Where Writers Aren’t Free

Five decades of military rule in Myanmar have kept it politically isolated, economically undeveloped and, in terms of freedom of expression, very unfree. That may be about to change. In last November’s election, the National League for Democracy party (NLD), headed by populist leader and writer Aung San Suu Kyi, won nearly 80 percent of seats. But due to a provision designed by the military preventing anyone with foreign-born children from becoming president—a thinly veiled attempt at keeping Suu Kyi out of office, since she has two British sons—it is unclear whether she will be able to lead directly. In fact, recent developments suggest she will be forced to govern via a proxy who will be chosen in the next few weeks. Regardless, it was Suu Kyi’s leadership that led her party to victory and many feel that one way or another, Myanmar will soon have its first female leader. And hopefully more freedom.

Weeks before the historic election, I traveled to Myanmar and sat down with a group of women writers. I wanted to know what they thought of the election, and more specifically, if they thought the new government would improve life for writers. Over the course of the last 50 years thousands of writers, journalists and activists in Myanmar have been arrested and imprisoned, many of them women.

I met the writers in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, inside the small offices of PEN Myanmar, a group affiliated with the international literary and human rights organization. We were a group of six. There were four writers from Myanmar (both established and younger), myself and PEN Myanmar’s program coordinator who helped translate our conversation.

We took seats around a small coffee table and began with the politics of the day.

“Do you feel freer now that Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD won the election?” I asked.

The first writer to open up was Khin Mya Zin, recipient of the prestigious Myanmar National Literary Award for her short story collection, Clouds in the Sky and Other Stories. A previous novel detailing the lives of ordinary people struggling under a corrupt authority was published in Thailand, using a pen name. Her work has also been included in the radio broadcast Democratic Voice of Burma.

“I feel freer to write now but not completely free,” she said. “I do have hope for the future. Freedom of expression will increase and there are more literary journals publishing women writers now. There will be more liberalizations in the future but still I expect very little from the military because of land grabbing.”

I had been in Myanmar a mere two weeks but had already read numerous articles about land grabbing—government takeovers of resource-rich land from poor communities. They seemed to be in the English-language newspaper every day, something I took as the sign of a healthy media environment, or at least one that was becoming healthier.

I asked Zin how land grabbing affected women specifically.

“[Land grabbing] affects women’s ability to work and support their families. There is a true story of a woman who was selling petrol on her land, which was located beside the highway. A big petrol station owned by a government crony was allowed to build a gas station next to her land and so this woman suddenly lost her livelihood. When women’s livelihoods disappear, the whole community becomes vulnerable. Also, many women who cannot make a living in Myanmar try to find work in China or Thailand, which means many of them end up in human trafficking. If you want to write about rural life in the villages, as I do, you have to be careful not to arouse political and economic tension. Still, I write about this,” she explained.

Criticizing Myanmar’s government is a serious matter.

Writers who have spoken out against government policies have paid a high price. Dr. Ma Thida—a best-selling author, surgeon and PEN Myanmar’s director—was imprisoned for 20 years because of her support for Suu Kyi. Although she was released early on humanitarian grounds, she remains an outspoken advocate for human rights. Still, there are many others who remain behind bars.

With such extraordinary pressures bearing down on writers, I wanted to know how the women at PEN Myanmar were able to take on controversial topics.

“How can I not write about this?” Zin said.

A courageous response. But I wondered if Myanmar’s transition four years ago to a quasi-civilian model of governance—albeit one run by a man handpicked by Myanmar’s former military leader—had eased the once-notorious censorship laws.

Everyone in the room smiled politely when I asked about this. Then, Zarchi Oo, PEN Myanmar’s program director, explained, “Before 2011, all work had to be submitted before publication to the government for approval. This practice has technically ended, but not much has changed. Now, whatever someone writes is viewed and approved after it’s published. So it’s not much different.”

Mi Chan Wai, a best-selling author and recipient of the National Literary Award for her collection Heartbroken Oyster and Other Sea Stories, explained that life under strict censorship laws meant no one talked openly and that friends were carefully chosen. Above all, she said, “You had to know your censors.”

But despite continued censorship, Wai, like Zin, said she felt an obligation to speak on behalf of communities that had little or no voice.

“But how do you know what to write about and what to avoid in order to stay safe?” I asked.

