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Emerging from the cocoon: literary culture in Myanmar

Literary culture in Myanmar is emerging from a cocoon in the form of one of the world’s most repressive censorship regimes, which encased it for fifty long years. In 2012, as part of a new democratic transition, the military government made a surprise announcement that it was lifting the most onerous of its censorship laws.

Emerging from the cocoon: literary culture in Myanmar
Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition, Ellen Wiles (Columbia University Press, September 2015)

Suddenly writers were free to write and speak about whatever they wanted—or so it seemed. Old habits die hard, and escalating events in the lead-up to the recent landmark election proved that freedom of expression was far from guaranteed. Even the jubilant landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) doesn’t guarantee the end of old censorship practices, but it certainly starts the process of laying more concrete foundations for freedom of expression.

 

I was working in Myanmar as a human rights lawyer when the transition was new and the first positive changes were sinking in. One of my first self-appointed tasks upon arrival was to find some contemporary literature in translation to read so as to get a sense of the place, but after trawling what seemed like all of Yangon’s bookshops I concluded that there was hardly any to be found.

Unsurprising, it transpired, particularly given the extent of restrictions there had been on both the import and export of books for so long. On speaking to writers about their remarkable experiences under censorship, and how they continued to produce literary work despite the obstacles, and upon hearing how keen they were to share all this with the wider world for the first time, I quickly realized that their personal stories merited a wider audience, and would complement a new selection of translations of their literary work.

And so my book, Saffron Shadows, was born. It contains in-depth interviews with writers from nine generations, paired with new translations of their work, and contextualized with descriptions of the contemporary and historical literary, cultural, social and political landscape.

* * *

Digging back beyond the fascinating recent history of censorship literature in Myanmar to understand its roots, I discovered that its literary culture has a long and varied history, with the earliest-known works of literature dating from the mid-15th century in the Bagan dynasty. Most took the form of jataka stories: tales of the lives of the Buddha. Poetry became the most prominent secular form of literature, often circulated amongst royal courtiers; one royal maid wrote a poem about fifty-five styles of hairdressing.

The golden age of Myanmar’s literature is said to be the mid- to late 18th century, a time when the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, was introduced to the royal court and had a significant influence on poetry, plays and storytelling.

The novel did not appear until western missionaries brought over printing presses in the 19th century and supported translations of modern novels such as Sherlock Holmes into Burmese. The form took off amongst native writers, and one of the earliest Burmese novels is an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. But as resistance to colonialization increased, a nationalist literary movement emerged.

 

Writers such as P. Mo Nin encouraged Burmans to think for themselves, break with tradition, and write in more modern, direct prose about the national culture. A movement called hkit san (testing the times) formed in Rangoon University, cultivating a literary aesthetic of direct, simple literary prose, breaking from royal traditions. In the 1920s and 1930s, monthly literary magazines such as Dagon were published to connect more readers with literature, and they often contained novels in installments. Directly anticolonial literature soon developed as resistance to British rule grew, led by Thakin Kodaw Hmaing. Around this time, Burmese writers initiated the unique phenomenon of “literary talks”, or haw byo bwe , whereby they would take to the stage to speak to the public, in towns and villages all around the country, about literary matters and sociopolitical issues, particularly during the month of December, which became referred to as Writers’ Month.

Independence finally arrived in 1948, but governance was troubled, with uprisings and secession campaigns in various parts of the country. A democratic government led by U Nu was successfully elected in 1960 with a large majority, but just two years later, Ne Win and his Revolutionary Council took control in a military coup. The junta quickly began its campaign to turn all writers into propaganda tools. At first, the Revolutionary Council chose to wield the carrot rather than the stick, and held a National Literary Conference where the new Minister for Information and Culture proposed that writers should prioritize writing for peasants and workers, that literature should “participate in the great socialist revolution” supporting government aims, and that all involved with it should be considered “literary workers”.

But the government quickly became impatient with writers who refused to conform to its expectations. After the brutal suppression of student protests, writers spoke out in critical articles about the dangers of military rule, which prompted the regime to announce that all library clubs and similar associations had to register or shut down, and censorship began in earnest.

 

During the repressive censorship years, journalists, writers, artists and activists in Myanmar risked blacklisting, torture and decades of imprisonment for speaking freely. Off-limits were any references to political figures or views that contravened the government line, such as the renowned critical comedian Zarganar who openly mocked the generals in his performed sketches, but so were subjects or images that breached conservative cultural norms.

Writers had to find creative techniques to sneak coded messages past the censors. Many regularly used allegories and metaphors such as a rose to refer to Aung San Suu Kyi, after she was placed under house arrest from 1989 for her role in co-founding the NLD, and some, like poet Zeyar Lynn, disguised messages in postmodern complexity to the point where the censors would be unable to understand what the poem was about. The government was slow to catch onto the internet, but soon caught onto critical blogs and punished the creators, and YouTube and other social media sites were completely barred. Any form of public protest was quickly and often violently quashed, and could trigger the entire internet system being shut down.

In an effort to control the style and content of all print publications, the government ensured that its propaganda mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, was the only legal daily newspaper. Only “important” and positive happenings were reported there, such as the opening of a new pagoda by a military official. A state publishing house and writer’s award were set up to promote “appropriate” writing, which usually meant glorifying the struggles of the optimistic worker. In contrast, all non-state publishers had to submit fifty copies of any book or magazine to the censors in advance of publication. It was so costly and risky to submit books to the censors, that magazines containing short stories became the most prevalent form of literature, alongside safe pop fiction such as romance.

