Myanmar Protest Songs as a Solidarity Tool Towards Justice, and Democracy


This paper explores the role of protest songs as a tool for solidarity in Myanmar’s pursuit of justice and democracy, mainly focusing on the protest songs of the 1988 revolution and the 2021 Spring Revolution triggered by a military coup. The paper also delves into the impact of protest songs, examining their historical context, evolution, and influence on the Generation Z-led movements, and uncovers the stories behind protest songs at the same time, highlighting their role as powerful narratives reflecting the tragedies faced by the people. It points out the fusion of Myanmar tradition, culture, and protest songs. Furthermore, the paper explores the global impact of Myanmar’s protest songs, emphasizing how international collaborations demonstrate a shared empathy for Myanmar’s struggle for democracy. 


Myanmar Protest Songs as a Solidarity Tool Towards Justice, and Democracy


Protest songs are powerful tools for advocating social justice and equality carrying a message within the songs for the people who listen to them. Myanmar, named a developing country in 2011, has faced many social challenges such as poverty, economic collapse, and climate change (Engvall & Engvall, 2023). On February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military initiated a coup that has awakened large civil uprisings in different regions of the country, intensified ongoing conflicts, and taken many citizens’ lives. In response, citizens including musicians also took part in the Myanmar revolution. Protest songs became a solidarity tool in motivating the social movements of the Myanmar Spring Revolution through Generation Z’s attempts to gain international recognition, and connections with Myanmar tradition, culture, and historical figures. This paper will examine the historical context of Myanmar, popular protest songs in both 1988 and 2021, Generation Z in protest songs, the stories behind the songs, the relationship between protest songs and Myanmar tradition, and international collaboration between artists in the 2021 Myanmar spring revolution. 



Historical Context

After gaining independence from the British government, the Tatmadaw (Military) took control of the government in 1862 through a coup (MacLachlan, 2023). Unfortunately, this regime turned into a dictatorship, which has contributed to Myanmar’s many development challenges. Under the military’s control, the country has faced many cases of human rights violations  (MacLachlan, 2023).

For many years, the country was ruled by the military resulting in the coups in 1958, 1962, and 1988 (International Crisis Group, 2021). During the 2021 Covid pandemic, the Myanmar military overthrew the elected government of Myanmar and took over the country again. In response to the military’s numerous coups and human rights violations, the Myanmar people have resisted in many different ways including through art movements. 

Moreover, Aung San Suu Kyi who headed the National League for Democracy (NLD) Party had been detained first by the military (Ives & Stevens, 2022). The 2021 spring revolution is the most extensive and enduring civil rights movement in the history of Myanmar accompanied by the protest songs of musicians including professionals and amateurs. Furthermore, protest songs have emerged since 1988 uprising movements, for example, “Kabarmakyaybu” (Until The End Of The World) is very popular today and was sung again in the 2021 coup. Additionally, many protest songs representing Generation Z also emerged during the 2021 spring revolution. 



Popular Protest Songs in both 1988 and 2021 

Comparing protest songs in 1988 and 2021, the biggest difference may be that, many protest songs have been translated into and sung in many languages during the 2021 revolution. During the 1988 uprising movements, Naing Myanmar’s song, “Kabarmakyaybu” was a key national anthem at the time. The song is a copy thachin, which refers to a Burmese-language song that borrows the melody and harmonies from a foreign-language track, often an English hit song; in this instance, the copied song was “Dust in the Wind” by the American band, Kansas (MacLachlan, 2023). “Kabarmakyaybu” went viral internationally in the 2021 revolution as a response to the military coup. In other words, protest songs of the 2021 spring revolution have gained global attention and international reach; for example, “Kabarmakyaybu” is sung in Norwegian, Korean, English, and Myanmar languages and has numerous translated lyrics videos available in languages such as Korean, Spanish, and Japanese (MacLachlan, 2023). The reason why “Kabarmakyaybu” is a very famous protest song even in the 2021 spring revolution is that its lyrics refer to famous historical leaders of Myanmar such as General Aung San who worked consistently for the country’s independence and Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, a poet and political philosopher known for initiating the peace movement within the country (#AuxSons, 2021)

There is no pardon for you till the end of the world.

Cause there’s bloody record written by people’s lives.

The strong revolution.

Oh, the brave heroes died for Democracy.

Our Country, Myanmar, is a place built with Martyrs.

