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Iron Cross Battles Burmese Repression with Song


It wasn't quite a pilgrimage, but writer and radio producer Scott Carrier learned much from his recent journey to Asia. One revelation: a popular band in Burma, that in the grand tradition of rock and roll, is using music to challenge the establishment. Here's Scott.

SCOTT CARRIER reporting:

Burma is a country in southeast Asia bordering Thailand China, and India. The mighty Irawati River runs through it, draining the Himalayas that lie to the north, emptying into the Bay of Bengal to the south. In the 1930s, when Burma was a British colony, it was the leading exporter of rice in the world. Today, after more than 30 years of rule under a brutal military dictatorship, it's one of the poorest countries in the world.

According to a variety of observers and international human right's groups, the military burns villages to the ground, systematically rapes women, and forces thousands into slave labor camps. While in the cities such as Mandalay and Rangoon every individual is kept under constant surveillance by a vast network of spies, an Orwellian nightmare where people go to jail and get tortured for telling jokes and writing poems or for speaking the name of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the democratically elected leader of the country who's been held under house arrest for most of the last 17 years. Even when she won the Noble Peace Prize in 1991.

(Soundbite of music)

CARRIER: This music is by Iron Cross, the most popular band in Burma. They play American music with Burmese lyrics that first have to be approved by a Board of censors. But then with rock-and-roll, it's not so much what you say as how you say it.

(Soundbite of music)

CARRIER: In Rangoon you hear Iron Cross songs on the radio in taxi cabs, coming out of apartment windows and beauty salons and tea shops. Actually, there are a lot of bands in Burma playing American rock-and-roll. But most of it is lightweight pop, whereas Iron Cross plays and sings with raw emotion, so their music speaks to the soul. Iron Cross has power in a place where power is supposed to be the monopoly of the government.

(Soundbite of music)

CARRIER: Young boys will tell you their hero is Jit Sa Mong(ph), lead guitar for Iron Cross. They say he's the best guitar player in all of Asia, no question. And Lay Phyu, the group's lead singer, is a heartthrob and perhaps the most admired celebrity in the country because he taunts the government at every opportunity.

Once he put out a solo album called Power 54. It was on the shelves and people were buying it before the government realized 54 is Aung San Suu Kyi's street address. Another time, his hair was down to his waist and the government told him to cut it. So he shaved his head. And then a military officer asked him to perform at the wedding of his son and Lay Phyu said, These are not our people. Even though that's not actually true. The sons and daughters of the military junta are big Iron Cross fans. And they're the only ones who can afford to buy the t-shirts and CDs and tickets to the concerts.

If Iron Cross was only popular with poor people, they would have been in jail a long time ago.

(Soundbite of music)

CARRIER: This is a 2005 recording, actually a DVD, of a live Iron Cross concert. It starts off with Lay Phyu and Jit Sa Mong playing acoustic guitars, standing back from the microphones, letting the audience sing along. Everyone in the audience knows the words and it's clear they're of the upper class, young people with styled hair and designer clothes, and they're all singing like they're in church together. I'm not saying it's enough to start a revolution, but there is something here. A power beyond the control of the military junta.

This past January the Burmese government banned Lay Phyu from performing, so he won't be singing this song in public anymore. Jit Sa Mont and the others in Iron Cross continue to perform and record and they have a U.S. tour scheduled for this summer, but it's up to the Burmese government to decide whether they can leave the country or not. I hope they make it.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: The music of Iron Cross. Writer Scott Carrier is part of the radio project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Carrier