The lifting of the most onerous censorship laws in 2012 caused widespread astonishment and delight. The government spoke positively about the future of free speech for everyone in the country. Daily news journals were finally allowed to exist to rival the government’s, and publishers no longer had to submit material in advance.

A few writers and artists responded vigorously to the new freedoms by smashing through censors’ taboos and putting out provocative new work. For instance, young writer-publisher Myay Hmone Lwin reinstated his blacklisted publishing house and published his novel which described the 2007 “Saffron Revolution”, a mass, peaceful protest led by monks, which was quickly quashed by  a vicious military crackdown on monks and protesters. Zarganar staged his first public anyeint (a distinct Burmese form of performance combining comedy, dance and music) in years, provocatively including comedy sketches that had got him imprisoned in the past, and more recently, artist Ma Ei launched a solo performance show called Period about her experience of menstruation, a rarely-mentioned subject in a society where discrimination against women is rife.

However, most writers I spoke to, particularly those of high public regard, confessed that they had put literature aside once they finally had the chance to talk to the people “directly” about politics in speeches, essays and news journal articles. Slowly but surely, cautiously critical opinion pieces emerged and multiplied, though few were overt and hardly any made personal references to members of the military or government. Some writers went further towards direct political action; Nay Phone Latt, a writer who was formerly a political prisoner, proceeded to stand for election for the NLD.

Other writers found it hard to break out of the rut of their evasion techniques honed so carefully over the years; the restrictions imposed upon them had in fact become a source of a particular mode of creativity. As poet Zeyar Lynn put it, rather mournfully, he couldn’t stop himself hiding messages in poems that he no longer needed to hide, even though he wasn’t particularly worried about the consequences. This had become his mode of literary expression. He felt too old to change, and looked to the younger generation of poets to take the lead, talking with enthusiasm about new poetic collectives publishing their work online.

 

But it did not take long for the rosy horizon to cloud over. It soon became clear that the government’s attitude to peaceful protest, a vital form of freedom of expression, remained hardline, when farmers and monks protesting for land rights at Letpadaung mine—where the government had engineered a mass handover of productive agricultural land for Chinese mining activity—were attacked with chemical weapons by police. And after a short period of legal limbo for freedom of expression in printed form, the government passed a law requiring all publishers to obtain a government licence, with criminal penalties including fines and imprisonment for non-compliance.

As time passed, and the reality of the election grew closer, the government started to show further signs of regression towards censorship. Violent and punitive incidents escalated against those who continued to question its policies. A journalist was locked up for “trespass” for entering a government building in order to carry out a pre-arranged interview with an official; a bar owner was jailed for displaying a “blasphemous” image of a Buddha; and, most recently, Myanmar’s “penis poet” has been arrested: a 23 year old, Maung Saunghka, who posted a poem on Facebook including the lines:

 

I have the president’s portrait tattooed on my penis
How disgusted my wife is

 

In a climate of caution, while the same military men remain in place at the top, many writers and artists have continued self-censoring, or sneaking covert criticism into their work using the old sly techniques out of fear.

 

In a sinister development, it now appears clear that the military-led government had been deliberately fuelling a virulent hate speech campaign against the country’s minority Muslim population, in support of a longstanding campaign by hardline Buddhist monks: a classic means of generating patriotism. The campaign has resulted in appalling incidents of violence, particularly towards the Rohingya people who are still denied citizenship. In contrast to other moves to restrict freedom of speech, this is an example of the government exploiting it to the point at which it is usually regulated in order to protect people from violence.

In what is perhaps the most overt signal that the so-called democratic transition was not genuine, the government refused to amend the constitution to remove the military’s hold on power after the election, insisting that 25% must remain in parliament, allowing them to retain an effective power of veto, even under the new NLD government. They also refused to amend the clause preventing Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president, though she has dismissed this, insisting that she will lead the party from a position above the president, whom she will appoint herself. And no doubt, if she remains in power, she will, in due course, attempt to change the constitution.

Happily, the election has gone as well as could really have been expected, with the election process being deemed “better than expected” by EU observers, albeit not free and fair, and the NLD emerging triumphant.

But even if the military respects the result (which they have so far claimed they will but is by no means guaranteed), their political power will persist. And while it does, the spectre of censorship will continue to haunt. Many writers and artists will continue self-censoring, would-be protesters and activists will remain wary, and they will all have good reasons to be dubious about the future of freedom of expression in the country, even with Aung San Suu Kyi at the helm.

However, a few dedicated writers from all generations are determined to further the cause of reinvigorating Myanmar’s literary culture and promoting freedom of expression. Many of these writers have gained confidence through international connections, particularly through the Iowa International Writing Programme, which nearly half of the writers I featured in Saffron Shadows had attended.

Notable characters taking new action in the scene include journal editor and short story writer Pe Myint who initiated a literary conference last year to address what he sees as the sharp decline in literary quality over the censorship years, while also sitting on the country’s temporary Press Council to further the cause of media freedoms; Ma Thida who fought for and now co-leads the new Myanmar PEN; and young writer and publisher Myay Hmone Lwin, who has just published the first ever bilingual collection of poetry (his own) in Burmese and English, intended for both international and domestic readerships, which he recently promoted at the Singapore Writers Festival.

As democracy in Myanmar rolls closer, so—these writers believe—does a more vibrant, varied and international literary culture.


Ellen Wiles, author of Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition, is a British writer, curator, and scholar specializing in literary culture and ethnography.