BURMESE LITERATURE: FOLK TALES, CLASSICAL WORKS, MODERN WRITERS AND CENSORSHIP

BURMESE LITERATURE

According to Countries and Their Cultures: “The focus of writing within Burmese society was, and to a large extent still is, focused on writing for theater performances (pwe) and producing texts relating to Buddhism. In addition, since the nineteenth century there is a fair amount of popular fiction. There is also some British fiction from the colonial period that is set in Burma. Among the early British works of fiction concerned with the Burmese are two novels by H. Fielding: The Soul of a People (1898) and Thibaw's Queen (1899). By far the best known British novel set in Burma is George Orwell's Burmese Days (1934), a critical examination of British colonial rule..[Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

Dagon Taya, Burma's leading poet, wrote: "In search of white among the white/ In search of black among the black./ It is very difficult to find the real things/ trying to get the truth out of false things/ years have gone/ too long to count." [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

The literature of Burma (or Myanmar) spans over a millennium. Burmese literature was historically influenced by Indian and Thai cultures, as seen in many works, such as the Ramayana. The Burmese language, unlike other Southeast Asian languages (e.g. Thai, Khmer), adopted words primarily from Pa-li rather than from Sanskrit. In addition, Burmese literature has the tendency to reflect local folklore and culture. Burmese literature has historically been a very important aspect of Burmese life steeped in the Pali Canon of Buddhism. Traditionally, Burmese children were educated by monks in monasteries in towns and villages. During British colonial rule, instruction was formalised and unified, and often bilingual, in both English and Burmese known as Anglo-Vernacular. Furthermore, Burmese literature played a key role in disseminating nationalism among the Burmese during the colonial era, with writers such as Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, an outspoken critic of British colonialism in Burma. [Source: Wikipedia]

The bestselling Burmese novel Thway (“Blood”) by Garnye Gyaw Mamalay was written in 1990. Set in the 1960s, it focuses on a Japanese woman who searches for her father’s second family who she didn’t know existed until he tells her on his deathbed. The Japanese film director Koji Chino made a Japanese-Myanmar film of the novel that was filmed in Myanmar.

Somerset Maugham’s Gentlemen of the Parlor is an account of the author's trip through what was then Burma and Siam, ending in Haiphong, Vietnam. Whether by river to Mandalay, on horse through the mountains and forests of the Shan States to Bangkok, or onwards by sea, Maugham's vivid descriptions bring a lost world to life. Maugham's success as a writer enabled him to indulge his adventurous love of travel, and he recorded the sights and sounds of his wide-ranging journeys with an urbane, wry style all his own.

Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “Local impressions of the past were quite different from what was portrayed in the books about Burma that I had brought along to read, such as Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar and A.T.Q. Stewart's The Pagoda War. The tendency to romanticize this period in history seems almost universal among English-language writers. Rare is the book about Burma that doesn't gush the obligatory line or two of Kipling — “Come you back you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay!” I saw children reading comic books depicting Burmese warriors and their struggle to keep the Royal Palace in Mandalay from falling into the hands of British troops. [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002]

How The Coconut Came To Myanmar: A Burmese Folk Tale

Recalling a famous Burmese folk tale, Madhu Gurung wrote in the Pitara kids network: Myanmar is known as the golden land of gold dome pagodas and swaying coconut trees. Coconut trees were originally called 'gon-bin' in Myanmar language, which translated in English means the mischief-maker's tree. Why it is known by this most unusual name, is because once centuries ago, a raft carrying three people landed on the Burmese coast. The people on board this raft were taken to the king. On questioning them the king learnt that they had been banished from their own kingdom because of the crimes they had committed. [Source:Madhu Gurung, Pitara kids network **]

“One man was a thief who stole from other people; the next was a witch who used to cast wicked spells and frightened the people. While the third was a mischief-maker, who did nothing right and only harmed everyone by telling tales and lies. The king on hearing their story ordered his minister to give a thousand pieces of silver to the thief and allowed him to settle in Burma. For the witch too, he gave the same orders. But for the mischief-maker, he ordered him to be executed at once. **

“To his astonished courtiers the king explained that the thief stole from others because he was poor and if he had enough to live on, he would make a good subject. The witch too cast spells because she was envious, poor and unhappy and if she had enough to live on, she too would make a good subject. But for the third, the king pointed out that "once a mischief-maker, always a mischief-maker". So the mischief-maker was taken to the seashore and beheaded. The next day when the king's officer passed the place of the mischief maker's execution, he was surprised to see the head of the mischief-maker open its mouth and shout out aloud, "Tell your king to come and bow before me or else I will knock his head off." **

The frightened officer ran to the king to report the most unusual happening. The king did not believe him and felt he was making fun of him. "My Lord if you do not believe me, send someone with me and he will confirm what I just saw." So the king ordered another officer to accompany the first. When they reached the execution grounds the head lay silent. The second officer reported what he saw and in anger the King ordered the first officer to be executed for being a liar. The unfortunate officer was taken to the execution grounds and beheaded. On seeing this, the head of the mischief-maker laughed aloud saying, "Ha, ha! I can still make mischief even though I am dead." **

