Rangoon – MC J-Me is in the house. More specifically, he is in a house of worship — crumbling St. Theresa Catholic Church in downtown Rangoon — bleary-eyed and recovering from a late night. As the 25-year-old rapper spins rhymes in English about his ambitions (“I’m gonna put Burma on the map/ With a girl on my lap”) an elderly nun strolls by. “Good morning, sister,” the churchgoing J-Me says, bowing his head like any other young Burmese who knows how to respect authority while gently subverting it at the same time. Bells toll as he describes how to “play it tight on the mike” in one of the world’s most cloistered countries — that is, how to slip allusions to drugs or politics or sex past Burma’s notorious but often clueless censors. “I ain’t saying I’m doing it,” he cautions. “I’m just saying if a brother wanted to do it, he could play it on four, five, six levels, and the censors wouldn’t know nothing about what’s flying above their heads.”
Cut off from much of the world by a repressive junta that has ruled for nearly five decades, and further isolated by international sanctions against the regime, Burma (officially renamed Myanmar by the ruling generals) might feel like the last frontier of hip-hop. But to sample J-Me, “Burma is back in da house, yo.” The hackneyed argot of Western rap may sound tired to more worldly ears, but in Burma it is a startling clarion call. Responding to it is a generation of urban Burmese youth that is finding new ways to express itself — and hopefully change Burmese society in the process. Conditioned to view politics as a dirty and dangerous word, young people are flocking to rock and hip-hop concerts in order to “say what we feel in a way that old people in the government don’t get,” as one fan, Yadana, describes it. Contemporary galleries, too, are filled with art that subtly — and not so subtly — critiques the military regime. Even community theater groups are getting in on the act, sneaking references to Burma’s HIV-AIDS crisis and explosive ethnic tensions into their traveling performances. The world may shake an anguished head over pictures of bloodied monks and the silent suffering of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, but few outside Burma are aware of such significant shifts in its youth culture. In a country where one-third of the population is believed to be 15 to 24 years of age, these cautious appeals for change could be truly transformational.

It isn’t just artsy types who are driving the youthful revolution. A local NGO network came of age after Cyclone Nargis killed some 130,000 Burmese in 2008 and exposed the government’s inability to care for its own people. This so-called third-force, which is neither the government nor the beleaguered political opposition, allows youngsters to directly aid the third of the nation that lives under the poverty line. Given that Burmese universities have banned nearly all humanities courses, lest students use what they might learn in political-science or philosophy lectures to advance agendas other than those laid down by the military regime, the rise of an NGO sector is something of a watershed.

Through their varied channels, whether it’s performing a rap anthem or kick-starting an environmental campaign, Burmese youth are striving to alleviate the misery of life in a country where pirated DVDs of The West Wing serve as political guidance and Prison Break is viewed as a reality show. “Hollywood usually has happy endings,” observes Thila Min, a 33-year-old former political prisoner and playwright. “We have to write our own.”

It is safe to say that the happy ending young Burmese seek will not come at the voting booth. Nationwide elections are scheduled for Nov. 7, the first since the 1990 polls that the regime lost badly and duly ignored. Most of the population knows that the elections will be neither free nor fair. The military has reserved top leadership posts and a quarter of parliament for itself. Voter intimidation or bribery, particularly in rural areas, will likely hand the army’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party a fair chunk of the ballots, while another junta-associated party, the National Unity Party, may also lure votes away from a disparate political opposition that is contesting less than half of the legislative seats.

The junta has spent the past two decades consolidating its power, having violently crushed various democracy movements, including the 1988 student-guided protests and the peaceful monk-led demonstrations three years ago. Meanwhile, the party that won a landslide electoral victory in 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been weakened by, among other things, the imprisonment of its top leaders. Suu Kyi, who should have become Prime Minister 20 years ago, will see her latest stint of house arrest expire just days after the forthcoming elections. Loath to contest polls in which its revered chief could not take part, the NLD has decided to boycott them.

