Changing Burma: Will censorship of films and music end?
- 13 April 2012
- From the section Asia
In a dark basement in the Burmese capital Rangoon, Ye Ngwe Soe lets out a tortured howl.
Then with a flick of his black spiked hair he raises his middle finger and turns to a microphone.
"Is it wrong to be at this place, wrong to have been born here?" the 25-year-old shouts in Burmese, metal rivets sparkling on his denim jacket.
"My eyes and brains are so disappointed, so come and take out my eyes and brain now."
He pauses dramatically. Then there's a thud from drummer Dino and the beat starts again, shortly followed by the renewed pulsing of Yarzar on bass guitar.
This audio assault is a band rehearsal for No U Turn, one of the best-known acts on the Rangoon punk scene. The song being performed is not, as it might seem, about life in Burma, but the frustrations of being born into a world dominated by pop music.
For decades all forms of public expression in Burma have been tightly controlled and music is no exception. For punk rockers like No U Turn that has left them with a stark choice. Remain underground or play by the government rules.
It is hard to imagine Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols submitting his lyrics for prior approval, but that is exactly what Ye Ngwe Soe has had to do.
"Music is controlled here," the lead singer says. "If we want to make an album we have to send the lyrics to the censorship board, then only after approval can we release an album."
So far, in part due to the restrictions, No U Turn has released just one album called We Are Behind The Time. Clear political messages are banned, but apparently innocuous lyrics have been blocked too.
"They're always looking for hidden meanings," says Ye Ngwe Soe. "For example they don't like our chorus with the words 'switch off the radio', so we had to take it out."
In practice the versions of songs which groups like No U Turn perform at concerts and release commercially can often be quite different. That flexibility is not possible in the film industry. Burmese scripts are vetted before shooting begins and at post-production every shot is dissected by the censors for secret political messages.
Trying to get artistically credible movies past the authorities became a lifetime's work for Kyaw Thu, one of Burma's most famous actors.
"Some scenes have no hidden meaning, but they still censored them," he says. "We filmed a scene on Burmese New Year in which padauk flowers bloomed and they cut it out, because the padauk flower is so closely associated with Aung San Suu Kyi."
At the time Ms Suu Kyi was under house arrest and any mention of her was outlawed.
Mr Thu's own acting and directing career spanning more than 200 films came to an abrupt halt in 2007. And it wasn't to do with one of his pictures.
He and his wife gave alms to protesting monks. Both were detained for a week and then banned from film-making on their release. They responded by immersing themselves in a charity that pays for funerals for Burma's poorest.
Now a year of reforms has put the once toxic Kyaw Thu back in demand.
Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has had him round for tea six times, to ask for help making a biopic about her father, Burma's independence hero General Aung San (so far he has declined, saying he's too busy).
Not to be outdone, the driving force behind Burma's recent political changes, President Thein Sein, reportedly declared that Kyaw Thu was his favourite actor.
"He told my wife to tell me that I should remove my beard and stay handsome," the ponytailed actor says with a smile. "He said he wanted to see me as an actor again."
The beard has now been shaved off, but Kyaw Thu says there are still those within the Burmese government blocking his return to the screen. For now he appears happy to watch developments from a distance and keep working for his expanding charity.
If there are further moves towards free speech it is Burma's journalists who will feel it first. As part of Burma's rapidly evolving reform process a new media law has been promised for later this year, with an end to censorship apparently included.
At the dusty Rangoon offices of the Myanmar Times, a weekly English- and Burmese-language paper, the talk is of progress but inconsistent and sometimes heavy-handed censorship.
"Eighteen months ago we couldn't even mention Aung San Suu Kyi," says Shwe Yin Mar Oo, the newspapers's chief political reporter. "Now we put her on the front page almost every week, she sells newspapers."
But keeping the Myanmar Times up to date is still a struggle. The censors demand most of the paper a week before publication and often return it covered with red ink.
"They say they're looking for things that harm national unity," Ms Mar Oo says, as she flicks through a heavily censored copy. She points out a series of banned articles that include a parliamentary debate on the misuse of state funds, comments from a dissident poet, a story about an exiled activist and references to the 1988 student uprising.
"We've submitted some of these pieces three times," she says. "We're testing the water all the time. Sometimes they do get through. Things are freer but there are still lots of restrictions."
Burma's exiled media are also now being wooed to return home. Visas and permits were granted to cover the recent by-elections, but there remains deep scepticism about how long this "Burmese spring" will last, and how deep and irreversible the reforms will be.
Aung Zaw edits Irrawaddy magazine from neighbouring Thailand and has just been back to Burma for only the second time in two decades.
"They want us to move back to Burma completely but you don't want to become a chicken in a basket where you will be chopped and they will try and control you," he says. "We just don't know how long this honeymoon period will last."