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Myanmar: Hip-hop's revolution

With elections at the end of the year, Generation Wave is producing politically subversive music.

MAE SOT, Thailand — Behind the rusty prison bars, two men lie on the floor in light blue fatigues. A stream of light pours in through a small window near the top of their cell. All is still.

Suddenly, loud music begins to blare. The men leap up and clang their iron shackles as smoke drifts into their cell. They start singing against a heavy beat: “Never turn back, never give up.”

Despite appearances, these men are not criminals and they are not in prison — at least not in a literal sense.

9KT and MK are famous Myanmar hip-hop artists on the set of their latest music video, "Never Give Up." Donning black masks and using pseudonyms, these musicians aim to keep their political tunes under the radar of a dictatorship as oppressive as Myanmar, formerly called Burma.

“We wanted to film in a prison cell in order to represent for all our members and friends who are now behind bars,” said 9KT, arranging his mask on the set of the music video. “We are trying to tell the government, even if they imprison us they cannot stop us fighting for freedom; we will always carry on.”

“We are telling the people that they shouldn’t give up,” he said. “Burmese youth can’t be afraid of the Burmese junta, they need to fight for freedom in our country.”

Watch a draft of the "Never Give Up" music video:

Already a prominent hip-hop artist in Myanmar, 9KT grew inspired to make more subversive songs when he heard the political hip-hop of refugees from his country in Australia. He wanted to similarly address the extreme suffering he saw around him.

He traveled to Mae Sot, Thailand, near the Myanmar border, more than a year ago. The area has for more than two decades played host to an array of organizations opposing the Myanmar junta.

There, he joined up with an underground political group called Generation Wave (GW). He later met MK through GW, and they immediately found common ground in their love for music and the desire to “wake up the youth.” In Mae Sot, they can produce their music with relative safety, away from the police presence in Yangon, Myanmar's capital.

GW itself was formed after the "Saffron Revolution" in September 2007 when rising fuel prices provoked thousands of monks to take to the streets in protest. Civilians joined the movement, but the military junta cracked down, leaving hundreds dead and thousands imprisoned.

Following the crackdown, a group of protesters, who had been friends since high school, started GW as a way to inspire new activists inside Myanmar. Having analyzed revolutions worldwide and the opposition movement in their country they decided to focus on non-violent resistance.

In two and half years, the group has carried out what they call “action campaigns” almost every week. Their main activities include anti-government graffiti in busy places, handing out pamphlets and writing and distributing political music.

“The youth of Burma have seen so many activists thrown behind bars, they have seen monks killed in the streets, so many are turning their back to the struggle for human rights,” said Min Yan Naing, founder of GW. “Our job and aim is to bring them back and make them feel the responsibility to change our country and better the lives for all Burmese people.”

Just association with GW risks a hefty prison sentence. Thirty GW members have been arrested. Nyie Chan was handed the longest sentence, 32 years, and is said to be suffering from severe stomach problems in Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison near Yangon.