The officer went rushing back to the palace and reported to the king. The king was filled with grief and remorse. The king realised that the mischief-maker's head would create further problems, so he ordered the head to be buried in a deep pit. The next day a strange tree grew where the head was buried, bearing the most unusual fruit, which resembled the mischief-maker's head. This was the coconut tree which the Burmese call the 'gon-bin' tree. Over the years, it became "on-bin". If you take the "gon-thi" (a coconut fruit) and shake it, you can hear a gurgling sound - for it's still the mischief-maker wanting to tittle tattle and play a prank on you. **

The Four Puppets: Another Burmese Folk Tale

Aaron Shepard wrote in Australia’s School Magazine: “Once there was a puppet maker who had a son named Aung. The father always hoped his son would grow up to be a puppet maker like himself. But to Aung, such a life was far from exciting. “Father,” said Aung one day, “I’ve decided to leave home and seek my fortune.” The puppet maker looked up sadly from his work. “I wish you would stay, my son. The life of a puppet maker is an honorable one. But if you must go, let me give you companions for your journey.” [Source: Aaron Shepard, Australia’s School Magazine, May 2007 >>]

“He showed his son four wooden puppets he had carved, painted, and costumed. “Each puppet,” he said, “has its own virtue and value.” The first puppet was the king of the gods. The puppet maker said, “The god’s virtue is wisdom.” The second puppet was a green-faced ogre. “The ogre’s virtue is strength.” The third was a mystic sorcerer. “The sorcerer’s virtue is knowledge.” The fourth was a holy hermit. “The hermit’s virtue is goodness.” He told his son, “Each of these virtues can help you on your way. But remember, strength and knowledge must always serve wisdom and goodness.” >>

“Aung started off the next day. On his shoulder he carried a bamboo pole, with food and clothing tied at one end, and the puppets hanging by their strings from the other. When night came, Aung found himself deep in the jungle. He stopped beneath a banyan tree. “This looks like a good place to sleep,” he said to himself. “But I wonder if it’s safe.” Then Aung had a funny idea. “I think I’ll ask one of the puppets!” He turned with a smile to the king of the gods. “Tell me, is it safe here?” To his amazement, the puppet came alive. It got down from the pole and grew to life size. “Aung,” said the god, “open your eyes and look around you. That is the first step to wisdom. If you fail to see what is right before you, how easy it will be for others to misguide you!” And the next moment, the puppet was hanging again from the pole. When Aung had gotten over his shock, he looked carefully all around the tree. There in the soft earth were the tracks of a tiger! That night he slept not on the ground but in the branches above. And he was glad he did, for in the middle of the night, he saw a tiger come prowling below him. >>

“The next day took Aung into the mountains, and at sunset he left the road and camped a little way up the mountainside. When he awoke the next morning, he saw a caravan coming along the road below. A dozen bullock carts were piled high with costly goods. “That caravan must belong to some rich merchant,” Aung told himself. “I wish I had wealth like that.” Then he had a thought. He turned to the green-faced ogre. “Tell me, how can I gain such riches?” Aung watched in wonder as the puppet left the pole and grew to life size. “If you have strength,” boomed the ogre, “you can take whatever you like. Watch this!” He stamped his foot and the earth shook. “Wait!” said Aung. But it was too late. Just below them, dirt and rocks broke loose in a landslide. It rushed down the mountain and blocked the road. The terrified drivers jumped from their carts and ran off. “You see?” said the ogre. “Is it really that easy?” said Aung, in a daze. He hurried down to the carts and rushed from one to another, gaping at the heaps of rich fabrics and piles of precious metals. “And all of it’s mine!” he cried. >>

“Just then, Aung heard a sob. Lying huddled in one of the carts was a lovely young woman his own age. She cried and shivered in fear. “I won’t hurt you,” said Aung gently. “Who are you?” “My name is Mala,” she said in a small voice. “My father is the owner of this caravan. We were on our way to meet him.” All at once, Aung knew he was in love. He wanted to keep Mala with him forever. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take you with me and care for you.” Mala sat up angrily. “Go ahead! Take me, like you’re taking everything else! But you’re just a thief, and I’ll never, ever speak to you!” Aung was shocked. Was he really just a thief? He didn’t know what to say. The ogre came up beside him then. “Don’t listen to her. She’ll change her mind—and anyway, the important thing is you got what you wanted. Now, let’s go.” The ogre cleared the road, then helped Aung lead the caravan. >>

“That afternoon, they came out of the mountains, not far from the capital city. Aung asked the ogre, “What should I do, now that I have all these riches?” “Don’t ask me!” said the ogre. “Ask the sorcerer!” Aung turned to the mystic sorcerer. “Can you tell me?” The puppet came to life and floated before him, as Mala looked on with wide eyes. “If you want your wealth to grow,” said the sorcerer, “you must learn the secrets of nature.” He tapped Aung with his red wand, and together they rose high in the air. Looking down, Aung saw everything in a new way. He could tell what land was best for farming, and which mountains held gold and silver. “This is wonderful!” said Aung. “Just think how I can help people with what I know!” “Certainly you could,” said the sorcerer. “But knowledge is power. Why not keep it all for yourself instead? Isn’t that what other people do?” “I suppose so,” said Aung. >>

