Punks in Yangon handing out food to the city’s homeless. Photos by Charlotte Bauer
13 July – Every Monday night, a group of black-clad, silver-studded punks meet beneath the overpass bridge that crosses Sule Pagoda Road in downtown Yangon, to distribute food to people living on the streets. On the evening VICE attended, even after the torrential monsoon rain had turned gutters into rivers, about 30 punks and hangers-on had gathered to help combat Yangon’s rising homelessness crisis.
Given the big turnout, we were split into two groups before making our way around the city, handing out meals of fried rice, bananas, and bottled water. The meals, which the punks cook themselves, are financed by donations. The night before, the group had been given a 50,000 Burmese kyat donation, about $44 US, which helped fund this evening’s supplies. Meals differ from week to week, and often clothing is also distributed.
Punk band Rebel Riot runs the food program. Image by Jirka Pasz
This project is the Burmese chapter of Food Not Bombs. It’s been running for three years now, led by members of local punk band Rebel Riot. The worldwide Food Not Bombs movement involves volunteers providing vegetarian meals to people in need. It was established in the States in 1980 and has an antipoverty and nonviolence ethos. The Yangon group is in contact with the main movement, albeit with “different opinions and directions.”
“I realized I had to do something, rather than just sing about changing the system,” said Kyaw Kyaw, a singer and guitarist in the band. He believes the current government has no understanding of the plight of the city’s homeless, whose numbers are growing. “Big companies come to Myanmar to make business, so it’s more and more expensive for land, homes, and flats, especially in Yangon, because it’s a major city.”
The November 2010 general elections ended almost 50 years of international isolation due to the military junta rule. Since then, the country has increasingly opened up to direct foreign investment—indeed, the country’s first KFC opened its doors the following day, just a few blocks from where we met.
This foreign investment is fueling a property boom in Yangon. In 2014, residential tenants were paying up to 60 percent more rent than they were two years prior, while the price of land had risen by 50 percent over the same period.
As rents soar, more families are losing their homes. Some are forced out onto the streets, others seek shelter provided by Buddhist monasteries, while others still have had to relocate to satellite towns.
The punks estimate they help around 80 to 100 people a night. During the evening’s food distribution walk, it was hard to find the homeless people, as they were sheltering from the downpour. Some lived under the bridge, while others stayed in shelters propped up against walls. But those we did come across, both elderly and young, openly expressed their appreciation.
One of the punks feeding a hungry dog.
However, the punks’ undertaking did not always run so smoothly. “The homeless people thought we were different because of the color of our hair. They told us to go away and ran away at first,” Kyaw Kyaw told me. “But now they know we’re good people.”
But it’s not only the changing opinions of the homeless that has allowed the Burmese Food Not Bombs project to operate. The 2010 elections, which established a partial democracy and a semi-civilian government, have led to greater freedoms. Prior to these elections groups of five people or more were not allowed to gather on the street. And punks themselves had to remain underground and could even be jailed.
According to Kyaw Kyaw, a sailor from Burma introduced punk music to the oppressed youth of Yangon in 1997. After traveling the world, this sailor returned to his home city with albums by 80s hardcore punk groups like Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and Crass. This was the impetus for the initial underground network of punks and bands that evolved.
But it wasn’t until the Saffron Revolution broke out in 2007 that a second wave of punk hit Yangon. The Saffron Revolution occurred when tens of thousands of people, led by Buddhist monks, protested in Yangon and cities around the country against the repressive military rule.
The protests were sparked by the government’s decision to remove fuel subsidies, which caused a 66 percent increase in petrol prices, a 500 percent increase in natural gas, and a spike in the price of food.
Eventually the military junta violently quashed the movement, but it was the spirit of this rebellion that inspired a number of punk bands, like Rebel Riot, to start performing. These early gigs were illegal and had to be held in secret.
Today, punk bands like Rebel Riot and Side Effect can perform more freely around the city, but they still need permission from the authorities and there is always the threat of being shut down by police. Making things more difficult is the fact some bands have to rent their gear because they cannot afford to buy it outright.
The lyrics of Yangon’s punk music is often politically motivated with titles like “Fuck Religious Rules.” They deal with the human rights violations and harsh living conditions people suffer in Burma in everyday life.
Toward the end of our walk, Kyaw Kyaw approached an elderly woman lying in a makeshift plastic tent on the side of the road. He explained that she has only one hand, so has difficulty in caring for herself. And for this reason, they always visit her during their rounds.
“This government doesn’t know what these people need,” Kyaw Kyaw said. He holds little hope for the coming November general election, as he believes all the parties are still controlled by the military. “Eventually I want to make a change for all street people. To find out what they want and need, and help them to get it.”