Punk rock has many faces. Wherever it flourishes, the media tends to focus on its visual cues: angst-ridden mohawked youths, tattoos, piercings, loud colored clothing, spikes, chains, black leather. While punk may have become watered down in its places of origin, elsewhere in the world – from Indonesia and Russia to Iraq and Burma – it has taken root as a relevant and very alive form of dissent.
Nowhere is punk more vital today than Burma. A number of recent reports have documented the “Burma Wave” and the fascinating process of Burma’s punk community coming out from the underground, where it remained in hiding during decades of rule by a ruthless military junta.
The New Yorker gives a glimpse of a collection of black and white photographs, taken by Istanbul-born photographer Pari Dukovic, revealing Burmese youth kitted out in full punk attire, who have taken more openly to Yangon’s streets since the nation’s iron-fisted military dictatorship officially faded from view in 2011.
But dig a bit deeper and you’ll discover powerful socio-political undercurrents flowing beneath these outermost manifestations of punk in Burma today. A comparison with the punk that surfaced in 1970s New York highlights the social and political import of punkdom’s rise in Burma.
As written in the introduction to Dukovic’s photo portfolio, “Punk in nineteen-seventies New York tended to be more concerned with aesthetics than with politics… Often, the ‘establishment’ it railed against was your mom, or your school principal.”
By contrast, Dukovic told The New Yorker, “The punks I met (in Burma) were beyond just wearing the fashion—they truly had an ideology and something that they strongly believed in. It’s about what they believe in, rather than how they look, that is the most important thing.”
Of the early days of punk's rise in Burma, Yangon punk Darko who sings in the indie band Side Effect told the South China Morning Post, “You could get thrown into jail over nothing. The police used to pick up the punks and beat them up for no reason, and shave off their hair."
In those days, Burmese punks were truly hardcore, using aerosol canisters to color their hair and keeping it spiked even during the country’s New Year Water Festival. “The punks used glue for sticking down leather to stick up their hair,” a punk named Scum added. “You couldn't get that glue out, so after four days of partying at the Water Festival they had to shave their hair off. I didn't do that because I dressed like a punk every day, not just for the festival.”
The level of oppression felt in Burma has inspired strong feelings of dissent. For an example, take a sampling of lyrics penned by a band called The Rebel Riot. As The Guardian notes, the words speak for themselves: “No fear! No indecision!/ Rage against the system of the oppressors!" Or how about: "We are poor, hungry and have no chance/ Human rights don't apply to us/We are victims, victims, victims.”
Even as the government slowly loosens its grip on the country, homegrown punk acts like The Rebel Riot and No U Turn, among many others, still continue to face repression by officialdom, according to German magazine Der Spiegel. When compared to the poppy consumer brand of punk (think Blink 182) that has evolved in the West in recent decades, this raises the question: can authentic punk – or for that matter counterculture in any form – only flourish in oppressive environments?
Looking to China, similar (though less extreme) examples can shed light on this question. “The last band in Shanghai who picked a sensitive current topic and skewered it in a song was Top Floor Circus during the 2010 Expo,” a Shanghai-based alternative music blogger named Andy told The Diplomat.
Although the tune was a “very playful and non-threatening, humorous song” Andy explained that the band was called in for a meeting with the police and cultural office after a video of it went viral on Youku. The band was subsequently banned from performing in public for eight months, until the end of the 2010 World Expo, which was held in Shanghai. “The video was also deleted and a line of T-shirts recalled,” he added. “Non compliance would have then led to jail.”
By contrast – and underscoring the lack of political threat posed today by the West’s punk pioneers – former Sex Pistols front man Johnny Rotten was allowed to perform in Shanghai and Beijing in March with his band Public Image Ltd. (PiL). Remember, this is the same man famous for writing the punk classic Anarchy in the UK.
“PiL are outside of this situation because they are playing a one off show and are not openly criticizing China,” Andy explained, adding that there is an additional factor to consider in China, where oppression is less overt than in a place like Burma where the political reality is still very touch and go.
He continued, “In the case of China I have experienced another, less obvious side of things. To have a music industry or a music scene that can be professional and operate nationally you have to have a legal framework to do business. This is as big an obstacle to organic cultural development as the other issues and it is not an accident.”