Kyaw Kyaw’s parents worried that he had become a drug addict and his neighbors thought he had gone mad when this 26-year-old Burmese youth dyed his hair blue, covered his body in tattoos and started wearing heavy black boots, studded leather jackets and Anarchist t-shirts.
But for Kyaw Kyaw and his friends Punk is much more than a fashion statement…it’s their way of fighting back against the military backed government, which took power in 2010 in the wake of what was widely considered a fraudulent election.
In the kitchen of Rebel Riots’ one-bedroom base camp, it’s nearly midnight – a risky time to be playing punk music.
Kyaw Kyaw tells the others to put more sheets over the metal drums and cymbals to try and muffle the sound…
They don’t want to attract attention. Burma is rapidly changing and old censorship laws have been relaxed but no one is sure where the new boundaries are and what might land you in prison.
In the base camp, 14 people live here communally.
The walls are covered with drawing of punk concerts, mohawked singers screaming into a microphone… in front of a wild crowd.
In another track the lyrics are… "No fear! No indecision! Rage against the system of the oppressors!" "Resistance!"
On the wall is a picture of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi next to the Russian group Pussy Riot.
“Daw Aung San Suu and punk! Pussy Riot also a punk music band. You know Pussy Riot band? From Russia? So they arrest pussy riot and Aung San Suu said free them. So we are very happy that Aung San Suu Kyi thinking about punk! We very surprised after the reading the news and we are very very thank-you Aung San Suu kyi….we are like a family around the world worry for our community.”
While Burma’s most famous face might be thinking about punk, the general public is not.
Kyaw Kyaw estimates there are only 200 punks in Rangoon– and when they moved into this area their neighbors were not impressed.
“Very different society because our society is very traditional rules they think that we are crazy. We are mad. We are little not good craziness. They don’t understand what they are.”
He then explains why he was interested in punk at the first place.
“Since I was young I wanted to be a radical person. I found out that punk is radical music and completely opposite to traditional Burmese culture.”
“Since I was in school I wanted to change the style of society since I was in school. I didn’t like the way people were lying to each other and I didn't like the corruption and misuse of of money. I noticed that when I was young and I didn’t like it. I want to change the style of society and I choose punk in order to do that.”
[Also read: Art as a Form of Protest in Burma]
I ask him, what was the first punk music that he ever heard?
“Sex Pistol! I heard the song Anarchy in the UK,” as he laughs. “I found a DVD on the streets and I was really happy…like a lottery win!”
However Kyaw Kyaw’s family was not impressed.
As we walk down to a local food stall to buy dinner for the group he starts to talk about his father who is a police officer.
“He is a police man,” he says, “but he is against the government. He doesn’t want to support the government but he has no choice.”
At first Kyaw Kyaw says his father was very shocked about his punk lifestyle but after he explained that he is working to improve society he understood and now they often discuss politics ….
“But he’s not really proud at me,” he laughs.
“Not proud because on one side he always worry. Worry for me…because I sometimes going to demonstration on the street…here demonstrations for people very dangerous so he worries for me.”
Kyaw Kyaw founded Rebel Riot in 2007, when the military junta cracked down on the so-called "Saffron Revolution" launched by Buddhist monks.
Thousands of anti-government demonstrators were arrested then, and soldiers were ordered to shoot upon their own people.
He is not impressed by the country's recent transfer of power to a civil government after almost five decades of military rule.
Because he says the new government is mostly made up of members of the former ruling junta,
“Firstly democracy is equal to capitalism. Also the Change is just a change in words not a real change. The gap between the rich and poor is widening and there is much to do on this front and I don’t think the name changes at the government level will or are doing anything about this.”
They spread their political views through clothes sold at their street stall.
The sign above the shop says “Resist, D.I.Y. do it yourself or die, no masters, no Gods”.
And this is what the members of Rebel Riot do each afternoon. They set up this shop that sells t-shirts with lots of studs and skulls on them, stencils and patches and piercings.
Some nights after they packed up the shop they hand out food parcels to homeless people.
“We always see everyday many poor people…homeless people, street kids and we thinking what we can share. We just say this is for you dinner.”
“They don’t care what we are. They say ‘thank-you we are very hungry.’ They don’t care what we look like they just hungry.”
Then I get curious. I ask him, how do you guys survive?
“We invite and share from our shop income but sometimes we have nothing to eat –so we are hungry sometimes… we not enough money sometimes.”
He says his parents often check on him and bring him food parcels telling him to eat more because he is too thin. They also worry about me getting bitten by mosques here at night he says….
“They love me very much,” he says.
Visit our photo gallery for Rebel Riot here.