Once known as a rebel rapper with a penchant for electric guitars and dragon tattoos, Zayar Thaw now aims to be an agent of change as a parliamentarian in the stronghold of the Myanmar army that threw him in jail.
The 31-year-old is a rising star in Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which made a dramatic comeback in April elections after two decades in the political wilderness, becoming the main opposition force in parliament.
The by-elections came amid sweeping changes in the country formerly known as Burma after decades of outright military rule ended last year.
Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has surprised even its critics with a string of reforms such as releasing hundreds of political prisoners and welcoming the opposition back into mainstream politics.
Former political prisoner Zayar Thaw, perhaps Myanmar’s most unlikely member of parliament, was among four NLD candidates elected in the capital Naypyidaw — a victory seen as humiliating for the military-backed regime.
“You’re very young, you’re a hip-hop artist and you’re an ex-prisoner. How can you be an MP?” he told AFP in an interview in his Yangon apartment. “That’s something I hear quite a lot.”
But it is precisely these qualities that may have propelled the dissident rapper into the corridors of power — and onto the global stage.
He is part of a small entourage accompanying Suu Kyi on a historic tour of Europe, the first since she returned to her homeland in 1988 to care for her sick mother and went on to play a leading role in the democratic movement.
The trip is taking her to five European nations including Norway, where she on Saturday formally accepted the Nobel Prize that thrust her into the international limelight two decades ago.
Zayar Thaw, one of the pioneers of Burmese rap, co-founded one of the country’s first hip-hop bands called ACID, which became a household sensation a decade ago thanks to its lyrics — often laced with anti-regime sentiment.
The band sometimes circumvented the country’s notorious censors — who vet every piece of commercial music for subversive content — by circulating bootlegged copies of songs recorded in underground studios or performing in private stage shows.
When it comes to looks, Zayar Thaw is not your average rapper. He appears bookish and bespectacled, usually in a crisp shirt and traditional wraparound longyi.
He does, however, sport dragon tattoos all over his arms and legs.
But his favourite tattoo is embossed on his back: a full-sized map of Myanmar with a large microphone in the middle, which he says symbolises the country’s quest for greater democratic freedoms.
The walls of his apartment in downtown Yangon, the former capital, are festooned not with posters of bald punk artists, but life-size images of Suu Kyi — his “real life hero”.
He says it is she who helped him survive three years in prison — a large part in dank isolation where “you could never tell whether it was night or day”.
After a 2007 uprising led by Buddhist monks, a rebellion brutally crushed by the military, Zayar Thaw organised “Generation Wave” — an underground network comprising dozens of artists who used hip-hop, poetry and street graffiti to express their disaffection with the then military regime.
One anti-regime song, which repeatedly denounced “murderers”, was uploaded by the group on YouTube with the following lyrics:
“We will never change, never give up, never surrender / We will continue to fight until they disappear / We will come out in full force in every tomorrow / Let’s dare to say the truth.”
He was arrested along with his comrades and sentenced to six years in prison in 2008 but was released in May last year in an amnesty.
“When I was in prison, I would think to myself ‘if the lady can survive so many years under house arrest — away from her sons, her husband — why can’t I?'” he said, referring to Suu Kyi.
“When I got out and finally met her she said ‘don’t let your sacrifices go in vain. The party, the country needs young people like you’.”
And that’s when the quest began for a parliamentary seat vacated by Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, regarded as a key figure in the government’s hardline faction.
But it was no mean feat to win in his stronghold of Naypyidaw — an army-dominated enclave north of Yangon rumoured to have been built on the advice of an astrologer after former junta chief General Than Shwe feared a popular uprising or foreign invasion of the former capital.
Naypyidaw – described by one observer as a cross between “Xanadu and Legoland” — has been Myanmar’s administrative capital since 2005, boasting Stalinist-style buildings, imposing sculptures of bygone kings, wide boulevards and colour-coded apartment blocks.
But surrounding the island of opulence is a sea of poverty.
The 70-plus farming villages that make up Zayar Thaw’s constituency are plagued by hundreds of cases of alleged land grabs by regime-backed companies, which he says has exacerbated mass unemployment.
These people, he said, “view me not as a rapper but as their only hope”.
His immediate focus is to wade through the country’s bureaucratic system to help villagers get their properties back.
But he concedes his party neither has the arithmetic strength in the military-dominated parliament nor the governance experience to effect real change yet.
For that to happen it will have to repeat its by-election triumph at the next general election in 2015 — and push the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party out of power.
Since winning his seat he says development projects such as roads and rural electrification in some areas of his constituency have been discontinued by the government, fuelling concerns among voters that they are being punished for favouring the NLD.
“The party is looked upon as a messiah that will transform Myanmar,” he said. “But it’s hard to tell people that the struggle is just beginning — change will be slow and it won’t happen overnight.”
Photo of Zayar Thaw via AFP