“So they came to the capital city. Aung became a merchant, and with the help of the ogre and the sorcerer, he grew many times richer than at first. He bought a palace for himself and Mala, and kept the puppets in a special room of their own. But Aung was not happy, for Mala still would not speak to him. One day, he placed before her a headdress fit for a queen. The heavy gold was set with dozens of large rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. The magnificent piece had cost Aung a third of his wealth. Mala took one look and pushed it away. Aung was heartbroken. He said, “Don’t you know I love you?” But she only glared at him and said not a word. The next morning, Aung went to the puppets’ room and spoke to the ogre and the sorcerer. “Mala’s father must now be very poor, while I have more than I need. I’ll help Mala find him so I can pay him for what I took. Maybe then she’ll speak to me, and even learn to love me.” “A terrible idea!” said the ogre. “You should never give up what is yours. You’re just being weak!” “Besides,” the sorcerer told him, “you’re too late. Mala ran away last night.” “What?” cried Aung. He rushed through the palace, but Mala was nowhere to be found. >>

“Aung returned to the puppets’ room in despair. “What good is all my wealth if I’ve lost what I care for most?” For once, the ogre and the sorcerer were silent and still. Then Aung remembered there was one puppet he had never called on. He turned to the holy hermit. “Tell me, why has everything gone wrong?” The puppet came to life. “Aung, you imagined that wealth brings happiness. But true happiness comes only from goodness. What is important is not what you have but what you do with it.” The king of the gods then came to life and stood beside the hermit. “You forgot what your father told you, Aung. Strength and knowledge are useful, but they must always serve wisdom and goodness.” “I won’t forget again,” said Aung. From that day on, Aung used his wealth and his talents to do good. He built a splendid holy pagoda, and offered food and shelter to those who visited the shrine. >>

“One day among the visitors, Aung saw a young woman he knew well. An older man stood beside her, both of them wearing humble clothes. “Mala!” cried Aung. He rushed over to the startled young woman and knelt before her puzzled father. “Sir, I have done you great wrong. I beg your forgiveness. All I have is yours, and I give it up gladly. I will be content to return to my village and make puppets.” “Father,” said Mala softly, “this is Aung. But he has changed!” “So it would seem!” said her father. “And if so, it would be a shame to let go of a young man of such talent. Perhaps he would like to work for me, and live with us in the palace.” So Aung became the merchant’s assistant, and before long his partner, and when Mala’s heart was won, his son-in-law. As for the puppets, Aung still called on them as needed. But though he was helped often by strength and knowledge, he was guided always by wisdom and goodness. >>

Religious Manuscripts and Books

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Ancient Buddhist books were written in the Buddhist language, Pali, (or possibly Sanskrit) on specially prepared fronds that had been picked from the talipot palm. This produced nearly illegible engraved lines that were then made distinct by rubbing each engraved leaf with soot and oil. The leaves were then arranged on a short wooden rod or peg that passed through a small hole in each page. The bundle of pages was then placed between two wooden covers, often bound with a cord, and inserted in a cloth envelope. The long, rectangular shape of the palm leaves determined the shape of a Buddhist book whose proportions are inverse to those of western books: Buddhist books are much broader than tall, whereas western books are usually more tall than broad. The format of a manuscript made of palm leaves was retained when the Kamawasa was created by the Burmese from cloth, lacquer, and gold leaf. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“The Shan peoples in northeast Burma created religious books from a paper made from the cambium of the mulberry shrub. Although made of paper that is concertina folded, the form of these books conforms to that of a stout palm leaf manuscript. Each accordion folded page is read in succession on one side of the single sheet and then the book is inverted in order to read the succession of folds on the opposite side. All types of books when not being used were kept in wooden chests to prevent damage from insects, mold, humidity, and light and consequently were among the most valued objects within a monastery. =

Classical Burmese Literature

The earliest forms of Burmese literature were on stone engravings called kyauksa (Burmese: for memorials or for special occasions such as the building of a temple or a monastery. Later, palm leaves called peisa were used as paper, which resulted in the rounded forms of the Burmese alphabet. During the Pagan Dynasty, King Anawrahta adopted Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, and brought many Pali texts from Ceylon. These texts were translated, but Pali remained the literary medium of the Burmese kingdom. Furthermore, Pali influenced Burmese language in structure, because of literal translations of Pali text called nissaya. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The earliest works of Burmese literature date from the Pagan dynasty. They include proses recording monarchical merit acts and poetic works, the earliest of which was Yakhaing minthami eigyin (Cradle Song of the Princess of Arakan), dated to 1455. During the Pagan and Innwa dynasties, two primary types of literature flourished, mawgun and eigyin, and pyo , religious works generally derived from the Jataka tales. Non-fiction and religious works prevailed during this period although kagyin , a war poem by a monarch, was an early form of this genre in history.+

As literature grew more liberal and secular, poetry became the most popular form of literature in Burma. The flexibility of the Burmese language, because of its monosyllabic and tonal nature, and its lack of many consonantal finals allowed poetry to utilise various rhyming schemes. By the 15th century, four primary genres of poetry had emerged, namely pyo (poems based on the Jataka Tales, linka metaphysical and religious poems), mawgoun (historical verses written as a hybrid of epic and ode), and eigyin (lullabies of the royal family). Courtiers also perfected the myittaza , a long prose letter. +

