In the surrounding darkness, bright lights focus on the speaker on the stage, a famous writer. The noise of an electric generator competes with his speech. He uses vivid metaphors to illustrate the wrongdoings of those in parliament and the government. The audience responds with a roar of cheers and applause:
“Yes, they are idiots! Curse them some more!”
The speaker needs to wait a while for the people to calm down again. But soon enough, words from his speech hit a nerve once again, and the audience goes wild.
This is a typical scene at literary talks in Myanmar. Historically, these talks were traditional events that became popular during Myanmar’s colonial days, but they were unofficially banned by the military junta during its rule. Though they have once again become popular since the relaxation of restrictions in 2010, most attendees have never experienced such events before. In fact, the audience, especially those from rural areas, has had no exposure to literature at all, given the overwhelming censorship in the junta years.
Even amongst users of Facebook, who are likely to be urban, well-off and more exposed to literature, it is clear that awareness of different literary forms is low. So much so, that posts on online forums such as Facebook often include the disclaimer: “The following is a satire. Please don’t take it seriously before you make (terrible) comments”.
A history of repression
This lack of awareness is a reflection of how the dictatorship crippled literature, the arts and media. From 1962 until 2000, all major print and broadcast media was owned by the state. The small-scale private media covered uncontroversial topics such as music, celebrity news, entertainment and sports. As a result, many citizens – including some writers – think the media is merely a tool to be used as a weapon for shaming or for propaganda. People also underestimate their own right to information, and the role of the media in ensuring this right. State media was used for government propaganda messages and the media-in-exile turned into an activist-media, determined to counter heavy censorship and the severe forms of control that stymied access to stories. In taking on the role of promoting democracy, the media-in-exile often lapsed into anti-government propaganda. As a result, people, instead of seeing independent media as a source of balanced coverage, still think that all media is either pro or anti-government. This is why some writers try to dictate their own opinions at literary talks rather than providing a holistic perspective with a wide range of different opinions on the topics they talk about.
During the years of censorship, with a draconian censor board incharge, a writer could not write anything that might be seen as remotely anti-government or anti-establishment. Ordinary citizens learned what was going on inside the country either through ‘fiction’ magazines or foreign-based radio stations. To get past the censorship process, writers needed to be careful about the way they wrote, compelling them to find creative solutions. Metaphors, for example, were used, not just as an aesthetic tool, but to bypass the eyes of the censor.
One example is that of the story by a famous writer and journalist Hanthawaddy U Win Tin. In late 1988, Tin wrote a story about a crab. The crab, being hard-shelled, was well protected and could not be harmed. However, the mosquito, despite being a far smaller animal, could bite the eyes of the crab, leading to its eventual death. The message to readers was to look for tiny weaknesses even among the strong and well-protected people in power. People drew the conclusion that the socialist government of Ne Win was the crab that could be destabilised if a weakness was found. Though there was heavy censorship at the time, the censors allowed this story to be published. In later writings, other writers used “crab’s eyes”as a metaphor for dissent frequently. Changing the name, gender, dates and other important facts, to disguise the true story behind the ‘fiction’, was another common practice for generations of fiction writers in Myanmar.
Oppression by a dictatorship – five decades in the case of Myanmar – not only affects people for the duration of the rule but has a long-term impact on their way of thinking. These changes in mindset are hard to reverse – fear prohibits curiosity and learning, even after restrictions are relaxed. This repressed fear has already had a huge impact on people’s awareness levels and interests. For instance, today, the only common area of interest and knowledge shared by writers, speakers and their audience is the country’s current situation; topics that deal with the current scenario is loosely grouped and categorised as ‘politics’. Given the lack of exposure to literature, and because news was earlier disguised as ‘fiction’, many see literature as a form of media. ‘Political issues’ are at the heart of all communication between writers and their audience. Even poets write poems based on current affairs topics such land confiscation by military or government cronies, or student strikes for education law reform.
Since reality was heavily fictionalised to evade censorship, readers found it hard to separate hard facts from fictionalised elements. Ordinary citizens could not openly talk about the ground realities. A heavy surveillance system operated under the Special Branch (SB) during the socialist days and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during the time of the military junta. Self-censorship became a common practice for all citizens, not just writers, because of the fear of losing one’s job, being banned from writing altogether or worse, being imprisoned or tortured. Even reading certain books, which were banned or black-listed, came with the fear of reprisals. In media, since no press entity could run without a license, licence-holders would be instructed by the Press Scrutiny Board (operating since 1962 until 2012) to dismiss staff members from their publication.