And with strong affirmation and lack of fears to fight against the Monsters, Our people

Dear Grandpa KoDawHmaing, who fought against Colonies with pen, our history was shamefully destroyed by our Myanmar Military themselves.

Oh our leader ThaKhin Aung San, who tried to get independence, please look us back from heaven _ our country is bloody now. 

What the hell! No mercy, just bullies. 

Civilians’ corpses are lying on the road.

_  translation by English Major Students of Yangon University of Foreign Languages (Rimielien, 2021)

“Kabarmakyaybu” is a song of contact between significant time periods: 1988 and 2021. This song reflects the human rights violations that the military committed in 1988 since the lyrics explicitly describe this, for example, “Civilians’ corpses are lying on the road.” which was a horrible scene in the 1988 uprising while reminding Myanmar people that history is repeating itself. Moreover, “Kabarmakyaybu” is a unifying anthem, a song that brings people together in chorus and harmony. 

Similarly, the second song, “Very Important (A Ye Kyi Bi in Burmese)” originally performed during the 1988 protests, was composed by Htoo Eain Thin and Mun Aung who are famous professional icons of the music industry. According to an interview with the singer, Mun Aung, he officially confirmed that “A Ye Kyi Bi” is a revolutionary song that came out in the aftermath of the 1988 revolution; in fact, they had to record the song in Bangkok and secretly transmit the song to the revolution arm forces because it could not be openly sung or listened to within the country (The Irrawaddy News, 2020). He explained, “The song is not a love song, it has many stories behind it. It was sung by revolutionary students who were killed during the 1988 revolution” (The Irrawaddy News, 2020). This song carries a march-like rhythm. The lyrics such as “Brothers, it is a very important time / We must unite and march together / to write a new history, in our blood / We will keep our blood oath / We will give our lives for our country / We will march onward marked by the peacock’s blood” emphasize the crucial moment, encouraging unity among the people to create a new history with determination and sacrifice even if they have to die (MacLachlan, 2023).

Moreover, the peacock represents the NLD party and also The All Burma Students Union, which actively opposed British colonial rule in the 1930s (MacLachlan, 2023). In 2021, this song became viral in Myanmar media again. Therefore, protest songs such as “Kabarmakyaybu” and “A Ye Kyi Bi” represent both key historical moments in  Myanmar and carry symbols with important messages that demonstrate how protest songs play an important role in the social movements of a country. 



Generation Z in 2021 Protest Songs

Generation Z which consists of nearly 2.5 billion individuals born between 1996 and 2012 and stands as the largest generation in world history, has played an important role in the Spring Revolution (Watti, 2021). “You messed up with the wrong generation” is a famous slogan among young people who are fighting for democracy in Myanmar. One particular song, “Doh-Ayay” produced by LITT ENT describes the perspectives, beliefs, and demands of Generation Z for Myanmar’s future and democracy. “Doh-Ayay” means our concerns (advanced meaning: let’s fight for our rights) which was also a slogan during the 1988 protests. This protest song has gone viral on social media such as Facebook and YouTube integrated with real footage videos and sounds of the gunfire reflecting the 2021 revolution with subtitles available in three languages: English, Korean, and English. The song starts with rapping, eventually slowing down the tempo while being accompanied by the visuals in time, possibly standing out as one of the most well-integrated music videos among all the protest songs of 2021. Lyrics such as “We will win this fight with no weapons. In Unity, we challenge them all. With this courage red as blood. Tears of resentment fall down drop by drop. History repeated itself, just like in 1988, waking us up to the resistance yet again. The intelligence of Generation Z, hear me out, beware of the traps. We want justice.” refers to the collective spirit, consciousness, and demands for justice by the younger generation during Myanmar’s 2021 peaceful protest movements (Ko Pyae(TTW), 2021). Moreover, these words emphasize the commitment of Generation Z to non-violent activism and solidarity, drawing parallels to historical struggles, particularly the echoes of events from 1988. 


Another song representing Generation Z is “Revolution” (“Nway Oo Taw Lone Yay” in Burmese). It adopts a relatively slow pace, is entirely composed in the minor mode, easy to learn and perform due to its memorable melody within an octave (MacLachlan, 2023). This song has numerous versions such as lyric videos, animated videos, etc. However, one of the most famous clips with this song is of some young artists performing a Myanmar traditional dance called A Pyo Taw Dance with “Revolution” in the background (MizzimaTV, 2021). “Revolution” is a protest song that shows the potential connection with cultural dance. While A Pyo Taw Dance is indeed an endangered tradition in Myanmar, the protest song, “Revolution” has been able, in conjunction with A Pyo Taw Dance, has been able to promote Myanmar’s culture and build solidarity among youths.  


