Nepali Times Asian Paints
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The freedom to sing


After decades of military dictatorship, the Burmese girl band Me N Ma Girls is taking full advantage of saying, and singing, what they think. The five young and talented women have broken new ground not just in Burma but also hit the international musical scene.

"Earlier, we could only write love songs and sad songs," says band member Hitke Hitke, "now the laws have changed and we can write songs about politics, and we say everything we like."

The band came together in 2010 when Australian dancer Nikki May decided to help form a Burmese version of the British pop group Spice Girls, and organised auditions. At the time they were known as The Tiger Girls, and only performed cover songs.

Wanting to produce their own material, they split with their producer last year and started up Me N Ma Girls with Nikki May as manager. The group's name is a play on words in English meaning 'me and my girls', which also sounds like the other name for Burma, Myanmar.

Last December they released their first album titled Minga Lar Par (Welcome) and instantly captured international media attention with their performances. The band is more popular internationally than in Burma.

"In our country, people like white skin and beautiful girls, we are dark-skinned and not beautiful enough," says Hitke laughing, "but we can sing beautifully."

There's obvioulsy more to these girls than singing and dancing. Hitke Hitke studied computer science while Cha Cha holds a bachelor's degree in zoology. Ah Moon studied Russian, Wai Hnin Khaing is a chemistry graduate and Kimmy moved from Burma's poorest Chin state to Rangoon to study mathematics.

All five band members are from different parts of the country and follow different religions. Ah Moon comes from Kachin state, but she says she wants to appeal to a broader audience.

"When I write, I feel like all the other girls in the world. When I write a political song, I feel like rest of the people in Burma, not like a Kachin girl," she explains.

Their new song is called Come Back Home, a call to millions of Burmese who fled to escape military repression and poverty. Ah Moon, who co-wrote that song, already has another one lined up for their next album called War, which is about the violent conflict that flared up again in her home state of Kachin.

At the forefront of controversial political issues, it hasn't been easy for the band members, all in their early twenties, to convince their families they can survive just by performing.

But Cha Cha says she decided to follow what she loved doing.

"At first my parents did not allow me to have this artist life. My father wants me to become a business woman, but I'm not interested. I love singing and dancing, so that's why I choose my way. My dream has nearly come true," she says, adding she dreams of going to Hollywood.

And it might no longer be just a dream. The band has been offered the chance to record its next album in Los Angeles.

Me N Ma might be making it big, but off stage they're just girls next door. Cha Cha still has a curfew from her parents to be home before 7 pm, while Ah Moon's father is a Christian priest and her mother, Lu Nan, a housewife.

This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia's independent radio news agency KBR68H.

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Watch live performance of Come Back Home

Watch music video of Minga Lar Par

Watch music video of Fashion Toys

And dancing Afghan boys

At a private wedding party in Afghanistan's northern Balkh province, all the guests are male. So is the entertainment.

In the centre of a big circle, a 15-year-old young boy dressed in women's clothes twirls around to the music as guests clap eagerly.It's an ancient tradition at all-male parties called bacha bazi. The practice was officially prohibited in Afghanistan because of sexual abuse of some of the boys, but it's on the rise in the post-Taliban period.

Faheem, 18, is another bacha or dancing boy from Afghanistan's west. Asking not to use his real name, Faheem explains that he is owned by one of the local warlords as a sex servant.

His father was a carpenter but when he retired, 12-year-old Faheem was expected to support his family. "I used to work in a shop, but Majeed Khan, a warlord and some other people suggested I become a dancing boy so I could make more money," explains Faheem.

"Now Majeed Khan uses me as his bacha. Whatever he wants me to do, I do it. He has done everything with me, including things I can't tell you about," he says. Faheem's family knows he is a bacha for Majeed Khan, a commander since the country's civil war in the 1990s. Faheem is paid a wage, and he has to do what he is told.

Bilal Sidiqee is the Head of Juveniles and Adults Department at the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission. He says bacha bazi is one of the biggest challenges for Afghan youth and children because they're used as objects of entertainment, and for sexual purposes.

"Those who are using the boys are wealthy individuals, government officials, and public figures," he says. "There's very little awareness among our people that this is wrong."

For his part, Faheem wants to quit, and has been telling other boys like him not to do the work.

Ghayor Waziri, Kabul

Watch a clip of PBS documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan

Watch the full PBS documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan (available for US residents only)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)