Myanmar rapper-MP sings the changes

YANGON - 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 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".

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