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Myanmar, where song is a source of suspicion

January 30, 2008|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

YANGON, MYANMAR — 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.

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