For when Myanmar, already emerging from a crippling national COVID crisis, was placed under siege by a barbaric military coup, it wasn’t the government that came to help, nor was it the West. It was the punks.
Though they openly resonate with the term ‘band’, and indeed release music, perform shows and undertake many of the other traditional tasks of a musical act, The Rebel Riot are far more than that. They’re a movement that’s saved thousands since the military junta began in February 2021, and indeed, thousands in the years prior. As well as the music and the shows, The Rebel Riot established Food Not Bombs, Books Not Bombs and most recently, a free medical clinic.
Here at Blunt Magazine we discuss at length the immutable power of punk rock, but even The Rebel Riot are outliers, in that their movement transcends speakers and the studio; it’s spilled out onto the streets. Speaking with frontman Kyaw Kyaw was as eye-opening as it was inspiring. And if this story – this situation – feels particularly scary, take some reassurance from KK himself: “It is scary.”
“I’m scared they’ll arrest me or they’ll kill me. But, I’m more scared to be a slave in their system…Maybe tomorrow I will die, or tomorrow I will be arrested. But every day, we are the winner, because we do what we really believe in. Even if I’m arrested today, yesterday I did what I believe, so if I go to prison, I can think about what I did yesterday. I’m ready to die. So, tomorrow, I will do it again.”
Like many punks who have risen up and raged against the machine in the past, KK explains that as a youth, “Before finding punk, the revolution was already on my mind.”
“I didn’t know anything about politics, because we lived in a military regime for so long. We have no pro-democracy TV channel, it’s only brainwashed TV about the military. When I was young, I had no chance to learn anything. But, we know why the country is so poor. We know why people are silent. We have no human rights. I know that. I know the military system is very bad, and democracy is good. This is what I know.”
But before long, having endured through the insufferable trends of glam metal, and Scorpions bootlegs pumped by friends, KK began to find the sound for his state of mind, beginning with Linkin Park. “They’re not singing, they’re just shouting,” he explains of the resonance of their music. “And then I found Slipknot…” And, well, we all know what happens when you find Slipknot – there’s no going back.
In the years following, KK would gravitate to a social group of like-minded musicians. But it was in 2007, amidst the wave of economic and political protests named ‘The Saffron Revolution’, that KK and his friends would be pulled into the world of life-threatening activism.
“We were part of a demonstration,” KK recalls. “I saw the soldiers shooting the demonstrators. Lots of people died on the street. I heard gunshots for the first time.”
KK and his bandmates were already scared at that point, but after witnessing the massacre, a new emotion arose. “Now,” he says referring to the demonstrations, “I’m also angry.”
“So I meet with my friends, ‘Guys, what should we do? Lots of people are dying…’ I’m not brave enough to go on the streets. I don’t want to die by a bullet. We should do something. What do we do?”
And so they officially formed The Rebel Riot, using English words they weren’t all too familiar with, but that carried the ethos of the band: “We fight for freedom, we fight for justice.”
For KK, looking around him as his country continued to decline, it still wasn’t enough. “We’re only singing. We have no movement yet. We want to do something for the people. We want to fight the system.”
Then, during a brief week-long headlining tour throughout neighbouring Indonesia, a chance encounter with the founder of the local chapter of non-governmental organisation Food Not Bombs gave them the opportunity they needed to help in their country. “So, we made the Food Not Bombs Myanmar movement in 2013. The first time, we cooked fried rice or fried noodles for the homeless people, and then around 20 people or 30 people. Not so much.”
KK recalls a somewhat clunky start to the project, given that the homeless and rough livers of Mynamar weren’t quite accustomed to approaching hordes of denim jacket-clad, mohawk-wearing, stretched-ear punks…
“It was very funny,” he laughs. “The first week we tried to give food to the homeless people…They ran away when they saw us! They thought we [were] against them, that we wanted to fight them…I said, ‘No, no, no, brother, please wait. This is food for your dinner.’ They didn’t trust us. ‘Are you sure?’ They asked, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is good, please try.’
“These days,” KK adds, “when they see a punk, they’re happy. Every Monday night, we cook…”
“[At first] we didn’t make much political music, but we were shouting because we had the trauma of this revolution. So we needed to let our anger out. We were just singing punk songs about how we’re sick of this society. But I think 2012 or 2010 we started writing about politics; about the system, and how people are so poor. And also we criticise the monarch.”
Helping not just the homeless or cripplingly disadvantaged, Food Not Bombs, and its 2015 offshoot Books Not Bombs, also supports the children impacted by poverty and the junta. That’s of key importance to The Rebel Riot and as such, the true impact of their work won’t be known for decades – not until this entire generation of children now with access to education, health care, meals and fun have grown up.
There’s an unmistakable sense of pride beaming from KK. “Revolution is my relaxing,” he says when quizzed on when he takes his downtime, having only taken the Zoom call moments after returning from a Monday night cook. There’s victory in the air, which might seem at odds with everything above. But still, it’s there, and KK feels it too. The military may have the power, the guns and the money, but they’re still losing.
“Revolutionary people are like a fire,” KK explains of this. “The military people are like a darkness. The universal truth is, the fire is always beating the darkness. This is my philosophy.”
That said, the fight is far from over, and all of us have a part to play. Australians and those around the world can directly make a contribution, as KK explains.
“Honestly, right now, money is very important. We had the COVID crisis last year, then the military coup happened. Our country is one of the poorer countries in the world, so people are getting down and down and down. So this is, I think, very important: we need lots of money. You don’t need to donate to our group, also you can donate to other groups.”
As well as amplification: “We need more to speak up.”
Well, you heard the man.