Fri, Feb 08, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Freedom brings new challenges for Myanmar’s writers

With censorship gone, writers are discovering the responsibilities of freedom of speech

By Erika Kinetz  /  AP, YANGON, Myanmar

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 Myanmar 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 non-government news journals has also pulled people from her literary magazine, she said.

Some of the laws used to incarcerate Ma Thida, who was sentenced to 20 years in jail for passing an opposition political journal to a friend, remain on the books.

Under the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, publications have to be licensed by the state.

Critics say the awarding and renewing of licenses are not transparent and could be used to silence dissent.

“Cronies can get licenses easily. We cannot,” Ma Thida said, referring to businesspeople with connections to the former military rulers. “It is a kind of a censorship.”

Myanmar’s constitution enshrines freedom of expression if it does not 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 Myanmar last year, such sweeping measures can also be used for political prosecutions. Myanmar 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.”

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 Myanmar’s women.

Today, Ju is Facebook friends with the man who was Myanmar’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 is 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 delimit her own speech, deciding, for example, how far to push religious taboos.

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