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John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in a charity show evoked nostalgia

On the evening of May 4, 26-year-old Myanmar singer David Lai, was playing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in a charity concert at Dreambuilder Church in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

It was a part of “David Lai Australian Tour 2024”, whose audiences were about 300 Myanmar diasporas in Melbourne.

Lai is a Mara people, an ethnic minority from Chin State in north-western Myanmar. He became famous in Myanmar by participating in a singing competition.

As a talented rising pop star, he should have had a promising future. But now, he may no longer find the “country roads” that took him “to the place he belongs”.

In February 2021, Myanmar military staged a coup to overthrow the democratic government of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and imposed an authoritarian rule.

“Before the coup I wanted to walk my path of life in freedom. Now, I feel I have no future,” said

Lai. Along with many youths, Lai joined the protests against the junta.

In March, when peaceful street protests were suppressed by tear gas and gunfire, and increasing numbers of people were killed and arrested, Lai was forced to exile to Mizoram in eastern India.

“At first, I thought the violence against peaceful protesters wouldn’t happen in our capital. I was wrong,” said Lai.

In February 2022, Lai, and two Chin musicians, P. Thawng Bawi and Benjamin Sum, formed a band called “Guys from Chin” in Mizoram for fundraising and charity activities.

Lai believes that his band symbolizes unity among different ethnic groups, as each member comes from a different background.

“Only unity will be the solution for our country. I believe that music has the ‘soft power’ to unite the people,” he said.

Sometimes they would perform in local Myanmar refugee camps.

“They are not free, and their human rights are severely limited. These are consequences of the military coup,” said Lai.

The United Nations estimates that crossfire in Myanmar has caused more than 60,000 people to flee to Indian border states of Mizoram and Manipur, and 61,000 internally displaced.

After witnessing these dire situations, Lai said that he would rather share in the suffering of the people than focus on his own pursuits.

This time, Lai’s Australian tour was planned to be held in five cities, including Sydney, Melbourne, Wagga Wagga, Brisbane, and Perth.

According to Department of Home Affairs’ data, as of June 2022, 42,820 Myanmar-born people were living in Australia.

“The funds raised by these concerts will be used for humanitarian assistance in regions including Kachin, Chin, and other places where people are in need,” said Ko Naing from Humanitarian Emergency Funds for Myanmar.

According to The Asia Foundation, 90% of humanitarian assistance for Chin refugees came from Chin diasporas across Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, United States, and Canada.

UN officials said 18.6 million people across Myanmar would need humanitarian assistance by 2024, a 19-fold increase from 2021. However, the 2024 Humanitarian Needs and Response Plan for Myanmar was only funded at 4%.

As the funds raised diminished, Lai felt guilty that he hadn’t done enough.

He hopes to use his music to draw international attention to the sufferings of Myanmar refugees.

“It has been three years, and we understand that international support is not reliable. We must

struggle on our own. This is why we need to keep our assistance to refugees ongoing,” he said.

However, being involved in political activities carries significant risks.

Saw Win Maung is the organizer of Melbourne-based charity group “Humanitarian Aid for Burma”.

Two years ago, when his nephew was arrested and tortured to death in Yangon, he was “shocked and scared”.

Since the 2021 coup, many volunteers from Maung’s group have quit for fear of their families in Myanmar being arrested.

But Muang never tried to back down.

“The support of any individual would be as insignificant as a drop of water. But the collaboration of all of us can bring a rain of relief for the suffering people,” he added.

Tamas Wells is a singer-songwriter and scholar on Myanmar politics from University of

Melbourne. He has many commonalities with David Lai.

“In today’s darkest times for democracy in Myanmar, I believe that music can inspire Myanmar

people and give them a sense of power for peace,” Wells said.

The three-hour show evoked nostalgia in audiences through dozens of songs.

Some were masterpieces by Myanmar singer-songwriters, Htoo Eain Thin, including “Mother’s Home”, which conveys the homesickness of a young man, and “Ayeyarwady”, a river in Myanmar often described as immortal and symbolic of motherhood.

“We all miss our homeland. I think these songs can heal our homesickness,” said Lai.

He believes that music will be his weapon in the struggle for Myanmar’s freedom.

“We need unity to move forward,” Lai greeted the crowd from the stage.