Stand Alone: An interview with an indie rock band in Myanmar

I’ve been an expat of sorts for a number of years and consider myself to be well-versed in international travel—but I admit, if you had asked me to describe Myanmar as recently as a year ago then I would have replied: “Hot, dirty, poor and corrupt.”

And I would have been right.

imageIts borders have essentially been closed to foreigners for decades—and in that shroud of secrecy a military government with child soldiers to do its bidding stripped its citizens of their basic human rights and dignity. A lot of nasty stuff went on in Myanmar. But that’s not the whole picture, and for sure it’s not what I want to write about. In the last five years, elections have been held, borders have opened, and the military government has ceded most of its power. Economic sanctions have been lifted and for the first time in fifty years the people in Myanmar are optimistic about the future.

Yangon apartment buildingAs a point of fact Myanmar might be hot, dirty, poor and corrupt (though far less now than it was five years ago)—but that isn’t how I would describe its people. Not after being amongst them. They are kind, compassionate, and beautiful—and they are filled with passion and hunger for everything the past generations of Myanmar people were denied.

That includes dreams.

And that is what I want to write about.

Under the previous regime musicians in Myanmar had to submit lyrics to a government agency for censorship and approval—and if you dared to protest through song you’d wind up in the infamous Insein prison. But now its streets are filled with aspiring artists of every flavor—and that includes pop, rock, punk, rap … everything from one end of the spectrum to the other. It’s an amazing sight—to watch a society as it transitions from a nightmare to a future it controls.

imageAmong the many friends I made during my time visiting Myanmar are the guys that make up the indie rock band Stand Alone. They are Jun Ho, Zin Yu, Max and Young Woo. They live in Yangon but dream of touring the world. I did a pseudo-interview with them because we’re starting a GoFundMe campaign to get them a set of drums and into a recording studio. Below is the transcript.

TE: What are the challenges with being an indie band in Myanmar?

Jun Ho: The challenges, huh… The challenges vary. First of all, the type of music we mostly want to perform is not widely accepted in this country.

Zin Yu: And there is no top 100 Myanmar hits on iTunes.

Max: [thinking]

Jun Ho: People here are not as socially supportive of young people pursuing their dreams. They don’t have any experience with it.

Max: Practice space is hard to find for the right amount of money, and also financial problems make it hard for us to act.

Young Woo: Yeah, in Kazakhstan—

Zin Yu: This is Myanmar, bro. We know you’re not a native.

Young Woo: Oh, okay.



TE: Why did you choose “Stand Alone” as a name?


Young Woo: Well, about that. It’s because our—

Zin Yu: We can’t mention them here.

TE: Even now? It’s not like before—

[nervous laughter]

Jun Ho: Stand Alone, as typical as it may sound, actually has a really deep meaning to it.

Max: We Stand Alone!

Jun Ho: Not really bro… Zin Yu, explain.

Zin Yu: Wasn’t Max the one who came up with the name?

Max: It is because the community we resided in was not supportive of us in any aspect. We were standing out from the rest, without any support. We were alone. We were standing, we were alone, we are Stand Alone.

Zin Yu: That’s some legit logic bro.

TE: Who are your musical influences?


Max: And Idiots.

Young Woo: Who are the idiots? Even I don’t know who they are.

Max: You idiot. They are one of the most famous rock bands in Myanmar.

Jun Ho: Oh, and I love Ed Sheeran too. He’s not a rock artist in any sense but his songs capture my heart right away.

Zin Yu: And SPYAIR.

Jun Ho: The Japanese alternative rock band that sings in anime.

Young Woo: Yeah. We like anime.

TE: Tell me about your early successes with the band.

Young Woo: Would you call Waterboom a success?

Zin Yu: Let’s talk about the MMO event instead.

Max: Yeah, we had a bigger audience there.

Jun Ho: Yeah. The MMO event was big hit for us.

Zin Yu: It was basically a cosplay convention where we went to perform Japanese songs.

Jun Ho: The type we want to perform.