Htar Oakthon, a successful crime writer whose work has been adapted for Myanmar television and film, said, “We listen to the radio.”

“They listen for what the government considers sensitive topics,” Oo added. “But still sometimes even the most unpolitical topics used to get flagged. The censorship committee exercised restrictions on any matter. For example, Mi Chan Wai wrote about a battle between an octopus and a shark in one of her stories. In the story, the octopus emitted a purple color to blind the shark. At the time, the police used smoke bombs at student uprisings to disperse crowds. To the censors, the scene from the story coincided with the uprising incident and the censor board decided to cut the whole paragraph.”

Realizing that being a writer here means becoming an expert in reading and writing in code led me to ask these writers where they find support. At first, there was a long silence, then lots of discussion in Myanmar (the name of the local language) before Oo broke it off to say, “They don’t understand the question. There is no money to write here. No one helps you.”

I clarified that I was talking about moral and practical support like editing and feedback.

“We write our piece and send it to the editor. That is where we get feedback and editing,” Zin said.

Oakthon laughed and added, “We all have day jobs.”

I asked then what they felt women writers in Myanmar needed most.

“We need to able to make a livable income as writers,” Oakthon explained, echoing a refrain familiar to women writers everywhere.

But it was more than this, I learned. There are many obstacles to be overcome before Myanmar’s literary community can be truly free.

One obstacle has to do with the difficulty of distributing books due to a weak postal service and transportation infrastructure, but there is also the issue of translation. Although Zin and Oakthon are successful, established writers, they write only in Myanmar, and so little of their work has been translated into English or other languages. Similarly, little of the world’s literature has been translated into Myanmar. And while the PEN Myanmar center has tried to change this by hosting literary discussions and being a link between readers and writers, much more needs to be done.

In our discussion, I also learned that one of the most fundamental obstacles Myanmar writers face is the fact that after decades of censorship, reading itself has declined sharply in the country. If a book sells 1,000 copies, it qualifies as a best seller.

Oo shared a personal story that illustrates this point. “I have an uncle,” she said, “who was sent to prison when he was 15 for having a copy of the Communist Manifesto.”

When it was finally time for our meeting to end, I thanked everyone for taking the time to talk with me. We took a few photos and many of the writers filed out. Only Oakthon, the film and television writer, and Gar Oo Noon Ko, a widely published young novelist whose short stories have been adapted for television and who recently won third place in PEN Myanmar’s Peace Literary Award, stayed behind.

“My father’s English is much better than mine. He learned it when education was better. I’m sorry,” Ko said, her voice shaking from nervousness. “We are shy to talk to strangers in my country.”

I told her not to worry.

“I am mostly a fiction writer,” she explained. “Sometimes, I want to write articles about the true things happening in my country but I can’t because of my parents. They are always afraid. I’d like to write articles for newspapers but my mother says, ‘Don’t write that.’ She’s afraid I’ll go to jail. Still, I believe the new government will make us freer in 2016. I am hopeful.”

Then she added, “Readers neglect books here. I love books. Now, most people read only online, on Facebook.”

She asked if I thought book culture could be revived in Myanmar. I said I thought it could, and explained that people still read books in the U.S. despite the popularity of e-readers. I didn’t say that the level of education is declining in the U.S. too, that every woman writer I know has a day job or two, and that gender bias within the U.S. publishing industry is alive and well; I wanted to offer her something positive. After all, the NLD and Suu Kyi, herself a writer, would be governing the country soon. Things could improve. More prisoners could be released, censorship truly abolished. In the two weeks I had been in Myanmar, hope was in the air. Anything seemed possible.

But really, what did I know about the difficulties Ko might face as a professional writer in Myanmar?

I told her the only thing I could, which was to keep writing. She was already successful in Myanmar but I encouraged her to submit to literary journals outside the country. As I packed up my notebook and pen, I said, “The world is waiting for your stories.”

And I meant it.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user photosteve101 licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Leslie Absher is a journalist, essayist and author. Her memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl was published by Latah Books and was a finalist for the Judy Grahn Lesbian Nonfiction Triangle Publishing Award. She is a regular contributor to Ms. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Independent., Greek Reporter and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, Calif., with her lawyer and comic book writer wife. Visit her at leslieabsher.com.Visit her at leslieabsher.com.