Dozens of other opposition parties are taking part, however, most notably various ethnic blocs and a breakaway NLD faction called the National Democratic Force that includes a number of young members. The reason is plain: for many Burmese youth, a flawed poll is preferable to stasis. “For 20 years, we have not moved forward,” says Moe Moe Yu, a 24-year-old civil-society activist in Rangoon. “These elections won’t build democracy tomorrow. But people are expecting change to come, maybe in 10 years or so, and for young people like me, this gives us hope.”

The looming elections have also created a climate of debate into which young people are tentatively venturing. On the streets of Rangoon, barely a palm frond sways in the tropical torpor; there is none of the energy of a normal campaign season — few flyers, even fewer posters. (In the days leading up to the polls, Burma’s Internet service was also interrupted, presumably to keep the country’s citizens further in the dark.) But while they may not be busy campaigning, young Burmese are scrutinizing the government’s failings in areas like education and health care, and acknowledging the futility of waiting for official redress. “I was working at a hospital and saw so many people die because there was no basic health care,” says Thei Su San, a 24-year-old medical graduate. “I wondered, Why doesn’t the government take care of them? But saying bad things about the government doesn’t do anything. We as part of society have to move things forward ourselves. That’s our responsibility.”

Lessons in Change At the Myanmar egress conversation Club in central Rangoon, young English-language students are dissecting the chorus of the Black Eyed Peas song “Where Is the Love?” (“People killing, people dying/ Children hurting, you hear them crying/ Can you practice what you preach/ And would you turn the other cheek?”). In a country where the most innocuous phrase can take on a dangerous political overtone, I wonder what the students make of the lyrics and chat after class with a 20-year-old woman wearing tight jeans and black nail polish. She gives me a knowing look and talks about the government and the people and the “social contract” that supposedly binds them. She recently learned the phrase in another class she attends. (In Burma, English classes are often the easiest places to sneak in political lessons.) “In other countries,” she says, “governments do things for their people. Here …” She trails off and shakes her head.

Since its inception four years ago, Myanmar Egress has served as an incubator for a new generation of young activists. The educational NGO, whose founders include businessmen with close relations to members of the regime, is controversial. Members of the influential exile community view Myanmar Egress as the democratic fig leaf of a junta creating an illusion of tolerance. Certainly, its teachers preach the virtues of an election that many dissidents want boycotted. “The military is getting stronger and stronger. Our only alternative is the elections,” says instructor Kyaw Win, who has translated books on globalization into Burmese.

Still, there is no questioning the idealism of the thousands of young students who have tromped up Myanmar Egress’s worn stairs to study “Quick Fix Political Leadership/Civil Education Training” or “The Art of Blogging” — topics suspiciously similar to those that the junta has tried to keep out of its universities. “In high school, we learned nothing about real Myanmar history, there was no information about politics,” says Su San Win, a 16-year-old student from Mandalay. “Now I know what a constitution is and what civil society is.” (See pictures of Burma’s discontent.)

The advent of that society is the goal not only of the few dozen local NGOs that officially exist in Burma, but the hundreds more that toil under the radar. Young people, particularly those trained at Myanmar Egress, are at the forefront of this boom in activism. In Rangoon, I met young women committed to mangrove reforestation and young men who give free acupuncture to the poor. Given the role of civil society in overthrowing authoritarian regimes in places like Eastern Europe, the official latitude given to such groups seems surprising, and the NGOs are constantly trying to figure out where the lines are drawn. “Sometimes we are so excited that we can do something to help that we overstep,” says the 20-something director of a health NGO. “Maybe it’s the enthusiasm of being young.”

