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From rapper to Myanmar lawmaker

Once jailed for his anti-junta music, Zayar Thaw is now changing politics from within

Suu Kyi protege Zayar Thaw is a rapper-turned lawmaker in Myanmar. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

YANGON -- Myanmar's parliament building, constructed by the former military junta in capital city Naypyitaw, is so gorgeous it could be mistaken for a palace. The lawmakers attending sessions there have become more diverse along with progress in democratization in the country. They include former physicians, as well as lawyers and business executives. But none of them has a more unusual background than Zayar Thaw. The 35-year-old member of parliament was formerly a rap singer.

He ran in the 2015 general election from a constituency in the capital. With military personnel and civil servants making up most of the residents of the planned city, to which the capital was moved in 2006, the constituency was looked upon as a stronghold of political parties affiliated with the former military government. Nonetheless, Zayar Thaw won the election, beating a rival candidate who was a senior member of the government and a former commander of the air force. His victory epitomized the rise to power of the Aung San Suu Kyi-headed National League for Democracy party, which was a turning point in the history of Myanmar.

"There were strong expectations for change," he said. Delegated by Suu Kyi to negotiate with the United Nations, Zayar Thaw has emerged as a possible national leader in the future.

Zayar Thaw formed a hip-hop group in 1998 at age 17, when he was a high-school student. Hip-hop music was not yet popular in Myanmar, with rock 'n' roll at its zenith. He had no intention to include any political messages in his songs, but just "wrote my dreams and hopes in the lyrics," he said. But his debut album, which included a song with the lyrics, "People for me and I for people," topped the charts by appealing to teenagers who were chafing under military rule. It was deemed anti-establishment and banned by the junta.

But he was fully aware of what he was doing in 2007. That year, the military crushed anti-government demonstrations led by monks. (Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai was killed covering the uprising.) Outraged by the brutality, Zayar Thaw "took action, driven by emotions, not reason," he said. He created an underground organization and sold under the counter a CD of his songs criticizing the military regime. He and his colleagues also went around putting up stickers saying "CNG," which could be taken to mean "compressed natural gas" but was intended to stand for "Change Now Government." He was arrested and imprisoned in 2008.

While he was in prison serving a six-year sentence, he heard a Suu Kyi speech, and one line especially -- "Stand up on your own feet if you want to change the status quo" -- resonated with him. Suu Kyi made the remark in a meeting she attended during her temporary release from house arrest by the military government. Zayar Thaw received an amnesty after the country shifted to civilian rule in 2011. He joined the NLD, and after winning a parliamentary by-election in 2012, he was picked as a member of the party's central committee.

A wave of democratization has swept Asian countries including Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand, after a spark was lit in the Philippines in 1986. In Myanmar, a massive pro-democracy movement spearheaded by Suu Kyi took place in 1988 but the drive fell through, and suppression by the military left thousands of people dead.

The "88 Generation" activists, who took the initiative in the democratization movement, were mostly in prison as political dissidents, so they had a hard time fostering a new generation of pro-democracy activists. "We had no opportunity to learn from our predecessors. We needed to fill a gap," said Zayar Thaw. With Suu Kyi herself facing criticism for turning a blind eye to human rights violations against Muslim minorities, Win Htein, 75, the No. 2 leader of the NLD, predicted it would take a decade for democracy to take hold in Myanmar.

There has been a backlash forming in some Asian countries that democratized earlier, highlighted by the return of military rule in Thailand and the heavy-handed behavior of the president in the Philippines. Thirty years after Asia embarked on democratization, the region confronts the need for the whole society, where the population of young people is expanding, to reconfirm the value of democracy. The political regime in Asia is reaching another crossroads.

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