World

From Rock Star to Bodyguard to Resisting Myanmar’s Coup in Sinema

Long before he became an award-winning filmmaker, Lynn Lynn was already a star.

His voice was ubiquitous on the radio, belting out rock songs, and he played sold-out shows in stadiums across the country. Everywhere he went, fans hounded him for selfies and autographs.

But all that fame was confined to Myanmar, a country he had to flee after a February 2021 military coup.

It wasn’t only his lyrics about the suffering of people under military rule that had made him a target of the country’s generals. He was also close to the country’s now-imprisoned civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, having once served as her bodyguard.

Now living in the Thai city of Mae Sot, bordering Myanmar, the 39-year-old rocker has taken on a new identity: refugee.

Despite the drastic changes in his circumstances, he has not given up on art, but he has changed his focus: to film.

His first short movie, “The Beginning,” whose main characters are a fictional group of people from Myanmar, focuses on the importance of good will in building a democratic nation.Five months later, he followed with “The Way,” which captures the trauma and despair of a family suffering from a nation’s conflict; despite the dark themes, the movie is a musical — the first by a director from Myanmar.

Both films have won multiple honors at international film festivals, with “The Way” also earning multiple accolades for its soundtrack.

“I want to give the message that the military junta can oppress an artist physically, but the spirit and art cannot be oppressed,” Mr. Lynn Lynn said, speaking from his spartan music studio, a bedroom in a rented house in Mae Sot.

Mr. Lynn Lynn walking behind Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when he was one of the bodyguards of Myanmar’s civilian leader.Credit…Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Mr. Lynn Lynn’s life story has been shaped by his country’s convulsive recent history, shifting from dictatorship to democracy to the present-day resistance.

The youngest of four boys, he was born in the city of Mandalay to a railway worker father and a mother who stayed at home.

When he was 5, he saw close at hand the brutality of the army whose leaders ruled the nation: soldiers pulling passengers from a boat and commanding everyone — regardless of age — to kneel. That scene of dominance and humiliation, he says, has stayed with him throughout his adult life.

As a 9-year-old, he taught himself how to play guitar. After high school, he moved to Yangon, the capital at the time, where he cycled through a series of jobs, including bus conductor and security guard, while trying to start a musical career.

His big break came in 2001, after he walked into a recording studio to drop off his demo tape and was soon hired to compose songs for some of Myanmar’s most famous singers. He established a reputation for composing original songs, a rarity in a country where nearly all the songs were copied from abroad.

In 2007, he marched daily with the country’s monks during the Saffron Revolution protests. He read over and over again “Freedom From Fear,” a book of essays by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, at the time the leader of the country’s opposition, who was under house arrest.

He learned how to navigate the country’s censors. Out of every five songs submitted, he was instructed to change the lyrics of three. Sometimes, he submitted different lyrics and then later swapped back in the original words, without anyone seeming to notice.

“He is a rebel,” said his wife, Chit Thu Wai, a well-known actress and singer.

Mr. Lynn Lynn with his wife, Chit Thu Wai, a well-known actress, in his music studio in Mae Sot.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

In 2008, Mr. Lynn Lynn released “Think,” an album with love songs that he had written initially for other singers. It was an instant hit and catapulted him to stardom.

In 2011, the military initiated a range of sweeping political changes, including releasing Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who convened a gathering of the country’s artists at her house.

There, Mr. Lynn Lynn told the Nobel Peace Prize winner he would be willing to do anything for her. He became one of her bodyguards during the 2012 by-election and the 2015 general election.

After she won in 2015,becoming the country’s civilian leader, Mr. Lynn Lynn returned to music. Able to sing openly about the generals, he released an album called “The Fourth Revolution.”

Then, in February 2021, two months after Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi won the 2020 election in a landslide, the military detained her and announced it had taken power in a coup.

The junta charged dozens of actors and musicians, including Mr. Lynn Lynn and his wife, with “incitement.” After months in hiding, the family decided reluctantly to leave Myanmar.

Mr. Lynn Lynn went first in August 2021, trekking across a jungle and then swimming to Mae Sot. Ms. Chit Thu Wai and their twin daughters, now 6, followed a week later.

Mae Sot, the Thai border city where Mr. Lynn Lynn fled with his family.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Mr. Lynn Lynn had never wanted to make movies in Myanmar. While he dabbled in script writing and supported independent filmmakers through a production company he owned with his wife, he considered most of the movies made in Myanmar to be too lowbrow to much interest him.

He says he turned to film in part to “challenge” his artistic peers back home, many of whom allow the generals to use them for propaganda.

Myanmar’s Directorate of Public Relations and Psychological Warfare has always exploited actors and actresses, using them in films to portray soldiers as honorable heroes. In return for staying silent, these celebrities enjoy perks, like being paid to attend galas such as the Myanmar Academy Awards.

Mr. Lynn Lynn says he has noticed that the timing of these celebrity events often coincides with reports about more military atrocities. Nearly every week brings horrific news: 100 dead in an airstrike. Bombs dropped at an outdoor concert. Eleven children killed at a school.

Midway through an interview in Mae Sot, Mr. Lynn Lynn lifted up his T-shirt to reveal his back. In neat, cursive script, there were 700 tattooed names and ages of some of those killed in the coup’s aftermath.

Aung Myint, 32. Tun Win Han, 25. Khin Myo Chit, 7.

“There are so many more to come,” Ms. Chit Thu Wai said.

Mr. Lynn Lynn’s back is tattooed with the names and ages of 700 of those killed after the coup.Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Mr. Lynn Lynn says he looks at the names in the mirror to “compel a sense of urgency upon my consciousness.” The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights group, said more than 4,000 people had been killed in Myanmar since the coup.

Mr. Lynn Lynn knew that shooting movies in Mae Sot, so close to Myanmar, was dangerous. Seventeen of 20 cast members of “The Way” stood accused of “incitement,” and they feared Myanmar military’s spies were everywhere, raising concerns they could be abducted or killed.

In the movie, members of the central family sing about their suffering from conflict and their quest for peace and justice. Myanmar is never explicitly mentioned because, Mr. Lynn Lynn says, he wants the story to be universal.

Two weeks before the shoot, he was still not sure how he would pull it off without the sophisticated equipment typically needed to make a film. He decided to borrow a friend’s iPhone 13 Pro to use as the camera. For the music, he gave himself a crash course in sound mixing.

Mr. Lynn Lynn with a wooden ship that was used as a prop in his film “The Way.”Credit…Lauren DeCicca for The New York Times

Mr. Lynn Lynn’s cast members had never acted before, but some had backgrounds similar to the stories that he wanted to depict. His directorial advice was to read the script and “feel it in your heart,” recalled Aung Lun, one of the actors, who had left his 5-year-old son and wife behind in Myanmar when he fled in 2021.

Mr. Aung Lun’s character in “The Way” leaves his baby daughter at a school as soldiers set fire to their village. Years later, his character confesses that secret to his family.

During that scene, Mr. Aung Lun cried so hard the crew had to pause the shoot for an hour.

As Mr. Lynn Lynn waits to hear whether he and his family can be resettled in the United States, he has more film projects in the works, including a satire set in Myanmar before the coup.

Wherever he finds himself, he intends to keep making films.

“I want to use a language understood by the entire universe,” he said. ”I want to show that even while we are on the run, our art will continue to live powerfully.”

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