The fight for personal freedom in the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar has been going on for more than half a century. Now, the sights and sounds of that struggle have helped a generation of musicians to tell the (still-evolving) story of their nation's long, difficult path to liberty -- and they've turned to everything from hip-hop and metal to punk to do it.
You can listen to their calls rise in unison in the latest episode of MTV's "Rebel Music," the eye-opening "Myanmar: Voices of the Voiceless."
The former British colony known as Burma (which changed its name to Myanmar in 1989), established independence in 1947, only to turn into a dictatorship after a military coup in 1962. Unhappy with their government's policies, the people of Burma famously rose up on August 8, 1988 (known now as 8888), in a public outcry that had a huge impression on the artists of today.
"I was probably only 7 or 8 years old when the 8888 uprising happened," explained Skum, lead singer of the punk band Kultureshock, remembering the scenes of resistance that were met with threats of deadly force by leader General Ne Win. "I still remember hiding at home with the lights off."
The bloodshed also had a huge impact on the activist rapper duo Y.A.K., whose members recalled seeing body parts and disembodied heads in the streets after the 8888 uprising. Like many of their peers, the pair have turned for inspiration to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prize-winning activist, daughter of the country's first democratic leader and the founder of the National League For Democracy. And she inspires despite the fact that their schools left out any mention of politics, 8888 or Kyi's work.
In 2012, the country allowed some freedom of expression to return in a bid to gain more foreign investment in the nation. "We have some freedom but it's difficult to say it's a real democracy," said Side Effect guitarist Eaiddhi of the nation that restricts Western music and pop culture.
"Before this new system, this so-called new government, they just snatched people [off the streets] ... my grandma, my uncle -- they all went to jail," said rapper Babu, who has collaborated with the man considered to be the father of Myanmar's hip-hop scene, Anegga, founding member of the group Acid.
"14 years ago we weren't allowed to do underground shows, police came ... sometimes they would take you somewhere else, like blindfold [you]," Anegga recalled. "We are the voices of the voiceless, so you have to say something."
But imagine trying to speak out in a system where bands had to hand over their lyrics to the government and adhere to a printed list of all the words they are not allowed to use in their music. No cursing, no sex, no drugs, smoking, drinking or talk of suicide. Mention any of those typical rock themes and your song could have been banned by the government.
When Eaiddhi started his first punk band in 2002, there were no underground clubs or venues for groups to play in. So, two years ago he helped co-found Jam It!, which organizes small acoustic concerts in public parks. The organization also recently put on a secret warehouse gig with punk, metal and hip-hop groups, hoping the authorities would not find out and fine, or arrest him.
The local authorities, of course, did find out and they hauled the show's organizers in for a talk, telling them that because they had no permit only invited guests could come, not locals. And, as an example of the cost of trying to speak your mind, each organizer had to pay a $5,000 kyat "fee" for the show to go on.
"Our music encourages women to participate in social issues, politics and business, to work equally with men and to be confident," said Thazin Minn, of Y.A.K., one of the only female-led activist hip-hip groups in the nation.
The recent financial outreach has meant better Internet, more malls and consumer goods, but not much advancement for the country's musicians. In fact, they say, the appearance of democracy and freedom hides a darker truth: Little has changed and the threat of police action is always present.
"We believe that music has the ability to convince the public to change their ideas," Minn said. "If our lyrics really have an influence and affect our fans, we can change their ideas."
Tune in every week for new episodes of “Rebel Music,” which premiere each Thursday on YouTube.com/MTV.