Stories Behind Protest Songs

Some protest songs convey the real stories of people who have died in the revolution, along with the families who were left behind. For instance, သားမရတော့ဘူး “I can’t make it” (Thar Ma Ya Tot Bu) composed by David Lai describes a tragic moment on February 20, 2021 that gained significant attention among Myanmar citizens. A sixteen-year-old boy lost his life due to a fatal shooting while participating in protests in the Maha Aung Myay Township of Mandalay Region (Irrawaddy, 2023). According to the video footage and social media posts, he laid dying in his mother’s embrace as he said his final words: “I can’t make it” (MacLachlan, 2023). Lyrics such as “When will he come back home. The anxious expectation of a mother. No more chance to hear her son’s voice. Let her cry, the tears that fall on this land for a martyr” portray the mourning of a mother who has lost her son, thereby emphasizing the painful stories of protestors and their families (David Lai, 2021). Moreover, some protest songs such as “I Can’t Make It” include the actual words of protesters and serve as a powerful force to awaken civilians’ consciousness. Therefore, protest songs directly portray the real stories of people, and real events that have happened which are different from mainstream popular music, for example, love songs.


Banging Pots, Myanmar Tradition and Revolution

“Reject” (“A Lo Ma Shi”) is a song sung during street protests in Myanmar. The signature of the song is the chorus which is easy to memorize, repeating the same words again and again: “Let’s kick out the dictators / Reject, reject [alternately, unwanted, unwanted] / Citizens, protest against the dictators / Reject, reject / Let’s bang our pots and pans together.” The encouragement to bang pots and pans refers to a protest method that became widespread in Myanmar post-coup; people from both urban and rural areas engaged in this action every night for several weeks at around 8 am (see Figure 1). In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, during New Year celebrations in April, banging pots and pans is a tradition to drive away evil spirits from homes. Thus, participating in the same action as part of protesting signifies that Myanmar people view the military junta as an evil that must be expelled from the country. Therefore, “A Lo Ma Shi” is also easy to harmonize with pots and pans. (MacLachlan, 2023)

Fig 1: People in Myanmar banging pots in protests against military coup (Ap, 2021)

International Collaboration

 Furthermore, through protest songs, language barriers between countries are broken and songs become universal for many people regardless of their race or culture through a shared empathy and support for justice and democracy. As mentioned above, the biggest difference between the 1988 and 2021 protest songs is that the 2021 revolution gained international attention. As a result, many of the protest songs from 2021 have numerous versions in different languages such as English, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. On social media platforms such as YouTube, some social influencers even have done reaction videos to protest songs. For example, the “We Are the World” cover by CHINLUNG CHUAK ARTIST portraying the 2021 Myanmar spring revolution has gained 4.7 million views and numerous reaction videos from individuals from different countries (ChinTube, 2023). CHINLUNG CHUAK ARTIST also consists of diaspora communities like the Chin ethnic groups in the United States, which is a prominent example that shows how protest songs unite Myanmar diasporas in the United States. 

 Some international artists have created songs for Myanmar. For example, Kyal Sin, also known as Angel, is a 19-year-old protester who was killed during the protests in Mandalay while wearing a T-shirt that says, “Everything will be OK.” (Simon, 2021). In response, Korean artists, Rapper Deegie Kim and Skull released their song, “Everything Will Be OK,”  which referenced the tragic death of Kyal Sin (14F 일사에프, 2021). This instance highlights how international artists are moved by tragic events in Myanmar and come to have international support as a response. 




The influential power of protest songs stands as a crucial element in Myanmar’s revolutionary moments, with the urgent call for social justice and change while addressing sensitive issues in Myanmar and signifying the parallels of the different times. While old news is easily replaced by more popular news, songs are memorable and often replayed whenever there is a relevant issue. In particular, the 2021 Myanmar protest songs as evidence of timelessness highlight the importance of the youth’s role in leading the revolution and international recognition. To conclude, Myanmar protest songs carry the essence of protestors, their stories, courage, rage, and hope in their pursuit of democracy, and justice through the melody, lyrics, and timelessness while also serving as a solidarity tool. 




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