In Myanmar, because there is a small pool of ‘formal’ names to choose from, people use nicknames to distinguish themselves from their namesakes. Readers only know a writer’s nickname, but not his or her ‘formal’one, with the exception of really famous writers. When writers were black-listed by the military junta, their nicknames could not appear anywhere in print media, broadcasting media, or even in the obituaries section of state-owned newspapers, effectively blacking out any public presence or engagement.
After the famous writer Thar Du died, the names of his sons appeared in his obituary alongside their pen names – with the exception of the youngest, writer Min Lu, who was in prison for writing satirical poems. Only Min Lu’s formal name was mentioned: Nyan Paw. However the blacklisted nicknames could also be helpful on occasion. The famous poet known as ‘Tin Moe’ would have been denied a passport as he was blacklisted by the authorities. However, he used his formal name ‘Ba Gyan’ to apply for a passport, and got it easily, since this formal name was not commonly known and had not been blacklisted, thus enabling him to leave the country.
State violence towards activists has also had a huge impact on peer groups. Segregation and social discrimination towards family members of political activists was common practice. Even at school, children of imprisoned writers, editors and activists were discriminated against by both teachers and other students. After activist Dr Zaw Myint Maung, now the chief minister of the Mandalay division, was imprisoned by the junta in 1990, the children of Maung were treated badly by their teachers and peers. People thought they might be seen as an enemy of the state if they showed any signs of supporting the family. During a prison visit to meet his father, Maung’s eldest son once told him that though Maung might be a hero among dissidents, he was not one in his own family.
Militarisation, centralisation and ‘Barmanisation’ (Myanmar’s majority race is Bamar) were effective tools used by the dictatorship to consolidate its hold on power, and everything, including art, was affected. Due to the decades of Barmanaisation, when only the Barman identity was promoted as a tenet of nation-building, most art forms do not reflect or include minorities. Yangon remains the only hub of art in Myanmar, and other demographically, ethnically and socially marginalised populations cannot easily access art or even the means to create it. The sub-standard education in schools and colleges, in addition to the censorship and propaganda deployed by the dictatorship, made citizens not only fearful but also ignorant about basic things like human rights. There is also widespread ignorance about the world outside.
In addition, since many people were not allowed to know what was happening in the world, including in neighbouring countries, they were only able to compare their current situation to their own past experiences. This is why ordinary people often say that the 2008 constitution (implemented in 2010) is better than no constitution under the military junta – even though it is neither democratic nor standard. Awareness about civic issues is low. During the era of the dictatorship, the education system demanded students memorise texts while prohibiting discussion and argument. Fear has also destroyed the normal process of thinking; there is a saying in Burmese language: “Tway ma lar, thay ma lar so yin, thaymae” (Given a choice between thinking and dying, people choose to die).
Passivity in the general populace is one impact of repression. It has also brought out the most basic instincts of self-preservation among people. Such attitudes cause people to become selfish in that they think of their own security before others and ignore the possible impact or consequences of their actions on others. I believe this phenomenon, to become ‘fierce’ about one’s own well-being, is a reaction to living under an oppressive regime. ‘Fierce’ individuals do not seek to exact revenge on those who caused them harm; instead they target weak individuals or minority populations – those who cannot retaliate. These acts of revenge are fueled by a continued fear of dictators and brutal governance. It is my observation that writers and media personnel cannot always escape this cycle of behaviour, since brutality and state censorship were used to control them for decades. Fear not only makes people fierce in terms of their behaviour, but also how they express those thoughts.
The surveillance system made writers and even ordinary citizens distrust each other. The surveillance may not have been overtly carried out by the visible apparatus of the state but by informers. This caused a great deal of insecurity and distrust of anyone but one’s immediate family members. Though hatred towards the authoritarian rulers may be an overarching emotion that is widespread among the population, it remains hidden within families, because people are afraid to talk non-family members about their miseries.
Since people were forced to suppress their own opinions, the lifting of restrictions led to the venting of repressed feelings of despair, anger and hatred, and ultimately, violence. Most people still have no space to speak out; they attend literary talks as a form of catharsis. While most of them are still wary of speaking out, they feel happy when their thoughts are expressed in the bold and vivid speeches of writer-speakers. But the ‘lecture format’of these events prevents ordinary citizens from participating and exercising their right to express their opinions freely.While people cannot hide their desire to seek revenge, they stop short of exacting it against those who harmed them – their previous fear of the authorities keeps them silent. Instead, they find scapegoats who cannot harm them back, but may share freak similarities with their oppressors. The narration of a story at a literary event gives an idea of how this works:
There was a clerk called ‘A’. He was seen as a very polite and quiet person at his workplace. His manager, ‘B’, was a very arrogant and aggressive person and staff members only had bad things to say about him. But the clerk never showed any feelings and refused to gossip about B. Every day the clerk was treated badly by the manager, but he still kept silent. At the end of each day, however, as soon as he left work, he went to a street massage shop. Since he was a regular customer, the owner always called for the person who usually took care of the clerk. This shop gave not only foot massages, but also pedicures. (In Myanmar, touching someone’s foot is still seen as a servile act by many people). After being pampered by his masseuse, the clerk paid the fee and poked the masseuse’s shoulder and said “goodbye B”.
