Unleashing a metal-punk ferocity and drum pounding that crushes a person's ears, Rebel Riot is a band that combines a compassion for change and justice with brash loudness in a Buddhist culture known for its quiet religiosity but also for its social strife, political upheaval, military takeovers, and repression of minorities. They make a dark, agonizing, defiant, and brooding music that attempts to remake their imperfect corner of the world one loud note at a time. They also act as an informal, DIY civil society bringing together queer youths and the poor, union agitators and everyday people in shopping centers. Though they look like Defiance, they act like visionaries who go well beyond studded jackets, patches, and mohawks.
Interview with singer Kyaw by David Ensminger.
For years, punks have been fighting the takeover by generals in Myanmar, the repression of democracy, and the slaughter of Rohingyas. Could you explain why punks find such issues so important?
Because we believe punk is fighting against all oppression and injustice all over the world. We stand for humanity, freedom, social justice, and peace. That's why these issues are so important for us.
So, some people have borrowed signs of resistance, like raising three fingers, from the Hunger Games, plus use red and black flags, which have been used historically in your country but also by anarchists and leftists worldwide. Do you think such visual symbols, like red balloons, are important in the age of social media -- do they inspire hope and change?
After the coup happened, I could see a lot of Anarchists and Leftists getting stronger than before. New young people are also very interested in Anarchism and what is the red flag, black flag, red and black together, and what is three fingers, etc... I believe they are very important in the age of social media because we learn all of the information from social media and things we share, like the ideologies, news, actions, etc... Most things also inspire hope and change for our new young people.
You live in a society known for its long-lasting commitment to being polite and quiet, unlike the West, where punk was linked to streets protests in the 1960s-1970s and bands like MC5, and labor fights before that period too. Does punk have a link to prior movements in Yangon or in other parts of Myanmar, like the 2007 Saffron Revolution?
Yeah of course, we are a part of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the 2015 student strike, and other protests too. Also, Feb 5th. We are the first protestors in Yangon against the junta with Three Fingers salute. You can check out the press link in the LA Times, please.
The band is like a small community, and you are directly linked to efforts like Food Not Bombs and helping the homeless. Why is going beyond making music so important? Why does punk mean going beyond loud guitars and screaming vocals?
We live in a crazy world with all the bullshit around: Oppressive systems, Injustice, Racism, Sexism, and so much discrimination, etc. That's why we need to scream and shout about what we hate with the loud music. And at the same time, we need to show what we stand for and what we love. So, for me, music is very important to release our anger and to show who we are. Also, music can unite people together. That's why music is very important for us.
The resistance, from what I understand, brings together many types of people, like Queer and LGBTI people, and those who even dress up in cosplay, as superheroes etc. And many people tend to be young. Do you think your music speaks to them, or about them, or is it meant for a punk audience?
Our music is not only for the punk audience. We stand for all minority people like Queer and LGBTI people, worker unions, sex workers, leftist people, and all alternative young people. ALSO, for the racist, sexist, homophobic, and religious extremism people too. But, for them our lyrics are just, "Fuck you all!!!" Thus, I can say, our music is for all people. Lol!!
Do you have any faith in the National League for Democracy, or do you think a young people's political party needs to rise up and restore faith in government?
I used to support them a lot. But, after I've seen that they are not strong enough to fight for a Military dictatorship, I don't believe in them anymore. Also, one thing I hate is they are very close with them and have the same oppression towards the Rohingya people and other ethnic groups. I don't see so much that they really stand for the people under oppression. Yeah, we need new political things with young people: no more old people who really don't understand what young people want and minority people need.
Henry Rollins, who has visited Myanmar, told Al Jazeera that he believes bands like you and Pussy Riot in Russia are truth-tellers that resist cruel, outdated authority and have risked more harassment than Black Flag in Los Angeles during the early 1980s. How does that make you feel?
Yeah, Henry Rollins was right. In our country, the political situation is very different. It is more risky than other countries. In the demonstration, they are not only beating and arresting the people on the street. They are shooting real bullets at the crew of demonstrations. It's so crazy. We have no human rights at all. I'm so happy that he supports us because of Black Flag is one of our favorite bands, and we are inspired a lot by them. When I listen Black Flag, I get so much energy from their music. I also really appreciate what he talks about us. Thank you, Henry!!!
The dual male-female vocals and heavy sound remind me at times of bands like Nausea; did any bands inspire your sound or style?
Actually not, for the male-female vocals ideas are coming from Pestpocken, a band from Germany. This band inspires us for dual vocals between male and female.
You are actually soft-spoken in person, people say, so does singing help make you feel empowered, larger, more confident?
Yeah, I feel empowered, larger and more confident when I sing. When I was young. I didn't know who I was and what I wanted. I didn't see myself. After I found punk rock, I saw who I am and what I really want. I found myself from Punk. Punk rock saved my life and now I am living truly with myself. That kind of music gives me a lot of energy and more confidence. Not only does singing help me, but also listening too.
Some of the bands' friends have been arrested, and a reggae singer too. Does that kind of suppression change the way you communicate, promote gigs, and network your songs?
Yeah, it has changed a lot after the coup. We have no more space for secret gigs because they are checking everywhere. So, to organize gigs is not possible right now. We change online platforms to communicate each other. Normally, we use to contact each other with phone calls, SMs. Facebook messages, or email, etc. But those are not secured during this time. That's why we are using other apps like Signal or Telegram to contact each other. For the songs, we are still using Bandcamp, Facebook, Spotify, etc.....
Disobedience seems to have several types in the country music, like Kabar Ma Kyay Bu, and your band too: strikes, walk-outs, and work stoppages; and protests, whether union/student/teacher rallies or banging pots at night to get rid of evil spirits or the military junta. Do you feel that such combined energies will eventually create a victory for democracy?
Absolutely. I think this is a very important point. I believe that the revolution has two layers. They are the Destroying part and the Creation part, which are very important. We must destroy what we really hate, like Fascism, Racism, Sexism, and all discriminatory ideologies. Second layer is Creation: creating what we love and what we lost during the coup. So, music and other creations are very important in the revolution. And I feel that such combined energies will eventually create a victory for democracy!!!