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Since its inception four years ago, Myanmar Egress has served as an incubator for a new generation of young activists. The educational NGO, whose founders include businessmen with close relations to members of the regime, is controversial. Members of the influential exile community view Myanmar Egress as the democratic fig leaf of a junta creating an illusion of tolerance. Certainly, its teachers preach the virtues of an election that many dissidents want boycotted. "The military is getting stronger and stronger. Our only alternative is the elections," says instructor Kyaw Win, who has translated books on globalization into Burmese.
Still, there is no questioning the idealism of the thousands of young students who have tromped up Myanmar Egress's worn stairs to study "Quick Fix Political Leadership/Civil Education Training" or "The Art of Blogging" topics suspiciously similar to those that the junta has tried to keep out of its universities. "In high school, we learned nothing about real Myanmar history, there was no information about politics," says Su San Win, a 16-year-old student from Mandalay. "Now I know what a constitution is and what civil society is."
The advent of that society is the goal not only of the few dozen local NGOs that officially exist in Burma, but the hundreds more that toil under the radar. Young people, particularly those trained at Myanmar Egress, are at the forefront of this boom in activism. In Rangoon, I met young women committed to mangrove reforestation and young men who give free acupuncture to the poor. Given the role of civil society in overthrowing authoritarian regimes in places like Eastern Europe, the official latitude given to such groups seems surprising, and the NGOs are constantly trying to figure out where the lines are drawn. "Sometimes we are so excited that we can do something to help that we overstep," says the 20-something director of a health NGO. "Maybe it's the enthusiasm of being young."
The fact is that the regime, which goes by the Orwellian name of State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has so neglected its responsibility to care for its people that it must allow domestic NGOs to operate, if only to quell popular discontent. Right after Cyclone Nargis, most international assistance was blocked for fear that Western notions of democracy would flow in along with emergency aid. Thousands of young Burmese spontaneously filled the gap, ferrying supplies to the ravaged Irrawaddy delta. Doctors fresh out of medical school rushed out to treat trauma victims. "I think, for young people, this was a real defining moment," says a European diplomat in Rangoon. "For the first time, they could see that what they were doing was making a real difference, and the government was letting them do it."
Testing the limits in a country with 2,100 political prisoners might seem foolhardy. A year ago, a crackdown on journalists, activists and aid workers, including some who had helped in the Nargis effort, resulted in dozens of arrests. But the spirit of youthful volunteerism is undeterred and today extends beyond disaster relief. Take education. Because of student protests in the 1980s and 1990s, the government closed most universities for years at a time. Primary and secondary schools remained in session, but dropout rates are high. Only around 1% of the national budget is spent on education, one of the lowest investments in the world. In the mid-'90s, the SPDC's Buddhist spy chief Khin Nyunt tried to alleviate the situation and perhaps burnish his karma by funding monastic schools that took in students too poor to afford public-school tuition. But when he was deposed in a power struggle in 2004, money for temple academies dried up. Today, private donations and young unpaid teachers help keep those schools afloat.
Each Sunday, volunteers from Gita Meit, a Rangoon music school and community center, travel to Hlaing Tharyar monastery school, near the Irrawaddy delta, to teach music, art, theater and English. One rainy afternoon, a young volunteer gathered the kids together to write a play. "Think of your characters and the plot," he urged. "You have the freedom to express yourselves and decide how their lives will go." Unused to articulating their imaginations, the students at first squirmed and stared into space. But soon, blunt pencils began scratching on paper.
The Art of Protest Her body shrink-wrapped in plastic, a suffocated woman cradles her head in despairing arms. The title of Ma Ei's photo-art series is Woman for Sale, and her exhibition is not exactly an understated critique of Burma's male-oriented society. As always, a posse of officials had evaluated the show a group that included inspectors from the Home Affairs Ministry, Special Branch, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the police and the Ministry of Culture but the 32-year-old artist convinced them that her work was an expression of traditional femininity and Buddhist values. "They always look the art up and down, up and down," says one of her peers, mocking the censors' gaping expressions. "They are ignorant, so you play on that by saying, 'Oh, of course you understand what this means, Mr. SPDC. It's about love and our good feelings for our country, Myanmar.' And they say, 'Of course, yes, that's what it is about.'"
The officials won't always be placated. One 23-year-old installation-and-video artist withdrew from a group exhibition last month because the authorities objected to the depiction of severed female dolls' heads in her video piece, presumably taking them as a reference to Suu Kyi. (The artist disputes that interpretation). And yet she remains defiantly optimistic. "In Myanmar, the art world is an easier place to express political ideas," she says. "You don't have to explain. You just show it and people can see what they want." The contemporary-art scene is even thriving, with new galleries opening up and young painters secretly gathering to show off samizdat work or slipping political references into their publicly exhibited art.
The hip-hop world, too, refuses to be cowed by persecution. Although J-Me jokes about spinning rhymes with multiple meanings, a member of Burma's first hip-hop band ACID is now languishing in prison. He was accused of being a leader of Generation Wave, a secret collective of antigovernment hip-hoppers and activists. But despite this, other rap stars have managed to release underground albums that celebrate democracy and support the regime's nemesis, Suu Kyi, "the lady on the lake" (so called because she is serving out her house arrest in a decaying villa on a Rangoon lakeshore). "You can choose how to fight, with words, or with art or with music," says one rapper. "It doesn't matter what weapons you use. What matters is that you fight strongly and bravely." But as an entire generation of Burmese youth is now discovering, it also matters that you fight with subtlety and intelligence, choosing the battles that you can win.
This article originally appeared in the November 8, 2010 issue of TIME.