The trick to the story is that name of the manager and the name of the masseuse are the same. Both the writer-speaker and listeners enjoyed this story as it was a blow against ‘managers’and other executive officials. They enjoyed the way the story’s ending had B bowing down to touch A’s feet. This was seen as enjoyable ending. They applauded wildly.
For me, this story and the reaction of the listeners reveal the thought-disorder affecting Myanmar’s people. Employee A hated Manager B but he could not or dared not argue with him. Instead, he held on to his anger and couldn’t swallow his desire for revenge. He found someone whose name was also B, only a bit younger, poorer and with a low social status. He enjoys treating Masseuse B as his servant, even though he couldn’t change his situation at work where he was the servant of Manager B.
This truly reflects Myanmar’s deep and rotten societal wound that breeds intolerance, a desire for revenge and the diversion of punishment from the powerful guilty to the powerless innocent. The relentless and forceful assault on people’s resilience leads to this lack of tolerance. Some forms of hate speech in Myanmar have been very effective in igniting mob violence because people have been holding on to their anger and now, there is a desire to seek revenge against whoever they can target with impunity for their past sufferings. The naivety of people, even in literary hubs, about what is going on in other parts of the country, has encouraged some forms of ethnic and religious tension.
The long dictatorship has taught Myanmar’s people that problems are solved only through violent reprisals and social discrimination. Since the dictatorship used existing laws to punish citizens, people think that the law is there to protect the government and allow it to take action against its own people. The culture of a dictatorship is truly infectious; most people just want to become dictators themselves when they have the chance. The blame-game becomes ubiquitous since most people have no other way of contributing to the shaping of the politics in the country, nor do they dare to do so.
The path ahead
Media and literature in Myanmar cannot remain successful without having sensational or sentimental elements. Most people are looking for their bitterness and pain to be represented, and they wait for opportunities to wreak their revenge. While ordinary citizens want to read or listen to people blaming the parliament or the government, they see these practices as performances that belong firmly in the media domain or literary sphere. Most do not care that their right to know has been violated by the lack of pluralism in spaces devoted to media or literature.
Even with the relaxation of censorship and improvement in press freedom, people still do not know how to protect their right of freedom of expression. They do not know how to be independent, since they have always depended on either fear of or favour from successive repressive governments. Even now, under the new government, people still cannot escape from fear and its consequence – the rabid fierceness. In such a scenario, the empowerment of citizens is critical. Civil and political spaces for average citizens are still limited and while the number of civil society organisations has increased, most of them are still need-based ones.
One recent entrant in Myanmar’s literary scene, PEN Myanmar, is hoping to change things. One of its regular activities is called Literature for Everyone (Yahta Asone Asan). This activity is participatory and not like most literary talks. There have been more than 50 such events in 40 towns. Ground rules for this new kind of ‘participatory talk’ session is that all the participants sit on same floor, in a circle. Everyone has an equal opportunity to speak, recite literature or make arguments. The lines between the writers and audience blur and there is no unproductive naming and shaming. Many new members in the audience usually shed tears of excitement, overwhelmed at the opportunity to participate actively. Though most are initially reluctant to speak up, soon enough, this inhibition disappears altogether and there is enthusiastic participation in writing and speaking activities. Some write their first original compositions during the event and most of their work lay bare the realities of their lives and their thoughts about their situation.
Granting social security, encouraging social cohesion and transparency, in addition to encouraging people-to-people exchanges across social, cultural and political divides, would be helpful in treating the scars left on the collective psyche of Myanmar’s people. Freedom of expression should be granted constitutionally, legally, institutionally and individually by amending the ‘Right to Information’ and the ‘Freedom of Information’ Bills. Minority-language rights and educational reform to deliver equal education opportunities for every citizen is also necessary, given the level of distrust and xenophobia among the populace. All potential harm to those who are outspoken about their opinions should also be prohibited, either legally or socially. Public consultations on law-making processes should also be held systematically, across the country. Fear and its companion, fierceness, can only be vanquished by enacting such measures.