YANGON – Since Myanmar (Burma) formally ended military rule in March 2011, getting an interview with long-detained opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been a sort of rite-of-passage for foreign journalists visiting here.
The Nobel Laureate’s recent winning of a seat in Myanmar’s Army-dominated parliament and current high-profile European tour are being taken as further signs that the government is maintaining its reform drive.
But there are other signals that the country is changing for the better. And with those changes come new items on the visiting journalist’s to-do checklist.
Over the past year, the Me N Ma Girls (hoping there’s no need to explain the obvious pun on the country’s name), a pop/dance act made up of five young Myanmar singers and dancers, have appeared frequently in the international press.
“We appreciate all the media who interview us,” says Ah Moon, a 21-year-old singer and dancer from war-torn Kachin state in the country’s north. She recently finished a Russian language degree and speaks fluent English with an Americanized twang.
Successive stories have branded the ladies as emblems of cultural change and taboo-lifting in what was one of the world’s most oppressive political regimes. The girls, perhaps wise beyond their years, seem wary of being typecast as some sort of cultural fable or cliché, rather than aspiring pop superstars in their own right.
“Yeah, we’ve been in a lot of articles, it’s been great,” says Kimi, 24, an ethnic Chin from the northwest of Myanmar. “But, sometimes it’s like ‘can we practice now?'” the girls say, feigning good-humored weariness, while gathered around a laptop in Ah Moon’s family apartment in Yangon.
In between pouting and posing for photos, and gossiping in Myanmar language, the girls peer over the shoulder of band member Htike Htike, a graphic designer in her spare time, while she works on a new album cover design. “I did the cover for our first album,” she says.
The pay-off from all the coverage is a chance to go to Los Angeles later this year to record some tracks for the new album and take a shot at making that apparent quantum leap that has so far been
too much for most Asian pop acts trying to break into Western markets.
“It has been very hard for Asian acts to score in the West, but they have a chance because the story is compelling, they look great, and have the right disposition for success,” says Daniel Hubbert, Chairman/CEO of Powermusic, in an e-mail.
When the girls head stateside, they’ll record at Mr. Hubbert’s studio. Musically, he says, “I would categorize the girls as a pop/dance act, musically akin to a Pussy Cat Dolls.”
If that’s the case, then the Me N Ma Girls have as good a shot as anyone at making the East-West leap.
After all, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, possibly the most famous Myanmar citizen, has been described as an ideal link between East and West, an Asian Buddhist speaking the Queen’s English and the language of democracy and rule of law and who raised a family in Britain.
“She is like another mother for us,” says Cha Cha, 22, also an actress with 14 movies already released, speaking of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The country’s reformist President Thein Sein comes in for hearty praise too. Wai Hnin, the quietest of the five girls, chimes in. “Thein Sein is amazing,” she says, “everything is changing now here after the end of the military government.”
The girls aren’t getting too big for their boots or forgetting their roots, however, despite their success to date and hopes for the future. “We don’t try to be too sexy, or go too far from our culture,” says Ah Moon, adding that “we all still love our traditional dress.”Show