The fact is that the regime, which goes by the Orwellian name of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has so neglected its responsibility to care for its people that it must allow domestic NGOs to operate, if only to quell popular discontent. Right after Cyclone Nargis, most international assistance was blocked for fear that Western notions of democracy would flow in along with emergency aid. Thousands of young Burmese spontaneously filled the gap, ferrying supplies to the ravaged Irrawaddy delta. Doctors fresh out of medical school rushed out to treat trauma victims. “I think, for young people, this was a real defining moment,” says a European diplomat in Rangoon. “For the first time, they could see that what they were doing was making a real difference, and the government was letting them do it.”

Testing the limits in a country with 2,100 political prisoners might seem foolhardy. A year ago, a crackdown on journalists, activists and aid workers, including some who had helped in the Nargis effort, resulted in dozens of arrests. But the spirit of youthful volunteerism is undeterred and today extends beyond disaster relief. Take education. Because of student protests in the 1980s and 1990s, the government closed most universities for years at a time. Primary and secondary schools remained in session, but dropout rates are high. Only around 1% of the national budget is spent on education, one of the lowest investments in the world. In the mid-’90s, the SPDC’s Buddhist spy chief Khin Nyunt tried to alleviate the situation — and perhaps burnish his karma — by funding monastic schools that took in students too poor to afford public-school tuition. But when he was deposed in a power struggle in 2004, money for temple academies dried up. Today, private donations and young unpaid teachers help keep those schools afloat.

Each Sunday, volunteers from Gita Meit, a Rangoon music school and community center, travel to Hlaing Tharyar monastery school, near the Irrawaddy delta, to teach music, art, theater and English. One rainy afternoon, a young volunteer gathered the kids together to write a play. “Think of your characters and the plot,” he urged. “You have the freedom to express yourselves and decide how their lives will go.” Unused to articulating their imaginations, the students at first squirmed and stared into space. But soon, blunt pencils began scratching on paper.

The Art of Protest Her body shrink-wrapped in plastic, a suffocated woman cradles her head in despairing arms. The title of Ma Ei’s photo-art series is Woman for Sale, and her exhibition is not exactly an understated critique of Burma’s male-oriented society. As always, a posse of officials had evaluated the show — a group that included inspectors from the Home Affairs Ministry, Special Branch, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the police and the Ministry of Culture — but the 32-year-old artist convinced them that her work was an expression of traditional femininity and Buddhist values. “They always look the art up and down, up and down,” says one of her peers, mocking the censors’ gaping expressions. “They are ignorant, so you play on that by saying, ‘Oh, of course you understand what this means, Mr. SPDC. It’s about love and our good feelings for our country, Myanmar.’ And they say, ‘Of course, yes, that’s what it is about.'”

The officials won’t always be placated. One 23-year-old installation-and-video artist withdrew from a group exhibition last month because the authorities objected to the depiction of severed female dolls’ heads in her video piece, presumably taking them as a reference to Suu Kyi. (The artist disputes that interpretation). And yet she remains defiantly optimistic. “In Myanmar, the art world is an easier place to express political ideas,” she says. “You don’t have to explain. You just show it and people can see what they want.” The contemporary-art scene is even thriving, with new galleries opening up and young painters secretly gathering to show off samizdat work or slipping political references into their publicly exhibited art.

The hip-hop world, too, refuses to be cowed by persecution. Although J-Me jokes about spinning rhymes with multiple meanings, a member of Burma’s first hip-hop band ACID is now languishing in prison. He was accused of being a leader of Generation Wave, a secret collective of antigovernment hip-hoppers and activists. But despite this, other rap stars have managed to release underground albums that celebrate democracy and support the regime’s nemesis, Suu Kyi, “the lady on the lake” (so called because she is serving out her house arrest in a decaying villa on a Rangoon lakeshore). “You can choose how to fight, with words, or with art or with music,” says one rapper. “It doesn’t matter what weapons you use. What matters is that you fight strongly and bravely.” But as an entire generation of Burmese youth is now discovering, it also matters that you fight with subtlety and intelligence, choosing the battles that you can win.