Features | Society | Southeast Asia

Myanmar’s Literary Talk Shows

Important forums for dialogue and discussion, literary events are in danger of being hijacked by religious extremists.

Myanmar’s Literary Talk Shows
Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

As a puny winter sun settled over the morning Irrawaddy river, eight men stood up, smoothed their winter coats, brushing off crumbs of cake and errant cheroot ash, and one by one introduced themselves.

“Ko Myo, my pen name is Ko Let Thit, I am from the Northern Moon.”

“Saw Myint Swe, my pen name is Saw Nadi, I am from the Northern Moon.”

U Than Swe was the last to shake my hand; a short man with dark Burmese skin, he chides me softly for standing to greet him and pushes me gently back onto the plastic stool.

“We are called the Northern Moon because we all live in the north of our country,” he explained, “and we Burmese love the moon. When the sun is out, it is too hot, when we see the moon, we are cool.”

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A former railway superintendent, he began the Northern Moon writers group 18 years ago as a chance to discuss literature and encourage others to write in this remote part of Myanmar. Since then they have published 38 books between them; short story anthologies, novels and historical narratives.

But it’s not just publications that Northern Moon prides itself on; for the second year running they have organized a literary talk show, bringing recognized writers from all over the country.

“Last year, we invited Nyi Pu Lay and Nay Win Myint,” U Than Swe said, with evident pride at securing the busy time of the scion of the famous Mandalay publishing family and the national book award winning translator of The Glass Palace.

And this year?

As luck would have it, in two days’ time would be the Northern Moon’s second annual literary talk show.

“This year we have invited Ju and Ye Shan, would you like to come?”

An Unlikely Venue

Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state in Upper Myanmar is not a place normally associated with literature. A frontier town caught in the middle of a malignant, decades old armed struggle for cultural and political recognition, it is not yet on the itinerary of either foreign tourists or businessmen as they descend on the country in the wake of political and economic reforms stemming from President Thein Sein’s ascension to power in late 2010. Yet Myitkyina is now an outpost of an altogether unexpected struggle that is flaring up all over the country; from Kachin state, to Mandalay Division in central Myanmar, to the de-facto capital, Yangon.

In an analogue nation like Myanmar, literary roadshows have played a pivotal role in the dissemination of information, especially in cities and towns far away from the centers of power like Yangon and Mandalay. Under past regimes these events were monitored and controlled to a degree of paranoia reserved for military juntas: promoters required operational licenses from the township administration officer, topics were prescreened, and the personal details of all who attended needed to be submitted. And yet advocates of literature would continue to sponsor events, and prominent writers and journalists would continue to put their freedom in jeopardy.

With the ending of pre-publication censorship in August 2012, followed by the abolition of the detested Press Scrutiny and Registration Board in January 2013, and the repeal of the infamous 1962 Printers and Publishers Act, literary events became a critical mechanism for dialogue and discussion on the socio-political reforms and their impact on societies, positive or otherwise, throughout Myanmar.

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Which is why it is disheartening to many in the literary community in Myanmar to find that these literary talk shows are now at risk of being undermined by the same internal, sectarian violence that has polarized the country and international observers.

On February 12, the National League for Democracy organized a talk to mark the 67th Union Day in Yangon in a north Yangon township. With the support of the local community, a license was readily given by the township administration officer; the event had even been blessed by the Sangha Nayaka, the Buddhist monastic authorities of Myanmar. Minutes before the start, a group of thirty monks arrived threatening to forcibly shut down the event if two of the four invited speakers were not removed, NLD lawyer Ko Ni and Open Society activist and writer Mya Aye.

Both are Muslims.

Knowing how quickly an incident can escalate into violence, the promoter decided to cancel the event. The monks themselves claimed to be from the Patriotic Buddhist Monks Union, the same group which forced the closing of an event three days later in the former royal city of Mandalay, celebrating the life of Independence hero and nation-maker, General Aung San.

Mya Aye once again was due to speak.

In January, former political prisoner, author, medical doctor, and practicing Buddhist Ma Thida (Sanchaung) was forbidden to speak at an event in Pyawbwe Tsp, Mandalay division due to her connections to the Muslim Free Hospital in Yangon where she occasionally volunteered her services. A similar event in Pande Tsp, Bago Division was also cancelled when cartoonist Aw Pikyel and writer Maung Tha refused to take the stage in solidarity with the lawyer Ko Ni, whose attendance, once again, was deemed too incendiary.

To compound this domino of forced cancellations, and to highlight the gap between national policy and ground-level implementation, another event in Pyawbwe Township was targeted, this time by the township administration officers themselves. Two writers, Nyi Pyu Lay and U Phone (Chemistry), were accused of using the talk show to recruit and propagandize for the NLD; a charge they denied yet is not illegal regardless. Authorities later banned the distribution of the recorded DVD of the event, a vital income generator for literary event promoters.

The prospect of fringe religious groups hijacking literary events to publicize their own cause is a disturbing trend and a serious stumble in the gains made to freedom of speech in Myanmar over the last two years. Yet, the popularity of literary events themselves, with numerous shows across the country every month, should prove a barrier to any concerted attempt at manipulation on a nationwide scale for a political or nationalist agenda.

In March, Ma Thida (Sanchaung) as chairperson of Pen Myanmar led a delegation of more than 30 writers to the coastal delta town of Pathein. In the run up to April’s Thingyan water festival, successful literary events were held in Magwe and Bago divisions, many of them following the same model as Northern Moon in Myitkyina.

An Attentive Audience

Two nights later, at the Yuzana Monastery compound, I found myself scanning the book stalls in the car park. Candles lined in a row exposed the covers from the dark: translated Bertil Linter books, biographies of African war leaders and of course, the Northern Moon’s own anthologies slipped out of the shadows. There was another blackout, with electricity to the town supplied by the Kachin Independence Army, it’s not a surprise the cuts are more severe than in Yangon. U Than Swe, relaxing with a cigarette, took me by the arm and led me into the striking monastic hall.

The Northern Moon’s promotion for the night, the flyer distribution and adverts placed in local newspapers, had drawn an audience of at least a thousand. Divided schoolchildren, still in their purple and yellow uniforms, sat cross legged on the floor, female university students, notebooks open before them sat further back, monks on plastic chairs lined the right hand side.

Ye Shan, a National Literature Award and organizer of his own tea-shop literary events in Yangon, didn’t need any notes. For ninety minutes he bellowed into the microphone, his voice rising above the drone of the generators keeping the spotlights alive. At times the audience listened intently, nodding their heads in agreement, at others they dissolved into laughter. They came to see him because he is famous; they wanted to hear his views on the country. And he didn’t disappoint them. He raged against the construction of the Myitsone Dam, a Chinese backed hydro-electric power plant that threatens the source of Myanmar’s biggest river, the Irrawaddy, and millions of people who live on its shores. He expressed hope for a political end to the civil war, he described the optimism of change in Lower Myanmar, and how he and others like him are grasping the opportunities before them but warned of caution, that change so quickly given can just as easily be taken away.

Waiting to one side, was Ma Ju, Myanmar’s most prominent feminist writer, known for her writing on strong female characters, for the women that bind and support families and the role women can and should play in the future Myanmar.

“Sometimes, the writers can get quite angry when they speak,” U Than Swe chuckled, “they are very passionate people. That is why people come to hear them, that is why it is important we have these events.”