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Prominent Peace Activist and Singer Rearrested by Myanmar Regime

Saw Phoe Khwar performs in Yangon in November 2017. / Hein Nay Zaw

Myanmar’s junta rearrested peace activist and reggae singer Saw Phoe Khwar on Tuesday, immediately after he was released from prison, sources said.

The 54-year-old was detained by the military regime on the first day of last year’s coup for incitement and breaching the Natural Disaster Management Law.  A junta court sentenced him to two years imprisonment last year.

Saw Phoe Kwar was among several people released from Yangon’s Insein Prison on Tuesday. They included the human rights activist and film director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who was also arrested on the first day of the military takeover.

Sources close to Saw Phoe Khwar’s family said that police took him back to prison, as he has only served his sentence for the incitement charge. He still has to serve another year in jail for violating the Natural Disaster Management Law.

As Saw Phoe Khwar has been detained since the first day of the coup, it is impossible for the junta to say that he was arrested for anti-regime activities.

However, the ethnic Karen singer has been a thorn in the side of the Myanmar military for many years thanks to his satirical songs. He was actively involved in the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) 2020 general election campaign.

Many observers believe that it was his songs which prompted the junta to charge him with incitement, while his work on the NLD election campaign during the first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic led to him being charged with breaching the Natural Disaster Management Law.

Born to a Christian family in Yangon’s Ahlone Township, Saw Phoe Khwar was surrounded by music since childhood, but it wasn’t until the age of 17 that he heard reggae. After listening to a Bob Marley album given to him by a friend, Saw Phoe Khwar recognised a kindred spirit in the Jamaican singer and songwriter.

He is an advocate for peace, freedom and equality, and he thinks his music can help peace prevail in conflict-torn Myanmar.

“What I believe is that we can only build peace with real love and kindness. What’s happening in our country now is that we lack love for each other. That’s why we now face nationalism and religious problems. I want to give the message to the people about the reason for the conflicts we are facing now,” he told The Irrawaddy in 2013.

The singer added that hatred, ethnic pride and a lack of love for one another were the leading causes of the religious violence and decades-long armed conflicts between ethnic groups in Myanmar. He condemned ethnic pride, which is passed off by some as patriotism, and the disdain for other ethnicities that has led to decades of conflict in Myanmar.

“We believe in oneness and equality. All human beings must be treated equally. This is the message I want to give to people,” Saw Phoe Khwar said once.