RANGOON—American singer-songwriter Jason Mraz mixed entertainment with education to become the first world-class entertainer in decades to perform in Burma, with a concert to raise awareness of human trafficking.
Mraz’s 2008 hit “I’m Yours” was the finale for Sunday night’s concert before a crowd of about 50,000 people at the base of the famous hilltop Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, the country’s biggest city.
Local artists, including a hip-hop singer, also played at the event organized by MTV in cooperation with US and Australian government aid agencies and the anti-slavery organization Walk Free.
Burma is emerging from decades of isolation under a reformist elected government that took office last year after almost five decades of military rule. It has been one of the region’s poorest countries, and its bad human rights record made it the target of political and economic sanctions by Western nations.
But democratic reforms initiated by President Thein Sein have led to the lifting of most sanctions, and the country is hopeful of a political and economic revival. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy opposition leader, was released from house arrest in late 2010 and won a seat in parliament last April.
Mraz called his top-billed appearance at the concert a “tremendous honor.”
“I think the country is, at this time, downloading lots of new information from all around the world,” he said. “I’ve always wanted my music to be here, (for) hope and celebration, peace, love and happiness. And so I’m delighted that my music can be a part of this big download that Burma is experiencing right now.”
Organizers said Mraz was the first international artist to perform at an open-air, mass public concert in Burma. Jazz artists Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Charlie Byrd visited the country under U.S. government sponsorship in the 1970s, when it was still called Burma, but played at much smaller venues.
Many in the crowd queued for two hours before being admitted to the concert site. Rangoon native Sann Oo, 31, wearing a white T-shirt with a sketch of Mraz, said he was pleased that Mraz had come and that there would be a broadcast of the event.
“His visit can promote the image of Burma, because people outside have been seeing the country as an insecure place, and poor,” he said. “Now they can see how we look like from the concert. It also opens the potential for more concerts by foreign artists.”
Mraz has a history of involvement with human rights and other social causes.
But there was some criticism of his visit by campaigners for Burma’s Muslim Rohingya community, which has been the target of ethnic-based violence this year that has forced scores of thousands of people from their homes into makeshift refugees camps. They feel Burma’s government has been complicit in the discrimination, and that Mraz’s visit provides it cover with the image of being a defender of human rights.
Walk Free used the occasion of Sunday’s concert to launch a campaign calling on the world’s major corporations “to work together to end modern slavery by identifying, eradicating and preventing forced labor in their operations and supply chains.” They are seeking to have the companies make a “zero tolerance for slavery pledge” by the end of March next year.
“While many think of slavery as a relic of history, experts estimate that there are currently 20.9 million people living under threat of violence, abuse and harsh penalties,” the Australia-based group said in a statement. “Within this massive number, the majority of people—more than 14.2 million—are in a forced labor situation, used to source raw materials, and create products in sectors such as agriculture, construction, manufacturing and domestic work.”