Buddhist monks were also influential in developing Burmese literature. Shin Aggathammadi rendered in verse the Jataka stories. During this time, Shin Maha Thilawuntha (1453–1520) wrote a chronicle on the history of Buddhism. A contemporary of his, Shin Ottama Gyaw, was famous for his epic verses called tawla that revelled in the natural beauty of the seasons, forests and travel. Yawei Shin Htwe, a maid of honour, wrote another form of poetry called aingyin on the 55 styles of hairdressing. +

After the conquest of Siam by the Toungoo Dynasty, Thailand became a Burmese colony. This conquest incorporated many Thai elements into Burmese literature. Most evident were the yadu or yatu , an emotional and philosophic verse and the yagan , which imitated the themes of the yadu genre, which was more emotionally involved, could be inspired by mood, place, incident, and often addressed to sweethearts and wives. Famous writers of yadu include Nawadei I (1545–1600) and Prince Natshinnaung (1578–1619). Some parts of Laos and Cambodia also became Burmese colonies during Second Burmese Empire and thereby influenced Burmese literature. In the areas of law, there were two major types of literature, dhammathat , which appeared prior to the 13th century, and shauk-htone , which were compilations of brief accounts of historic cases and events in simple narrative to serve as guides and legal precedents for rulers.+

As the Konbaung Dynasty emerged in the 18th century, the Third Burmese Empire was founded. This era has been dubbed the "Golden Age of Literature". After a second conquest of Ayutthaya (Thailand), many spoils of war were brought to the Burmese court. The Ramayana was introduced and was adapted in Burmese. In addition, the Ramayana inspired romantic poems, which became popular literary sojourns among the royal class. Burmese literature during this period was therefore modelled after the Ramayana, and dramatic plays were patronised by the Burmese court. Moreover, the Burmese adapted Thai verses and created four new classical verses, called: taydat , laygyo , dwaygyo and bawle . Furthermore, the arrival of the first printing press in Burma in 1816, sent by the Serampore Mission, helped to liberalise centuries-old traditions of writing in verse (lay-lone tha-paik , a poetry type, where four syllable lines are linked in a climbing rhyme and grouped into stanzas of 30 lines.). +

Monks remained powerful in Burmese literature, compiling histories of Burma. Kyigan Shingyi (1757–1807) wrote the Jataka Tales incorporating Burmese elements, including the myittaza (Pali metta or love + Burmese sa or letter), which are love letters and are important sources of first-hand accounts of the economic and social changes Burma was undergoing before colonialism. During the First Anglo-Burmese War (1823–1826), more solemn and muted moods exuded from Burmese literature, including lyrical music. In addition, yazawin, historical chronicles, became important in the Konbaung dynasty, although they had been written since the Innwa dynasty. In 1724, U Kala wrote the Maha yazawin gyi (The Great Chronicles), covering Burmese history until 1711. In 1829, King Bagyidaw appointed scholars to compile the Hmannan yazawin dawgyi (Glass Palace Chronicle), covering Burmese history until 1821. A successor king, King Mindon Min appointed a committee of Burmese scholars from 1867 to 1869 to create the Dutiya maha yazawin dawgyi (The Second Great Royal Chronicles). +

Colonial Literature in Burma

When Burma became a colony of British India, Burmese literature continued to flourish, even though the institution of the Burmese monarchy, the leading patron of Burmese arts and literature in pre-colonial times, had been dismantled. English literature was still relatively inaccessible although both English and Burmese, in a curriculum called Anglo-Vernacular, was now taught in schools. Despite the fact that Burmese literature was well entrenched in Burmese culture, the lack of patrons to support literature slowed its further development. The colonial period marked a tremendous change in Burmese literature, which had once been patronised and innovated by members of the royal court, and was now being led by civilians such as university students. +

In 1910, J S Furnivall established the Burma Research Society, which further emboldened the Burmese to protect their literary and cultural heritage. Beginning in the 1920s, a nationalist movement emerged, and this influence became evident in modern novels, short stories, and poems. At the University of Rangoon, student writers continued to develop new forms of Burmese poetry. +

A major landmark in Burmese literature was called the Hkit san (Testing the Times, movement, a search for a new style and content, led most notably by Theippan Maung Wa along with Nwe Soe, Zawgyi, Min Thu Wun and Mya Kaytu, while still at university and after, in the decade before the Second World War. During the Hkit san movement, University of Rangoon students innovated new styles of writing, with shorter and clearer sentences, and unadorned prose, a radical transformation from royal writings of the pre-colonial eras beforehand. The movement for independence continued to fuel Burmese literature. +

Thakin Kodaw Hmaing was greatly influential in spawning this anti-colonial literature with his powerful laygyo gyi and htika verses famous for their patriotic and satirical content. Hmawbi Hsaya Thein was particularly influential, with Bazat yazawin (Oral Chronicles), which relied on oral tradition. Novels also came into vogue, with the first being James Hla Kyaw's Maung Yin Maung Ma Me Ma, written in 1904 and inspired by the Count of Monte Cristo. Kala paw wut-htu , 'modern novels') became popular during this era, with P Moe Nin writing the first Burmese novels to focus on the individual and place that character at the center of the plot. Theippan Maung Wa] and Thein Pe Myint were among other original and innovative authors from the colonial period. Women writers, such as Dagon Khin Khin Lay, who wrote about the hardships of peasant life under colonialism, also gained prominence during the nationalist period leading up to independence. The British author George Orwell, who was severely critical of British colonialism, wrote Burmese Days published in 1935. +

