Myanmar culture evolves despite junta's tight grip
YANGON (Reuters) - With their bold outfits, sharp dance moves and hip hop rhythms, Myanmar's "Tiger Girls" shatter the usual image of Burmese women and hint at social change in one the world's most authoritarian states.
Their growing following among Myanmar's youth after forming just eight months ago illustrates how popular culture is finding a way to flourish in Myanmar, where the first election in two decades next month is widely seen as rigged to consolidate army rule.
But their success also points to the limitations of art under a military junta.
Making it in Myanmar takes more than popular songs. It involves eschewing obvious political themes, and accepting constant interference and censorship by the authorities.
"Stop talking and start dancing," sings Wei Hnin Khine, better known to her fans as "Tricky," in one Tiger Girls song. "Use your hips, not your lips."
Female singers in the former Burma are traditionally more conservative and cautious, seldom veering from well-worn romantic ballads. Outfits are carefully layered to prevent glimpses of too much skin. Lyrics, almost always in Burmese, are less overtly Western influenced.
Not so the Tiger Girls.
While there's nothing obviously political or subversive about Tricky, Baby, Chilli, Electro and Missy rehearsing in a studio in the commercial capital Yangon, or performing on stage, the mere act of challenging conventions is rare in a country mired in a cultural slumber brought about by 48 years of military rule.
They're also not alone. Hip hop artist Thxa Soe is testing other limits. His most recent album saw nine of 12 songs banned by Myanmar's army-run censorship board.
And in the galleries of the commercial capital Yangon, art exhibitions, some with risky hidden political messages, are opening with greater frequency.
"We're still trying to find our way," said Htike Htike, the Tiger Girl who goes by the name Electro. "Some fans do not understand the road we're taking."
After advertising for singers and dancers to join the Tiger Girls in Yangon, their Australian manager, Nicole May, picked the final five out of about 100 who auditioned.
They started working together in February and made their debut in April at an outdoor music festival where a crowd of thousands at first didn't know what to make of the young women whose lyrics fused English and Burmese in rhythms heavily influenced by American hip hop.
"The crowd didn't know to what to think because the Tiger Girls are a very new concept for a girl band in Myanmar," said May. "Hopefully these Tiger Girls can be role models for other Myanmar youth."
Yangon-based cartoonist Aw Pi Kye turns to self-censorship to survive the junta's strict rules.
"We've been doing this for a long time and are aware of the obstacles, so you automatically censor yourself at the start of an idea. It's not good," he said.
Artists in authoritarian states have long tested political boundaries, and repression and censorship often add to the cache for the overseas audience.
Paintings with political undertones from China, for instance, have been fetching millions at auctions abroad, while edgy films that are invariably banned by nervous Communist censors frequently win wide acclaim overseas.
In Myanmar, jokes, plays and cartoons were used to push social change during British colonial rule from 1824 to 1948.
In the 1980s under the oppressive dictatorship of Ne Win, university magazines carried poems and illustrations with veiled political statements, a practice that was later halted.
Today, every song, book, cartoon and planned piece of art requires approval by censors rooting out political messages and criticisms of Myanmar's authoritarian system.
Yet there are some who push those boundaries such as Thxa Soe, the 30-year-old hip hop artist whose songs regularly face the censors' wrath.
Known and criticized for updating traditional music, he was not allowed to sing "Water, Electricity, Please Come Back," a sensitive topic in a country known for regular blackouts.
Fans routinely try to interpret rock icon Lay Phyu's songs as having political undertones.
One of his album titles was seen as an oblique reference to detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and fans believe his absence from live shows in the past was a result of a ban.
"The Burmese are smart and savvy," said Chaw Ei Thein, an exiled artist based in New York. "They're very good at reading between the lines."
The number of art galleries in Yangon has doubled from a few years ago to about 90, some featuring subtly political artwork.
One female artist, who asked not to be identified, said she wanted to use birds made of newspapers in a work of installation art in Yangon because "the people's voice is not heard in the papers." The censors scrapped the newspaper idea.
Instead, she painted the birds in revolutionary red.
(Reporting by Reuters in Yangon and Bangkok)
(Writing by Martin Petty and Jason Szep)