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.”
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.
“With censorship gone, it’s difficult to write,” she said. “It’s a big responsibility for me.”