Times remain tough for Burmese writers. The introduction of new telecommunications networks in 2014â€”which provided Myanmar with the kind of smartphone access enjoyed by the rest of the worldâ€”has threatened to displace Myanmarâ€™s rich literary culture, a trend Suu Kyi has publicly complained about. Books remain a hard way to make a living; no one I know can afford to write or translate full-time. And Myanmarâ€™s literature has a small audience outside its borders;Â thereâ€™s a treasure trove of Burmese fiction that has yet to be translated into English.Â
But for a certain kind of writer inÂ Myanmar, the times couldnâ€™t be better.Â The reason is political. After decades of playing the dissident or submitting to censorship, writers have the chance to play lawmaker, cabinet member, and even president. The historic elections in November that swept the NLD to a partial control of the government came five years after Myanmarâ€™s military leaders launched a transition to civilian rule. This process resulted in the liberation of political prisoners who have long viewed the written word as a powerful means to register their dissent, and in the opening up of a new space for free expression and opinion for all members of society.Â The opposition, in large part, was characterized by its literary nature.
And so a blogger was voted into Yangonâ€™s regional legislature; 11 poets were elected to parliament.Â Myanmarâ€™s new minister of information, Pe Myint, has written short stories and translated everything fromÂ Chicken Soup for the SoulÂ to Chekhov and Turgenev.Â Myanmarâ€™s new government may be the most literary-minded in Asia, if not the world.Â
The admixture of literature and politics is hardly confined toÂ Myanmar.Â Vaclav Havel started life as a playwright and philosopher before becoming the first president of the Czech Republic. The architects of the Russian Revolution wereÂ writersÂ and heavily influenced by novelists and intellectuals in the 19th century.Â And, as noted, the current president of the United States was propelled to the Oval Office partly by the popularity of his memoir.
But Myanmarâ€™s long history of iron-fisted rule has resulted in a deep interweaving of political activity and the belles lettres.Â Paul Chambers of the Thailand-based Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs points to the countryâ€™s â€œhistory of oppression under kings, colonizer, and military which most easily enabled anonymous political poetry.â€ After the British removed the sole remaining royal dynasty in 1885, clearing the way for 63 years of complete colonial rule, there was a lot to write about, and not just in opposition to the government. The encounter with the British was also an encounter with Western literature, which was absorbed and refashioned with Burmese settings.Â
Writing in a 1958 supplement ofÂ The AtlanticÂ magazine, the author U Ohn Pe describes what he calls the first Burmese novel, published in 1904. It was, by all accounts, a domesticated version ofÂ The Count of Monte Cristo, â€œso well done that our grandmothers used to speak with real affection of the ill-fated raft-man Maung Yin Maung and his perilous adventures.â€ The motif was repeated with Sherlock Holmes, who became Detective Maung San Sha.Â
The independence movement that began to gain traction in the 1920s and 1930s gave literature a more political bent. The use of pen names and the popularity of subversive poetry would continue under the military government that seized power in 1962, following a 14-year period of independence. â€œUnder the dictatorship that was going on, there was censorship and a propaganda machine, and I think the only intellectuals who could cross the boundary of censorship and propaganda were writers,â€ the author Ma Thida, a former political prisoner and president of PENÂ Myanmar, told me.Â The student uprisings of 1988 further bound writers to politics, since many of them spent years in prison.
From 1962 to 1988, literary publications enjoyed slightly more leeway than news outlets. But the authorities were more thorough in the aftermath of the uprisings.
â€œA number of topics were strictly off-limits in non-government publications, such as democracy, human rights, the events of 1988, military officials, and so on,â€ wrote anthropologist Jennifer Leehey in a 2012 article in the Journal of Burma Studies. As a result, writers had to resort to allegory and figurative language, as Leehey shows in an analysis of a short story called â€œSaturnâ€ published in 1992 under the nom de plume Win Sithu.
As recounted by Leehey, the story starts off as a conversation about marriage between an old man named Ba-gyi Sein and his nephew, Nga Htun, who is seeking his uncleâ€™s advice about his new bride. Ba-gyi Sein trots out a proverb about the three things that â€œif done incorrectly, canâ€™t be put right.â€
One of the three is getting married. The other two are getting a tattoo and building a pagoda. From there, the narrator launches into a story about a certain villageâ€™s attempt to build a pagoda and everything that goes wrong because of an incompetent and deceitful mason. The story ends badly. The structure is damaged in a rainstorm and the mason later gets cancer of the throat. After telling the depressing tale, he goes to sleep, with no discussion of the young manâ€™s marital troubles.
Read in one way, Leehey writes, the pagoda represents the country, and the mason is a stand-in for the government that took over after 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. It is allegorical, but not so pointed as to get the author in trouble if an ambitious censor were on the hunt for hidden meanings.
Political reforms, combined with the end of censorship in 2012, have made it easier to write without such indirection. The past few years have seen a number of memoirs and, interestingly, Burmese translations of Myanmar-specific work originally written in English, like Karen Connellyâ€™s novel, The Lizard Cage, about political prisoners.
This artistic side ofÂ Myanmarâ€™s new rulers is cause for optimism, and news stories about the â€œpoetic parliamentâ€ have abounded. But itâ€™s worth remembering that the military still controls 25 percent of parliamentary seats, and several key security portfolios. A few poets and writers are not enough to saveÂ MyanmarÂ from its abundance of problems, which still include the muzzling of free expression. For months, I have been following the trial of Maung Saungkha, a 24-year-old poet who is facing charges of defamation and incitement for writing about having an imaginary tattoo of the president on his penis. He was recently attacked by another inmate while reciting a poem about the new government in court, and was taken to Yangon General Hospital to be treated for his injuries.Â
While observing his trial, it occurred to me thatÂ MyanmarÂ may be the only country on earth where poets are both elected to office and sent to jail at the same time.