In addition, literary culture in Burma expanded to the masses during this period, with the arrival of printing presses and publishers, such as the Hanthawaddy Press, a major publisher of Burmese and Buddhist works established by Phillip Ripley. In the 1920s to the 1930s, monthly literary magazines like Dagon and Ganda Lawka (World of Classics) were published to connect readers to writers, who often published novels in serial installations. +

Post- Colonial Literature in Burma

After independence in 1948, Burmese literature developed further to adopt and assimilate Western styles of writing. A year earlier, the Burmese Translation Society, a government-subsidised organization, was founded to translate foreign works, especially those related to the fields of science and technology. In 1963, a year after the socialist coup, the Society was merged into the Sapay Beikman , a government publishing house. Another influential publisher was the Pagan Press (est. 1962), which translated Socialist and Marxist works into Burmese. In 1976, the first Burmese Encyclopedia was published. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The socialist government, like the previous civilian government, was a patron of Burmese literature, believing "enriching literature" to be a goal of socialist democracies, as outlined in the Revolutionary Council's System of Correlation of Man and his Environment. However, censorship and promotion of socialist ideology became important aims of the government, in regulating literature, as seen in the reorganisation of the Ministry of Information, which censored works according to three primary objectives that aimed to promote socialism: 1) To introduce necessary bills, acts and orders concerning literature and information agencies. 2) To promote participation of the people in the construction of the socialist state. 3) To defend the socialist system from its ideological enemies. [Source: Discussion of the National Literary Conference. Rangoon: Ministry of Information, 1963]

In 1971, the government formed the Burmese literary Commission, to develop Burmese literature further. On 5 July 1975, the Printers and Publishers' Central Registration Board, the main censorship board of the Home Ministry (four years earlier, the Board had been a part of the Information Ministry), issued a statement to warn publishers to self-censor works (especially those criticising the Burma Socialist Programme Party, the government, pornographic writing and libel), undermining the principle of freedom of expression. Many contemporary works are of history and biographical accounts. Because of strict government censorship beginning in the 1960s with the rule of Ne Win, Burmese literature has become subdued in many ways. + By 1976, only 411 titles were published annually, compared to 1882, when 445 titles were published. Various factors, especially the lengthened bureaucratic process to obtain printing permits, censorship, and increasing economic hardship of consumers because of the socialist economic schemes, contributed to the decline of Burmese literary output. +

Popular novels are have similar themes, often involving adventure, espionage, detective work, and romance. Many writers also translate Western novels, especially those of Arthur Hailey and Harold Robbins. The flourishing translation sector is the result of the Burmese government, which did not sign the Universal Copyright Convention Agreement, which would have forced Burmese writers to pay royalties to the original writers. +

Short stories, often published in magazines, also enjoy tremendous popularity. They often deal with everyday life and have political messages (such as subtle criticisms of the capitalist system), partly because unlike novels, short stories are not censored by the Press Scrutiny Board. Poetry is also a popular genre today, as it was during the monarchical times, but unlike novels and other works, which use literary Burmese, may use the vernacular, instead of literary Burmese. This reform movement is led by left-leaning writers who believe laymen's language (the vernacular and colloquial form of Burmese) ought to be used instead of formal Burmese in literature. +

Modern Writers in Burma-Myanmar

One of the greatest female writers of the Post-colonial period is Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay. Khin Myo Chit was another important writer, who wrote, among her works, The 13-Carat Diamond (1955), which was translated into many languages. The journalist Ludu U Hla was the author of numerous volumes of ethnic minority folklore, novels about inmates in U Nu-era jails, and biographies of people working in different occupations. The Prime Minister U Nu himself wrote several politically oriented plays and novels. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Other prolific writers of the post-colonial era include Thein Pe Myint (and his The Ocean Traveller and the Pearl Queen, considered a Burmese classic), Mya Than Tint (known for his translations of Western classics like War and Peace), Thawda Swe and Myat Htun. Distinguished women writers, who have also been an ever-present force in Burmese literary history, include Kyi Aye, Khin Hnin Yu, and San San Nweh. +

Other writers who came of age prior to 1947 during the colonial era included Hmawbi Saya Thein (1862–1942), James Hla Kyaw (1866-1919), U Ottama (1879–1939), Thakin Kodaw Hmaing (1876–1964), P Moe Nin (1883-1940), Pe Maung Tin (1888–1973), Po Kya (1891–1942), Theippan Maung Wa (1899–1942), Dagon Khin Khin Lay (1904–1981), Saya Zawgyi (1907-1990), Htin Aung (1909–1978), Min Thu Wun (1909-2004), Thukha (1910–2005), Chit Maung (1913–1945), Thein Pe Myint (1914–1978) who wrote the classic The Ocean Traveller and the Pearl Queen, Richard Bartholomew (1926–1985) and Taw Phayar Galay (1926–2006). +

Younger authors who became well known in Burma include Aung Thin (born c. 1927), Mya Than Tint (1929–1998) who was known for his translations of Western classics like War and Peace, Tekkatho Phone Naing (1930–2002), Maung Hsu Shin (c. 1932-2009), Tin Moe (1933–2007), Nanda Thein Zan (1947-2011), and Pascal Khoo Thwe (born 1967). Other well-known authors include Thawda Swe, Chit Oo Nyo, Maung Khin Min (Danuphyu), and Saw Wai. Well-known Burmese historians include San C. Po (1870–1946), Htin Aung (1909–1978), Sao Saimong (1913–1987), Ba Shin (1914-1971), Than Tun (1923–2005), Myoma Myint Kywe (born 1960) and Thant Myint-U (born 1966). +

