The crisis of recent months between the majority Buddhist Burmese and minority Islamic group calling themselves Rohingya serves as a reminder that Myanmar (Burma) is not a unified country in the sense of one nation, one state. The central government’s overreaction to an increase in Islamic radicalization in some rural areas by the brutal expulsion of 600,000-plus souls across the border into Bangladesh—though violent and tragic—should not be mistaken as unique in Myanmar’s history.
Stretching back at least seventy years to Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the various conflicts between the majority ethnic Burman along the central Irrawaddy valley down to the delta and the hundred or so different ethnolinguistic groups that populate the republic’s borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand attest even more vividly to disunity. The response to the Rohingya crisis is not without precedent. Wave the compass in the direction of northeast Myanmar and another ferocious struggle comes into purview between the central government and the Kachin peoples. Despite valid steps toward democratization—maybe less valid toward political liberalization—these types of communal conflicts have never not been an empirical reality for independent Myanmar. This cruel misalignment between majority-versus-minority aspiration is well documented both inside and outside Myanmar.
Less well documented are those perspectives that often never make their presence felt outside the smaller linguistic communities in Myanmar. The literary anthology Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, edited by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum, is a fascinating reversal to the usual absence of non-Burman viewpoints. The short stories gathered here are an eclectic mix by fourteen different authors. The writers are individuals from diverse backgrounds, including Mon, Karen, Kayah, Shan, Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine ethnic communities. To have a story originally composed in a local language like Kayah Li or Lai Hakha that is translated into mainstream Burmese is a rare enough event. To have that same story reworked for an English-speaking audience will mean that these authors will reach an even greater audience. Hidden Words Hidden Worlds excels at spotlighting some singular and intriguing stories for global consumption.
The second story in the collection “The Right Answer” by the Mon writer Min Yar Moe (whose nom de plume is Ahpor Rahmonya) examples this never-ending friction between the central Burmese government and the Mon people. The story captures a festive afternoon scene reminiscent of one of the public events held to celebrate a “Government and New Mon State Party Ceasefire Ceremony” in the middle 1990s. Before and during the proceedings, the town-dwelling protagonist is inspired to mull over the loss of local Mon language when none of the locals can remember the traditional Mon word for the wild geraniums used to decorate the event’s locale. The protagonist is also forced to come to terms with official state propaganda when she recognizes that one of the so-called evil Mon rebels turns out to be an old friend from her school days. The protagonist and, indeed, the entire community of Mon townspeople are forced to consider if there are any ulterior motives behind the peace ceremony. They query themselves if the retirement of rebel Mon activity against the central state is not in some way similar to the retirement of local language.
Many of stories in the collection, however, center more on cultural tensions than on the direct, fractious politics of combat and ceasefire. In the penultimate short story, “Thus Come, Thus Gone”, by ethnic Shan writer Sai San Pyae, the main character is a young man from a small town in the Shan hills, an area of high elevation which stretch from the east of Myanmar into Yunnan, Laos, and northern Thailand.
With his three friends, they travel high into the green, wet mountains to celebrate the Shan New Year Festival. Along the way, the protagonist is conscious of the erstwhile greatness of the Shan in days past, when they were ruled by independent Saopha princes, free from the influence of direct Burman political control from the Irrawaddy River.
In their travels, the young men sometimes become frightened at the sight of supposed mountain ghosts and sometimes shy around the company of Shan girls in far-off villages. When a murderer of a small hill village is captured, justice is meted out without consent of the central government. The main character is able to reflect again on relationship between his Shan history and culture and that of the central Burmese valley. The young men find comfort in the ever-changing nature of that relationship in their local Buddhist teachings of the impermanence of their time in this world. The young Shan man reflects:
Everything changes, nothing is permanent. Transformation itself is the only constant. Whatever exists one day will cease to exist the next.
Taken together, all fourteen writers cover a wide swath of territory of modern-day Myanmar in their works. All of the short stories serve as memorable glimpses into unique cultures and languages. The combination of them together performs as a wonderful introduction to the variety of literary voices hidden behind local languages in a country that has been almost entirely overlooked as a source of literature. There is a parallel between the tales of persecution by those individuals calling themselves Rohingya and the stories of conflict told by the myriad of other smaller groups found across the country.
Saliently, the collection neither distorts nor downplays the very real points of political, ethnic, and cultural tensions between the dominate Burman and the minority peoples of the hinterlands. These stories highlight the personhood and agency of the everyday individual—which may have otherwise been lost to some larger narrative if told from a central Burman perspective. Fascinating and smart, the eclectic collection of short stories found in Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar is recommended as much for its ability to serve as a primer on the ethnic diversity of Myanmar as it is for the enjoyableness of the stories.