Singing while under suspicion in Myanmar

SUBVERSIVE? Honnay Lwin Loin practices at a Yangon music school whose U.S. funding lures the government snoops.
SUBVERSIVE? Honnay Lwin Loin practices at a Yangon music school whose U.S. funding lures the government snoops.
(Paul Watson / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The military government’s tightening grip doesn’t give people here much to sing about, and when they do feel the urge to make music, even that can be risky.

The generals who rule Myanmar have spies snooping around for subversives in the most unlikely places, such as a small music school in a rented house sandwiched between a Hindu temple and a broomstick factory.

It isn’t a renegade hip-hop crib, or a blue-hazed den of protesting folkies, just a small rehearsal hall of plywood and particleboard where children peck away at piano keys and a chorus of university students sings with enough heart to raise the low roof.

What riles the government is that the music school depends on foreign support, especially from a group of Yale University students and other American donors. Some of the generals’ enforcers suspect a dangerous plot.

After 45 years of military rule, that isn’t as weird as it sounds. Xenophobic propaganda is one of the ways the generals rally support and scare off dissent, so Myanmar’s people are bombarded with it. A billboard on a busy downtown street corner in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, declares: “Oppose those who rely on America, act as their stooges and hold negative views.”

This month, poet Saw Wai was arrested on suspicion of writing a coded anti-government message in a Valentine’s verse published in a popular entertainment weekly. In Burmese, the first character of each word spells out: “Power crazy Senior General Than Shwe,” referring to the military government’s leader.

The students at the Gitameit, or “Music Friends,” school take their direction from the more universal language of music. They studiously avoid politics, but that isn’t always enough to escape the probing eyes of the government.

Founded four years ago, the school is one of the few places, outside of a temple or church, where people can go to learn how to play a Western musical instrument or read music in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

Its students’ struggle is a lesson in the often bizarre lengths to which the generals will go to maintain their hold on power. But they’re not strong enough to stop music bringing people together, and giving them hope.

You can feel it walking up the front path, in the breeze of notes from four upright pianos, a baby grand, guitars and traditional instruments that drifts from the rehearsal rooms, where jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie look down from photocopied portraits taped to the walls.

When the school opened, neighbors told the students they wouldn’t last long. They were still going strong last year, and a few foreign visitors began dropping by, so intelligence agents started showing up. They reminded the students that Myanmar’s security laws hold them responsible for anything their foreign guests do, and if the outsiders strayed into politics, the locals would go to jail.

“Some people are using you for propaganda purposes,” the agents warned. “We’re going to watch your every move.”

There wasn’t all that much to see. A 9-year-old girl, with pudgy cheeks and an infectious smile, comes regularly for piano lessons. Young men and women, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims among them, spend hours each day focused on sheet music, coaxing melodies from the strings of guitars, violins and pianos.

Choir director U Moe Naing, 40, explained that the group members wanted to be good enough to perform for the public. They were working with foreign musicians and getting some experience by showing their talents to foreign music lovers, he told the agents.

Naing, a pianist who once studied to be a geologist, didn’t want trouble with the law. So he followed orders and reported weekly to the neighborhood intelligence agency office on any visitors and the school’s activities.

Yet the spies kept the heat on. They put a tail on Naing, showed his picture to people, interrogated his friends. They got especially pesky last May, when Naing’s choir held a concert with the Spizzwinks(?), an all-male a cappella group from Yale University. Twenty Yale singers were on a three-week tour of Southeast Asia, with a five-day stop in Myanmar, where a Yale graduate had been teaching at Gitameit.

An Ivy League glee club that hangs with the singing Whiffenpoofs wouldn’t have made it onto any watch list in most other countries. But 15 minutes before the performance, a captain from the dreaded Special Branch police came backstage to poke around, while 250 people sat in the audience. The singers’ butterflies morphed into terror that their show was about to be shut down as an anti-state activity.

“He threatened me, saying, ‘Maybe I’ll come back to take you away,’ ” Naing said. “I was really afraid.”

The captain demanded to know where the foreign singers were from, and when Naing replied they were U.S. university students, the cop asked whether that meant they were American.

Every answer only brought on another question, and it was getting uncomfortably close to curtain time, so Naing says he told the officer testily: “ ‘If you’d like to arrest us, OK. But please do it after the concert.’ He didn’t show up. Fortunately.”

And the show did go on, and the spies have kept their distance in recent months, but the music still doesn’t come easily. The students have too much to worry about -- like getting a job after graduating from college.

Since 1988, when troops massacred hundreds of demonstrators to crush student-led protests, the government has treated universities not as sources of higher education crucial to the country’s development, but as potential threats to its rule.

So the generals have reduced college campuses to facades. A typical university student in Myanmar takes classes by correspondence, never enters a library and attends class only for 10 days of cramming before exams.

Many of the Gitameit’s students were living life in a demoralized daze before they began making music for several hours each day.

Kit Young, an American volunteer who teaches at the music school, has asked university students what they do with themselves on an ordinary day, and usually the reply is: “Sleep,” she said. “Or they go out to tea shops with friends. They may go for some private tuition. There are exams only once a year -- and no classes.”

It’s frustrating for young people desperate to get ahead in a stagnating economy dominated by the generals and their cronies. And that’s the way the government likes things -- it doesn’t need intelligent people asking too many questions.

The government’s iron walls and harassment are very effective at keeping the country in the dark. To the surprise of Nathaniel Ganor, a 21-year-old Yale computer science major who sings with the Spizzwinks(?), the Myanmar students were so isolated they knew little about the United States. And they didn’t seem very curious to find out more.

“One evening, sitting around the dinner table at a restaurant, I asked the students at my table, ‘If you could visit America, what would you want to see?’ ” Ganor recalled. “One student looked at me strangely and said: ‘That’s ridiculous. I could never visit America. Besides, I have no idea what’s there.’ ”

Ganor decided he had to find a way to bring some of the Gitameit’s singers to the U.S., and his group is trying to raise $60,000 to fly 16 of them on a two-week tour, with stops in San Francisco; New Haven, Conn.; New York and Washington.

Naing often tells his singers that he plans to take them on tour. They laugh at him.

But the students gain strength from making music. Their choir is in constant demand in entertainment-starved Yangon, where they perform for diplomats, and at weddings and concerts. They refuse to be silenced by skeptics or thugs.

“For the country, I can’t do anything -- only this little thing,” Naing said. “The students arrive with little confidence, but I see a lot of leadership coming out. It’s really good to see.”