Distinguished women writers, who have also been an ever-present force in Burmese literary history, include Kyi Aye, Ludu Daw Amar (1915–2008), Khin Hnin Yu (1925–2003), Aung San Suu Kyi (born 1945), Minfong Ho (born 1951), Nu Nu Yi (born 1957), San San Nweh Jue, Khin Khin Htoo (born 1965) and Mi Chan Wai. One of the greatest female writers of the post-colonial period is Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay (1917-1982). +

Pascal Khoo Thwe and “From the Land of Green Ghosts”

Pascal Khoo Thwe is celebrated Burmese author of “From the Land of Green Ghosts,” an evocative memoir that exposed foreign readers to the brutality of life under military dictatorship. A member of the minority Kayan-Padaung ethnic group, Thwe was born in in 1967 in Pekon, Shan State. He is the eldest of six sons and five daughters. His father died in 1996 in Thailand. Pascal Khoo Thwe is known for his autobiographic writings about growing up in Burma under military rule. “From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey” was awarded the Kiriyama Prize Life

By a chance encounter with Dr. John Casey, a Cambridge don, Khoo Thwe was rescued from the jungles of Burma where he and other student refugees were fighting Burmese soldiers for independence. In 1991 Khoo Thwe enrolled in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge where he received his BA in English literature in 1995. "From the Land of Green Ghosts" was published by Harper-Collins in 2002. He currently resides in London.

Describing the tactics used by Myanmar military against Karen insurgents, Pascal Khoo Thwe wrote in “From the Land of Green Ghosts,” "People who were obviously civilians began emerging from the jungle into the clearing in which the [Karen] headquarters stood. They came out in pairs, chained together and clearly in a state of abject terror. They were civilian porters, kidnapped like the others we had seen and forced to carry munitions and walk ahead of the troops through minefields ... The first pair stumbled on to a landmine. There was a huge explosion, the dull boom of which echoed through the jungle ... severed body parts - hands, eyes, legs - of the sacrificial victims flew instantly into the air mingled with a cloud of dust. But the chain that bound them was unbroken, so their trunks collapsed on to the ground with a hollow thud, while arms, feet and fingers were scattered among the bushes." [Source: From the Land of Green by Pascal Khoo Thwe]

Nicholas Lezard wrote in The Guardian, “Thirty pages later the man who saw and wrote this is reading English literature at Caius College, Cambridge. It is quite a journey, particularly when you consider that the author comes from a hill tribe so marginalised and remote that even he considers himself something of a hick, and felt terrified and lost when he first went to Mandalay to study English. We should not make too much of the extraordinary leap to Cambridge when reading this, but it's always at the back of the mind - not least because Khoo Thwe wrote this in perfectly idiomatic, flawless English. (In the paragraph I have quoted, "abject terror" and "hollow thud" are not clichés. As for the observation about the unbroken chain, that would be first-rate symbolism were it not horrifying reality.) [Source: Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian, April 12, 2003 ////]

“But Khoo Thwe has much to say, lovingly and understandingly, about his childhood among the Padaung, a tribe hitherto only familiar to us for the fashion among the women for wearing those brass rings that elongate the neck. It is an upbringing among the influences of missionary Catholicism and animism (there is an amusing moment later on, when Khoo Thwe is warned that English Catholicism might strike him as somewhat lax in comparison with what he is used to), of ghosts and malign spirits, rites to be observed, dead souls to be propitiated. It is a place where his grandfather asserts that a good reason for believing the world is flat is because the ruling junta declares it is round. After all, they have been proved wrong about so much else. The country exists in a state of disastrous poverty and imposed ignorance; when you read that they only found out that men had landed on the moon in 1977, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is remarkable that they found out at all. ////

Gradually, but ineluctably, the political situation becomes insupportable; there are simply too many murders, too many personal tragedies, and Khoo Thwe flees for his life towards the Karen State near the Thai border. Timothy Mo wrote as vividly about jungle guerrilla warfare in The Redundancy of Courage; the difference here is that Khoo Thwe lived it. What no novelist could have done is have Khoo Thwe rescued and taken to Cambridge. That all came about because, while working as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Mandalay, he met Dr John Casey, who had been told to look out for the waiter who liked Joyce. Casey was only in town because he wanted to see the subject of Kipling's poem. Later on, Casey sent Khoo Thwe a copy of the New Oxford Book of English Verse with a large-denomination banknote inserted at "Mandalay".