Max: And also, our first ever performance, at the carnival, remember?

Young Woo: The carnival was a lot better than Waterboom, except for the fact that there were drums on the stage at Waterboom—which Waterboom provided us with for one show.

Max: You guys are forgetting the biggest one.

Zin Yu: Et Cetera?

Jun Ho: Shh… What Et Cetera?

Max: I mean our Bombs Away, our latest cover song with our first music video.

Everyone Else: Oh… right!

Young Woo: We only chose that because we don’t have a drum and the original acoustic version is performed with a Cajon.

Jun Ho: But that was good.

TE: Five years from now what will people think when they hear Stand Alone?

Zin Yu: Hopefully not “never heard of them.”


Jun Ho: Ah dang… this is hard… hopefully we’ll stick around a while. I hope the name Stand Alone sticks in people’s head for years to come!

Zin Yu: But you and Young Woo are going to Korean military service for two years.

Young Woo: Then they’ll know Stand Alone as two Korean soldiers.

Zin Yu: But Seriously, I hope people remember us by our new debut album coming out soon.

Max: Bro it’s not time for advertisement.

TE: Well, self-promotion never hurts. And something you guys have going for you is your varied backgrounds. How many different languages, collectively, do you guys speak?

Jun Ho: Max, you’re Shan right? Do you speak Shan?

Max: No bro.

Jun Ho: Then what do you speak?

Max: Myanmar. Is Zin Yu Japanese?

Young Woo: No he’s Korean.

Jun Ho: Psshh. No he’s not.

Zin Yu: Yes I am. Remember the time someone thought I was Korean and not you? No seriously though. About the question. How many languages do we speak collectively? By the way I’m Chinese.

Max: Oh, that means you speak Chinese?

Zin Yu: Wo Bu Zhidao.

stand3 (1)

TE: I’ve learned in Myanmar that everyone is “something” else.


Jun Ho: All of us speak English for sure. Me and Young Woo speak Korean.

Zin Yu: No kidding.

Young Woo: And I speak Russian and I still have to tell you guys to stop speaking in Burmese in front of me.

Max: Too bad bro, deal with it or no drum for you. That’s what you get.

Young Woo: [mocking gasp]

Jun Ho: Zin Yu, would you consider yourself fluent in Japanese?

Zin Yu: If you consider broken Japanese fluent, then sure.

Jun Ho: I sing Japanese.

Zin Yu: But do you understand the lyrics?

Jun Ho: Next question.

TE: You’re currently running a GoFundMe campaign. What do you hope to achieve?

Young Woo: Drums!

Zin Yu: Drums.

Jun Ho & Max: Yeah, drums.

Jun Ho: We call ourselves a rock band, but we don’t have a set of drums. To become a full-blown rock band, we need a drum. So, we decided to come up with a way to fund it.

Max: Once again, our community is not supportive.

Young Woo: Drums are the soul of rock music.

Zin Yu: This year, we get drums. Next year, debut album. Another year, we are a well-known rock band.

Young Woo: Yeah, in other words, we need 1.5 grand for our drums and studio time.

Max: I hope Bill Gates notices us. Notice us Bill Gates.

TE: Tell us something about each band member that even your friends might not know or realize.

Max: Do you have a love life?

Young Woo: Who are you asking?

Max: Who knows? For me I’ve found the one.

Zin Yu: Me too.

Jun Ho: [points] Her?

Zin Yu: Yes. PRS limited edition. Baby is worth $3000 or more.


Max: My baby’s Ibanez Prestige.

Jun Ho: Oh, you think Young Woo’s introverted. Wait till you visit our band practices. He’s our drummer so he makes our eardrums bleed… love you bro.

Zin Yu: Did you know our vocalist lost 20 pounds?

Max: No way, I didn’t even know that.

Zin Yu: He’s spending our band budget on gym membership fees.

Young Woo: Just kidding, bro.

TE: Any final thoughts?

Zin Yu: Check out our video on YouTube and check out our GoFundMe campaign.

