I want to use both.” Punk clearly provides the band with a weapon to Punk attack what they hate most. The Rebel Riot’s songs scream against organised religion with lyrics such as “Fuck Religious Rules” and bemoan human rights abuses and poverty. Indeed, punk’s pacifist roots seem to be a good fit for Myanmar, a country badly divided by longstanding ethnic conflicts – sometimes labelled as the world’s longest running civil war – that ultimately have their origins in British imperialism. A series of regional insurgencies began after the country became independent in 1948, and the states of Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Shan and Rakhine have all endured bitter conflicts involving ethnic groups seeking self-determination. In turn, the uncompromising military has been accused of using scorched earth tactics against civilians and of committing serious human rights abuses. The Kayin conflict alone may have displaced a million people, most of them members of the Karen minority. Recently, world attention has been grabbed by the mass displacement in Rakhine of Rohingya people – described by the United Nations as “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities”, yet not even recognised by Myanmar’s government. The Rohingya crisis seems to justify many of The Rebel Riot’s positions, although Kyaw Kyaw is keen to stress the complexity of this issue and how Western media have simplified it into predictable narratives. He says: “I am not standing with either the Rohingya or Rakhine people, I am standing with humanity. I don’t want to see people kill each other.” The guitarist is honest enough to have no solutions; nor does he berate the besieged Aung San Suu Kyi for being caught between a rock and a hard place. “I have no idea what she should do, I don’t know who pulls her strings or what her views are. She doesn’t need to be a punk to solve this, just a beautiful mind and a good person. But, Aung San Suu Kyi should do the right thing for humanity, not just for the Burmese people.”
Interview by Gavin O’Toole