After the Myanmar coup last year, the country saw increasing rates of both censorship and persecution of dissidents. The relative access to and freedom of the Internet went into reverse. Born out of a desire to preserve the online voices of outrage, grief and dissent, editors Ko Ko Thett and Brian Haman assembled Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring, an anthology of poems and essays— both in English and translated from the original Burmese—that bear witness to the seismic changes in Burma/Myanmar’s politics.
Thett and Haman have termed these directly-observed first-hand accounts of “witness writings”. A manifestation of Myanmar’s prolific poetic landscape, the editors have organized the anthology in reverse chronological order to illustrate the possibilities in the literary scene in three different periods of recent history.
The book’s first section includes writings from the 2021 coup itself, and features celebrated poet K Za Win’s final poem yearning for wider participation of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) at that time peaceful protests and labor strikes organized by the opposition activists. It was written before he was shot dead by the security forces at a protest in the following month:
The Revolution won’t materialise
out of your mere thoughts.
Like blood, one must rise.
What started off as peaceful protests were met with indiscriminate force, and the country descended into full-blown violence and chaos. Thida Shania, a young Rohingya poet, describes the horror of living in this periods:
Where can I hide my body?
Corpses, everywhere in every house.
How can I die in my land?
My kin have been buried alive.
How can I cross the border?
Rivers bleed human blood.
Mya Zinyaw’s essay “The Bank” sardonically discusses what passes for highlights in the people’s everyday lives:
The actual cash withdrawal took no more than five minutes. For that moment we waited nearly three hours. I was very thrilled when the cash was handed to us. Even a lottery winner wouldn’t have been as joyous as me.
In this country it made us happy when we received our own money as a reward for our long and laborious waits.
The book moves on, or perhaps backwards, to the period 2010-20 to feature writings from “transitional Myanmar”, to illustrate the extent to which Myanmar has regressed. After decades of political isolation and censorship since the 1960s, an at least partial democratic transition coupled with the circa 2010 arrival of the digital age in Myanmar, perhaps represented the best of times in the country’s recent history. Poet Han Lynn’s “Elevator” from this period demonstrates both creativity and sarcasm:
The coffin doesn’t fit
in the elevator.
Let’s keep it vertical.
The body will
This section also features the controversial poem “Image” by activist and poet Maung Saungkha, who was jailed for six months for penning this poem:
On my manhood rests
a tattoo portrait of
My beloved wife
found that out after we wed.
She was utterly disgusted,
With greater openness and freedom however, under-exposed social issues such as disparities in wealth were brought to light, as in this poem by K Za Win:
In this country
where the majority is filthy-poor
and a minority is filthy-rich
it gives me no pleasure
to be a patriot.
The book’s final section covers writings from 1988 to 2010, in which the past mirrors the present, a longer view which encourages reflection on the implications and effect on the youth of Myanmar of inter-generational transmission of emotional wounds and experience of everyday political violence. In 1988, the aftermath of the iconic student protests that saw the rise of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi winning an election in which the ruling military junta or the Tatmadaw refused to acknowledge, as well as her subsequent house arrest, draw familiar yet doleful parallels with Myanmar last year. Min Lu’s 1989 post-coup poem “What’s going on?” widely circulated last year:
Now that we’ve become a failed state
General Aung San is the culprit.
Even his own daughter is restricted
from laying a wreath at his tomb.
The book’s final poem, translated from Burmese and titled “Map of Myanmar” by Min Nyein Aye, leaves much room for reflection – —in particular, what’s the ‘next’ there will be none of?
All that remain are
a pebble in my fist,
a water bottle in my backpack &
a heap of bones.
Ko Ko Thett, a bilingual Burma-born poet, had his first-hand experience – “a brush”—with the Burmese authorities in the 1990s. Living an itinerant life since and currently settled in the UK, his most recent poetry collection is Bamboophobia, displaying the contradictions of life and history in and outside of Burma. Co-editor Haman is a writer on contemporary culture from Asia, and has been editing for The Shanghai Literary Review since 2017 with an upcoming book on contemporary Chinese-language poetry in translation and an edition of the unpublished works of exiled Austrian Jewish writer Mark Siegelberg.
The editors seek to demonstrate the “power and possibilities of the written word when faced with the barrel of a gun” and that Burmese writings are“aesthetically accomplished and significant”. With a wide group of contributing writers of diverse ethnicities, both young and old, this anthology perhaps is one of the best representations of the voices of Burma/Myanmar and a cri-de-coeur of resistance against its ruling military regimes that would otherwise be the only ones defining the recent history and perhaps the future of this country.