Jun Ho: Please support us! And like I said over and over, any donation will help and will be appreciated by the band. Until the time we become a legit rock band and everyone knows us by our names. Thanks for interviewing us!

Max: We really appreciate your support.

Young Woo: Ciao!

Stand Alone on GoFundMe

Stand Alone on Facebook

Stand Alone on YouTube

Book Review: The Prisoner

“better safe than headless”

I’m on Alex Berenson’s email list, and when he sent a message to his readers that John Wells was “back undercover in the Muslim world” I immediately went to Amazon and pre-ordered.

I was excited, but also a little worried.

Wells is a great character. Berenson is an incredibly gifted writer. But of late, a number of usually reliable thriller authors have used the Jack Bauer “24” method of going undercover with disastrous consequences (e.g. I have serious reservations about buying any future Scot Harvath books). I felt Berenson was right on target with his idea – I can’t imagine any fan of John Wells not wanting to read about him going undercover in Afghanistan for a second time – but I feared the worst, that Wells would morph into a bad superhero caricature and Berenson would have ruined a great series.

Now that I’ve read the book, I apologize to Mr. Berenson – sorry I doubted you. This is the best post-9/11 thriller I’ve ever read. In fact, it might be the best thriller I’ve ever read, period.

It begins with a CIA mission in ISIS territory. Hence, this great line from one of the operators: “better safe than headless.” After the mission, it’s clear that someone is giving sensitive intelligence to ISIS. Shafer and Wells – with support from President Duto – launch a bold plan to uncover the mole, and what unfolds is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Berenson takes readers on a vivid, surreal journey with pacing and prose that are masterfully executed and a plot that is all too real and terrifying. Berenson has clearly been to Afghanistan and the other dangerous / exotic locales used in the book – for no one could carry a reader down this path so well unless he first traveled it himself.

The book builds to a frenetic pace, and then Berenson cranks it up even more as it turns into a race against the clock to stop ISIS from carrying out an attack that rivals 9/11.

If you enjoy thrillers, read this book. If you really enjoy thrillers that also fall into the “literary” category, then you absolutely need to be reading Alex Berenson. I used to say no one writes that category better than Daniel Silva, but I think Berenson is at the top now.

Read this book – I highly recommend it, 5/5 stars.

Use this affiliate link to read more about The Prisoner on Amazon.

Bangkok’s Grand Palace

Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in October after seven decades on the throne. The Grand Palace is an amazing site that includes both the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and Wat Pho — but my visit today felt surreal for another reason: the complex continues to be flooded daily with mourners for Thailand’s late king. It’s a difficult time for Thailand, but as a foreigner it’s a fascinating time to be here.


Do Justice

I love the old testament adage to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.” As someone who used to be a teacher and still consults with international schools, I work hard to model these tenets when I interact with students.

For the most part I work with teachers and students who languish in countries riddled with poverty and corruption. The kids walk to school alongside streets that reek of hopelessness and despair.

I meet local teachers who get paid on average $4 to $6 per day to work at international schools alongside foreign-born teachers who make more than $200 per day for doing the exact same job — and yet the local teachers are gracious and appreciative for anything I can do to help them.

It’s usually that way with the foreign teachers as well.

However, in recent weeks I’ve had occasion to butt heads with a foreign born teacher who has pretty much declared war on her students, colleagues, and administrators. I can’t find any rational reason for her behavior.

And now, she’s apparently declared war on me as well.

Everything I’ve done here has been to help kids. But I’m just passing through. I could let it go easy enough. I probably should let it go.

But the kids, right?

Here’s the thing: most people like the “love mercy” and “walk humbly” but shy away from “do justice.”

I don’t think it’s something you can pick and choose. I think you have to go all in, or find a new mantra. For sure I don’t want to live in a world where people with twisted hearts hold profound influence over our students while good people stand aside and do nothing.

Which is why tonight I read some from The Art of War —

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt … Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

— and why tomorrow I will return the favor, and “do justice.”