Turning Tables is an NGO founded in Denmark, working around the world to empower marginalised youth and allow their voices to be heard, so they can work to improve the society they live in. A group of young Danes from Krogerup Folk High travelled to Myanmar and were invited to visit the department of Turning Tables in the country.
We meet up with a group of young men in an apartment in Yangon. After almost two weeks in Myanmar, their lack of the traditional longyi, a long skirt made for both men and women, seems very strange. While we Danes are sweating in our specially bought Myanmar outfits, they look rather Western in ripped jeans and button-ups accompanied by tattoos and ear piercings.
At the headquarters of Turning Tables we sit down in an overly air conditioned room with musical instruments, loud speakers, and mixing gear placed up against the wall facing us. A bright red poster on the opposite wall shows the programme for the festival ‘The Voice of the Youth’ that was held last year in Myanmar. Several Danish bands, including the punk rock band Dúné, are featured on the poster.
The guy leading the meeting goes by the nickname “i2”- He is the lead singer in a punk band when he isn’t working for Turning Tables. As one might have guessed, their music isn’t just for fun; it’s one of the most important tools used by Turning Tables in their work to empower the marginalised groups of Myanmar.
Building a new democracy
Recently, Myanmar has transformed from being a military dictatorship to having a parliament chosen through democratic elections or, at least, almost democratic elections. Before agreeing to go through with and respect the election the military did make sure that a clause in the constitution entitles their party to minimum 25 percent of the seats in the parliament, and it takes more than 75 percent of the votes to change the constitution.
This makes it extremely difficult for Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor and leader of the main party of the country, National League for Democracy (NLD), to actually make the changes necessary to develop Myanmar into a proper democracy free of discrimination and limiting legislation.
Music, i2 explains, brings people together and gets the attention of otherwise indifferent individuals. When Aung San Suu Kyi can’t do what is necessary, they have to help change the country from within.
Many young people don’t care about politics and don’t know about their rights. Minority groups are harassed and undermined in an old-fashioned system and in a culture that favours old men over everyone else. With a simple, but powerful tool Turning Tables connects different groups of people to break down prejudice and encourages those not interested in politics to become an active part of their community.
Fighting a culture of discrimination
Turning Tables in Myanmar plans workshops and travels all over the country to spread their message. Not only music workshops, but also small courses in filmmaking and photography – tools allowing people to express their opinion in a powerful way. Phone Myat Aung, a young man dressed all in black, briefly looks up from his camera to introduce himself as the one in charge of the film workshops.
An example of a project made from these workshops is ‘One Woman One Camera’, a movie where women from all over Myanmar document their lives on film. The goal is to show that women actually have a voice, and to fight the general Buddhist opinion that being born a woman is a punishment for doing bad in your past life, and that women are therefore worth less than men.
The same logic applies to members of the LGBT-community, our host tells us while lighting up an e-cigarette filling the room with a fruity smell. Even though you will not be beaten up for being gay in Myanmar, you will be very limited in your work life if you dare open up about your sexuality. And some will see you as a funny little thing that it is okay to laugh out loud at – if they don’t avoid you in fear of being infected.
Myanmar is a country with a lot of internal conflicts. One of the biggest conflicts occurs in Rahkine State that borders on Bangladesh. The Rohingyas, an ethnic group of people not recognised as citizens by either country, live along this border.
The Rohingyas are Muslims, and this issue has sparked a general hatred towards Muslims in many different parts of the country. The problem is so severe that Muslim men and Buddhist women do not ever interact in many parts of Rakhine State, we are told. The men only meet up to discuss business.
With a conflict so great and complicated it is incredible to hear i2 tell us how they managed to create a safe zone in their music workshops where people of every ethnicity and religion could participate and push those issues aside for a day.
A powerful voice
Currently Turning Tables in Myanmar are working on ‘The Voice of the Youth’ 2016, a festival of rock, punk and hip hop bands from both Myanmar, Denmark and USA. On the 19th and 20th of November 2016 they will celebrate the youth of the country and freedom of expression.
After talking to the people at Turning Tables, it is clear that creative expression and empowerment of marginalised groups go hand in hand. Both as a tool to get the attention of the groups you need and to allow those groups to express themselves. What is an opinion worth if you have no means of expressing it
Turning Tables has opened my eyes to a new and fascinating way of strengthening and developing a country from within.
Turning Tables has departments all over the world, also in Denmark, where the main focus is empowering and helping refugees. Read more on Turning Tables Denmark’s Facebook page or go to turningtables.org