The organizers of the First Annual Irrawaddy Literary Festival managed with great aplomb the accomplishment of Myanmar’s first such celebration of uncensored, unbridled literary appreciation. No small feat, the 3 day festival was held at the Inya Lake Hotel, a Yangon standby (with a particularly 60s style structure I might add) on Inya Lake. With booksellers, food vendors and entertainment from Nat dancers to traditional puppet shows, the festival had something for everyone.
Everyone can also agree, however, that it was the guest list that really made the media outlets and literary nerds swoon. The Lovely Lady (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or as some like to call her, Auntie Suu) came on Saturday to a sold out house, so crowded in fact that the ballroom was filled up two hours before she was meant to speak. Luckily, her microphone was rigged to an outdoor speaker, so one could laze under a palm tree or sweat under an umbrella to hear her. She championed the fight for literacy and talked about how every citizen should be taught to read as well as have access to books. One international school student asked her what her most inspirational book was and she said “Les Miserables” because of the spiritual and social revolutionary spirit of justice exemplified by some of the characters in the book.
It did puzzle one, however, to consider the fact that so much of Myanmar is in fact literate and books are by and large available. Poetry and biographies of former political prisoners are sold in supermarkets. Censorship is on its way out. With all the criticism of Auntie Suu going around, this is surely one of the more palpable ones: that she is for education reform but to what end? Where are the plans for integration of technology and online resources, computer access and multimedia libraries available for the youth of Myanmar? Some say she is a bit behind the times and others consider her just biding that time til her turn comes to run for president. Whatever the case may be, her presence brought a level of legitimacy to the festival that no one else could match.
The attendance and multiple lectures and readings over 3 days of the Myanmar poets was exceptional, with British poet James Byrne as well as Zeyar Lynn, Nyein Way, Ko Ko Thett (who is based in Austria) and Pandora, among others. Bones Will Crow is the book of Myanmar poetry translations published with the help of Byrne in the UK. His introductions of Zeyar Lynn as a world-famous poet translator, Nyein Way as the father of conceptual poetry in Myanmar and Pandora as a leading female voice among the voiceless was spot-on. Their poetry readings on the lake were open to all to participate and read their own works of poetry.
Timothy Garten-Ash was, in my humble opinion, one of the festival’s breaths of fresh air, in terms of an international guest. Between Jung Chang slamming China’s recent history (among a Myanmar audience who is, by and large, less than fond of the Chinese in general) and conservative teammates Rory Stewart and Jonathan Powell presenting on their expertise at propping up the “third world,” Mr. Garten-Ash offered some fresh perspectives to the current status of Myanmar’s transition into free press, expression and publication. He was a colleague of Michael Aris, Daw Suu’s late husband, and first came to Myanmar almost 20 years ago.
The first day he participated in a talk with U Ba Myint and Kyaw Zaw Min, two political commentators working in the field under censorship for decades. With the end of publication censorship come questions on registration and licensing, and whether or not these new forms of regulation are in fact just another form of censorship. What is the difference between freedom of expression and freedom of the press? Is it possible that despite the full repeal of censorship in August 2012, there remains a system in place to “protect a society from itself?” This is where post-publication censorship was mentioned, and it remains of great concern to journalists and artists working today. When asked where the red line is, U Ba Myint said: “…the thing you write that gets you thrown in jail without trial.” How to know what that is anymore?
Garten-Ash briefly mentioned Free Speech Debate and the lecture talk was over, but it left me still questioning what is to be done about self-censorship and where the courage goes when the war on press ends. Then again, perhaps it never does. Those questions continued when, the next day, TGA gave The Orwell Lecture with Pe Myint. Here are a few notes I took during the fascinating Orwellian look at Myanmar….
1. Burma Past – Imperialism
– political writings hugely influenced by the Spanish Civil War where he saw the 3 great evils of the 20th century come to life: Fascim, Communism, and Imperialism
2. Myanmar Past – Totalitarianism
– After the 3 evils were largely defeated or proven fruitless, Myanmar (pre and post name change) never changed and was still run by a military dictator and the SLORC turned SPDC
– there are 3 elements of Orwellian analysis: Language, Room 101, the Spirit
1. In Myanmar, the language was controlled by the Ministry of Truth, rewriting/recreating history, and the New Light of Myanmar (the government run newspaper)
2. Room 101 is the place of torture, where everyone is confronted with what they can’t stand. In Myanmar it was the abuse of military power, disappearances, political prisoners, and any number of ways the country was impoverished and devastated
3. The spirit is held by those who fought and spoke out, like Aung San Suu Kyi, Zaganar and the thousands of others who gave their lives to secure freedom for their people
3. Burma/Myanmar Transition
– How do you transition from dictatorship to democracy?
– “You never make threats of violence and you never answer to violent provocation.”
– “The way you start will determine the way you end up.”
– mentioned the Rohingya, immigration and economy
– Never forget Room 101
It was a compliment to the censorship talk and all the while offered a warning to the newly established democracy here in Myanmar, but bringing it into their own language, with their own characters, by a man who is close friends with their own hero; a true testament to the literary festival’s insight into a changing society.
Just one more criticism: not enough Southeast Asian speakers. We must also address what countries with shared histories and even more recent transitions are doing in a time of change and a rising Asia.