Mahabandoola Park was crowded for the Tazaungdaing Full Moon Festival. For the occasion, Yangonites lit up candles and danced to music. Yet, amidst the hustle and bustle, a small group of teenagers wearing masks and carrying banners, protested for a different kind of lighting up ritual.
The group gathered around the National Independence Monument, and slowly attracted more supporters and curious passersby.
If the jagged design of the hemp leaf hadn’t become an international fashion statement, albeit a late 1990s one, you may be tempted to think they were just rappers lost in time. But combined with their banners and flags, it was clear that music (and fashion) weren’t their only concerns.
This was the “1111 Movement” (symbolising the current date, November 11), and they were to advocate for the legalisation of cannabis.
The Lantern Festival movement was organised by a small groups of stoners in Yangon, who congregated under the name “Legalise Cannabis”. Signs at the rally were written in Burmese and English, in black, orange and green fonts, exclaiming things like: “No one belongs in jail for a plant,” “Cannabis saves lives” and “Free the leaf”.
“We try to share our message with the government to legalise cannabis because it has very little negative effects on our personal health or society, unlike cigarettes and alcohol. So, please amend the cannabis prohibition law,” said Ko Sein Hla Maung, one of the organisers of the 1111 Movement, who claims that legalising cannabis can also benefit the economy.
The possession, production and sale of cannabis are illegal under the Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substance Law (1993), and carry severe penalties for offenders. Cannabis was first banned in Myanmar under British rule, then legalised around 1940, before being outlawed again in 1993. Under the current law, marijuana is treated much like the harder drugs opium and methamphetamines.
Earlier this year an American and two Burmese were arrested for growing 20 acres of hemp in upper Myanmar. However, they argued that many people in remote villages still rely on hemp for medical purposes.
On the other hand, cannabis is said to induce anxiety, short-term-memory loss and addiction in some users.
“Weed is organic with very few side effects like hard drugs, and is also used in some cancer treatments. If we get permission to grow weed in Myanmar, people will grow less opium. So, why don’t we use weed?” said Ko Myint Kyaw Thu, one of the organisers from North Dagon Township.