Poet Saw Wai parked himself on the lawn, unfurled a map of Myanmar 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,” a passerby said.
What the message lacked in subtlety it made up for in brazenness. Government forces have been pounding ethnic rebels in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, displacing tens of thousands and testing the country’s fast-growing friendship with the West.
It is the sort of thing you could not really talk about here for 50 years.
Nearly two years into reformist Burmese 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, Myanmar’s writers are relearning the habits of free thought and testing the boundaries of free speech. However, change has also brought questions about how licensing requirements and market capitalism will shape public debate and how speech should be regulated in a multi-ethnic and multireligious nation of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians.
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.”
Myanmar’s censorship board, which shut down in August last year, was officially rebranded the Copyrights and Registration Division at the end of last month, just in time for Yangon’s first international literary festival, where Saw Wai staged his poetry performance.
The festival, which ended on Sunday, brought together about 80 Burmese authors — including exiles and former political prisoners like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi — and international writers, like Jung Chang (張戎), whose best-selling Wild Swans recently became available in Burmese, though it is still banned in China.
For decades Myanmar’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 did not 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.
Saw Wai 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 is changing. A new book of his poems, including some that were previously censored, came out in November last year.
No publisher has yet been brave enough to publish the poem that landed him in prison in 2008. That does not mean you cannot read it. A poster of the poem, which includes an encrypted insult against Myanmar’s former leader, hangs on the wall of his wife’s restaurant in Yangon. It is also on his Facebook page.
Newly unmuzzled, many writers are eager simply to say what they see. While Saw Wai calls his work “realism poetry,” author Ma Thida describes her novels as “documentary fiction.”