Book: From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe (Flamingo, £7.99)

Everything Is Broken and Other Books About Modern Myanmar

Wendy Law-Yone wrote in the Washington Post: In "Everything is Broken," Emma Larkin (a pseudonym) returns to some of the territory of her first book, "Finding George Orwell in Burma." The catastrophe that draws Larkin back in 2008 is Cyclone Nargis, which struck the delta region with apocalyptic force, leaving more than 100,000 people dead and wreckage on an incalculable scale. Compounding the disaster was the stubborn refusal of the military government to allow international aid to reach the victims. [Source: Wendy Law-Yone, Washington Post, June 2010.Wendy Law-Yone is a Burmese-American writer living in London. Her novel "The Road to Wanting" has just been published in the U.K.==]

"Everything is Broken" is Larkin's eyewitness account of the cyclone's chaotic aftermath, both in Rangoon and throughout the devastated delta. Larkin's writing is graceful, and the final third of the book describing her work with the survivors is all the more powerful for her unobtrusive style. But due perhaps in part to her low-key interviews and subdued investigations and in part to the anonymity of her sources (a necessity under repressive regimes), other sections have an offstage quality that make for less compelling reading. ==

“Another author returning to Burma for a second book is Karen Connolly, whose first was "The Lizard's Cage," an award-winning novel set in a Burmese prison. This time, Connolly's nonfiction subject is love. Although this is principally a memoir of her affair with the leader of a Burmese dissident group, the subtitle of "Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story" clearly refers as well to this Canadian writer's fondness for the country and its people. Connolly is a poet with many volumes to her credit and a narrative flair to her prose. But those who pick up "Burmese Lessons" more out of a special interest in Burma than out of curiosity about how a Western woman copes with seduction, passion, rejection and constipation while carrying on an affair with a Burmese revolutionary may feel shortchanged. About Maung, the revolutionary, we learn very little, apart from a few breathless details about his healthy libido. What exactly Maung does in the daily service of revolution, however, remains unclear. One is left with the impression that he does very little -- rather poor PR for the dissident movement. ==

“Much of the action in "Burmese Lessons" takes place in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, home to an ever-shifting population of Burmese refugees, illegal migrant workers, dissidents and the NGOs and Thai Police overseeing them. Mae Sot is also the setting for Mac McClelland's "For Us Surrender is Out of the Question," an account of her six-week stint as a volunteer in a houseful of Karen refugees. (The Karen are one of Burma's embattled ethnic minorities living in the delta and eastern hills bordering Thailand.) Subtitled "A Story from Burma's Never-Ending War," the book is shot through with so many accounts of mind-numbing ordeals and atrocities that after awhile the repetition seems never-ending, too. But here at least, between the horror stories, we learn what young Burmese dissidents do when they're not out in the field: They sleep in late, get hooked on Facebook, talk to their girlfriends on their cell phones, do squats while watching Eminem, drink a lot of beer -- the usual frat-house routine. ==

“McClelland, a young editor at Mother Jones, writes like a seasoned 20-something blogger. A footnote explaining why the Burmese junta changed the country's name to Myanmar concludes, "The junta sucks." She resists the temptation to put her name on her food in the shared refrigerator of the group house because that would be "way too douchey." Still, she has done her homework where Burma is concerned -- and anyone who doubts it can be roundly reassured by a separate chapter on her sourcing. ==

“As McClelland's reporting shows, stories of Karen villagers in ceaseless flight from rabid Burmese soldiers dominate the literature of human-rights violations in Burma. But it takes a book like Zoya Phan's "Undaunted" to bring home the gut-wrenching particularities of such stories -- of what it means to experience terror, hunger, dispossession and debasement as a way of life. The daughter of a senior Karen leader who was recently assassinated, Zoya had an idyllic childhood -- until her tranquil, verdant Burmese village went up in smoke when she was 14. For the next 10 years, she and her family, along with thousands of others, were constantly on the run -- from the savagery of the Burmese army to the cruelty of the jungle, and on to the inhumanity of refugee camps. ==

“Zoya's simple but affecting coming-of-age tale, told with the help of British journalist Damien Lewis, is one of both survival and triumph. Today Zoya, a University of East Anglia graduate based in London, is a prominent campaigner and eloquent speaker whose counsel on Burma-related issues has been sought by British members of parliament and former prime minister Gordon Brown. Whatever their strengths and weaknesses, the above books are at least evidence that news about Burma is no longer as scarce as it once was -- just implacably, resolutely disheartening. ==

Books: Everything Is Broken: a Tale of Catastrophe in Burma by Emma Larkin (Penguin. 2010); Burmese Lessons: a True Love Story by Karen Connelly (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2010); For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question: a Story from Burma's Never-Wnding War Mac Mcclelland (Soft Skull, 2010); Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma by Zoya Phan with Damien Lewis (Free Press, 2010).

Literary Censorship in Myanmar and How Things Have Changed

Pre-publication censorship was a hallmark of life under the generals. It was applied to everything from newspapers to song lyrics and even fairy tales. The Printers and Publishers Registration Law of1962 requires publishers to submit copies of books and magazines to the Press Scrutiny Boards prior to publication. Violating the nation's strict publishing law was a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison. Under the 1962 act, both individuals and organisations can sue publications for defamation, in a country where for decades the judiciary was seen as a close ally of the junta. The board still exists. The burden is on the owners and editors to take more responsibility towards their works which results in self-censorship.“

Erika Kinetz of Associated Press wrote: “For decades Burma’s books, like its people, were subjected to varying degrees of physical violence. First, there was the censor’s red pen, which slashed across manuscript pages. Writers, bearing gifts of food, clothing and books pleaded with censors not to cut too deep. Authors also had to submit copies of their printed work before distribution. Pages that didn’t conform to the government’s edit were torn out, undesirable phrases blacked over. It was an age of allegory. There were forbidden words: Poverty. Suicide. Kiss. Fiction began to fill in for news. People turned to literary magazines, stuffed with topical short stories, because newspapers and television broadcast only government propaganda. Writers passed banned manuscripts among friends. [Source: Erika Kinetz, Associated Press February 5, 2013 <<]

