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After decades of human rights abuses, Myanmar's generals have recently freed political prisoners, reduced censorship and held limited elections — prompting countries to lift sanctions. But a year-long GlobalPost investigation has found that protests, violence and cronyism are testing Myanmar's reforms — and tarnishing the reputation of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar rock mock stars copy tracks
Zaw Win Htut, aka the "Emperor" is among Myanmar's most popular rock stars. Like many, he became famous by singing plagiarized Western hits with Burmese lyrics — known as copy tracks. He has since recorded original music, and is often quoted as saying that playing copy tracks is like wearing someone else's shirt. (Thierry Falise/Getty Images)

Mock stars: Myanmar’s pop plagiarists

How a censored nation spawned an alternative rock ‘n’ roll reality.

YANGON, Myanmar — Imagine a game of “Name That Tune” with two metal heads as contestants.

One is from Myanmar, a Southeast Asian nation still shaking off totalitarian rule.

The other is from Florida.

Within six notes — and even after six beers — both could identify the iconic guitar intro to “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. It is, after all, the best-known riff by one of the most popular metal bands ever. But in Myanmar, the isolated nation formerly titled Burma, the song is known by an entirely different name: “Exits”by the square-jawed, tatted-up rocker Lay Phyu.

Who the hell is Lay Phyu, the Floridian head-banger might ask? Inside Myanmar, he’s the biggest rock star alive.

And like most musical acts in Myanmar, he rose to stardom by ripping off foreign hits note for note, subbing in Burmese lyrics and vocals and passing them off as wholly original to unsuspecting fans.

Many of whom might ask, “Who the hell is Metallica?”

In Myanmar, plagiarism isn’t a sporadic indulgence among top performers. It is the engine that drives the nation’s pop music industry. Turning on the radio is like wading into an alternate universe where Motley Crue, Coldplay and Lady Gaga have been abducted and forced to sing in Burmese, Myanmar’s national language. The phenomenon is so rampant that it has a name: “copy track.” (A song that’s actually original? That’s called “own tune.”)

“Of course, it’s stealing. But the general public has no idea,” said Diramore, a 39-year-old pop singer, composer and associate professor at Myanmar’s National University of Arts and Culture.

“They’ve never heard the song. So, to them, it’s a hit.”

Professional Plagiarists

Like many of Myanmar’s anomalies, copy tracks can be blamed on the domineering junta that has only recently relinquished direct control. Over the last five decades, when the military wasn’t crushing dissidents or squandering the nation’s wealth, it was struggling to quarantine the nation’s culture against outside influence. Until last year, all media circulated in Myanmar required approval from censorship panels eliminating content deemed revolutionary, salacious or even overtly foreign.

Under draconian cultural censorship, Western music was until recently only available via CDs or tapes smuggled in from abroad.

So just what happens when you isolate 60 million people and filter all of their entertainment through stuffy censors — all in a sonic landscape unfettered by copyright laws?

You spawn a musical platypus, the “copy track,” a genre that defies easy description. It is not a tribute or cover song; the original composer is rarely acknowledged. It is not a wholesale theft; the lyrics, at least, are original and occasionally quite poetic.

Like 1960s singer Pat Boone, who churned out milquetoast covers of soul records for white America, the copy track industry revamps foreign hits with vanilla-sweet, censor-friendly Burmese lyrics.

The copy track genre is deeply endemic to Myanmar’s music scene. For the first concert by an international artist in decades — an MTV-backed, US embassy-endorsed performance by Jason Mraz in December — the promoters assembled the Myanmar’s biggest stars: Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein, R Zarni and Sai Sai.

Vocal talent aside, all could be fairly describe as professional plagiarists. Between the three, their careers rest on hits pilfered from Celine Dion, Bob Marley, Nickelback and Evanescence to name only a few. (Rapper Sai Sai is also Coca-Cola’s “brand ambassador” in Myanmar.)

Myanmar is currently experiencing joyous upheaval: The junta is defunct, a quasi-democratic parliament is in power, pre-censorship has ended, investors arrive in droves and the internet is largely free of restrictions. Described as an “outpost of tyranny” by the US State Department in 2005, it is now hailed by Barack Obama as a nation ready to “set a great example to the world.”

Yet artists like Diramore fear that, as outsiders peer into Myanmar, copy tracks will project an image of creative bankruptcy. “These copiers don’t need to know about arrangement or music theory. They just steal,” Diramore said. “I never have and never will do a copy track. My conscience is clean.”

Trapped in Myanmar

Wunna Kyaw’s conscience is not so clean.

The 35-year-old Yangon commercial producer has a confession: Two years ago, he ripped off an ABBA song and used it as the sound track to a breast enlargement cream ad.

The song