“The poet Saw Wai who was imprisoned for his work “said he never let the censors into his head, writing exactly what he wanted to, even if it meant his work could not be distributed. That’s changing. A new book of his poems, including some that were previously censored, came out...No publisher has yet been brave enough to publish the poem that landed him in prison in 2008. That doesn’t mean you can’t read it. A poster of the poem, which includes an encrypted insult against Burma’s former leader, hangs on the wall of his wife’s restaurant in Rangoon. It’s also on his Facebook page. <<

“Burma’s censorship board, which shut in August 2012,, was officially rebranded the Copyrights and Registration Division at the end of January 2013, just in time for Rangoon’s first international literary festival, where Saw Wai staged his poetry performance. The festival brought together around 80 Burma authors — including exiles and former political prisoners like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi — and international writers, like Jung Chang, whose best-selling “Wild Swans” recently became available in Burmese, though it is still banned in China. <<

“The years of censorship have given author Tin Tin Win, who writes under the name Ju, an enduring sense of the power of writing. Ideas were, after all, dangerous enough that the government tried to control them. “Literature can change our heart,” she said. “The reader cannot forget what they read in their heart.” As for whether the new freedoms might dilute that power? “Maybe I will know about that later,” she said. <<

“It was 22 years before Ju got permission to publish the first book she wrote. Published in 2011 — minus a few key chapters cut by censors — “Ahmat Taya” (“Remembrance”) is a love story about two unmarried medical students living together. The censors, Ju said, had rejected the plot as “poisonous” to the dignity of Burma’s women. Today, Ju is Facebook friends with the man who was Burma’s last chief censor. Sometimes they chat online. The swift change has forced her to ask fundamental questions about how and what she writes. After 19 novels, it’s difficult to get the censor out of her head. Most things she writes twice, once in the old way, and then again, fumbling with the new. Instead of straining against boundaries that have been forced on her, now she must now delimit her own speech, deciding, for example, how far to push religious taboos. “With censorship gone, it’s difficult to write,” she said. “It’s a big responsibility for me.” <<

Freedom Brings New Challenges for Burma’s Writers

Reporting from Yangon, Erika Kinetz of Associated Press wrote: “Poet Saw Wai parked himself on the lawn, unfurled a map of Burma with a blob of blood-red paint dripping down from a spot up north and invited people to make poetry with him. “He’s calling for more trouble,” said a passerby. What the message lacked in subtlety it made up for in brazenness. Government forces have been pounding ethnic rebels in Burma’s northern Kachin state, displacing tens of thousands and testing the country’s fast-growing friendship with the West. It’s the sort of thing you couldn’t really talk about here for 50 years. [Source: Erika Kinetz, Associated Press February 5, 2013 <<]

“Nearly two years into reformist President Thein Sein’s term, the rush of hope and idealism that greeted many new freedoms — most strikingly freedom of speech — is turning into a measured assessment of the nation’s progress. Long accustomed to writing around censorship, Burma’s writers are relearning the habits of free thought and testing the boundaries of speech. But change has also brought questions about how licensing requirements and market capitalism will shape public debate and how speech should be regulated in a multiethnic and multireligious nation of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. <<

“Newly unmuzzled, many writers are eager simply to say what they see. Saw Wai, who served 28 months as a political prisoner, grinned as he handed out photocopies of his latest poems. “I’m not afraid,” he said. “I’m just a guinea pig, testing freedom of expression on behalf of the people.” While Saw Wai calls his work “realism poetry,” author Ma Thida describes her novels as “documentary fiction.” In 2011, her book “The Roadmap,” which opens with the 1988 uprising when the military brutally crushed popular protests, was published abroad. Though it was written in English and came out in Thailand, she was afraid to publish under her own name, choosing Suragamika (“Brave Traveler”) instead. She knew something had changed when her prison memoir was published in Burma a year later. “I didn’t expect to get this book published in Burmese,” she said. <<

“While the new liberties have been good for Ma Thida’s writing, the rush of competition has been terrible for the circulation of the four publications she helps oversee. The arrival of nongovernment news journals has also pulled people from her literary magazine, she said. Today, some of the laws used to incarcerate Ma Thida, who was sentenced to 20 years for passing an opposition political journal to a friend, remain on the books. <<

“ Under the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, publications must be licensed by the state. Critics say the awarding and renewing of licenses is not transparent and could be used to silence dissent. “Cronies can get licenses easily. We cannot,” Ma Thida said, referring to business people with connections to the former military rulers. “It is a kind of a censorship.” <<

“Burma’s constitution enshrines freedom of expression if it doesn’t harm “community peace” or “public order and morality.” While that could be used to block the kind of hate speech that fueled ethnic violence in western Burma last year, such sweeping measures can also be used for political prosecutions. Burma is working on a new press law, which could address issues such as defamation and the right to access information. <<

“We’re in a phase where maybe the dream era is coming to an end, and it’s a hard struggle,” said Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash, who has studied freedom of expression in former totalitarian states. “Once you have free speech, you have to work out how to use it.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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