By Lucas Stewart

28 September 2015 - 08:22

'Writers are finding space for previously taboo topics.' Photo (c) Stefan Munder, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Writers are finding space for previously taboo topics.' Photo ©

Stefan Munder, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

For decades, Burma's ethnically diverse writers were unable to publish in their own language. There are, however, first signs of a changing literary landscape since the country started to transform its politics in 2012. The British Council's Lucas Stewart explains.

The book is small, about the size of a pocket notepad, mottled brown with a fading horned mountain goat sketched on the front cover. The staples have rusted, staining the inscription on the first page:

'This Kachin Reader prepared by the Rev. J. F. Ingram for the second standard is approved by the Kachin tex (sic) book committee and is prescribed by the Director for Public Intruction (sic) for use in all Kachin schools.'

The book was printed 99 years ago, in Bhamo, a major town in Burma’s far north Kachin State. The ethnic Kachin people once used this book as children to learn how to read and write their language in government schools.

46 years after this book was printed, it was banned. Copies were seized and destroyed, others were hidden in tin boxes and kept out of sight. This one eventually found its way into the hands of a political prisoner serving his death sentence in a cell with three captured Kachin rebel soldiers in the 1990s. His notes, in Burmese, are still visible in the margins.

The ruthlessness of successive Burmese governments in attempting to control and subdue Burmese-language writers is well documented: a censorship board that would tear out pages deemed offensive; pre-approved lists of safe books for translation; publishers limited to the type and amount of paper controlled by the Ministry of Stationery; threats, harassment and imprisonment. If there was any comfort for the writers, they could at least write in their own language.

A freedom not offered to the 135 ethnic nationalities in Burma.

From 1963 to 2012, in an attempt to force ‘unity within diversity’, Burmese was declared the sole language of Burma, to be used everywhere from schools and government departments, to road signs and poetry. Ethnic nationality languages were in effect criminalised. Educators were imprisoned for teaching regional languages, shopkeepers were fined for displaying non-Burmese signs. Teenagers wearing t-shirts tagged with words from their own language were picked off the street, held in police stations and stripped.

Such a policy had an inevitably ruinous effect on the creative literature of these communities, though there does seem to be some confusion among the ethnic writers themselves as to what the official government policy in publishing ethnic language works was. Some contend that, at first, all publications in ethnic languages were banned. Others argue that, later, non-political works could be written, so long as they were translated into the Burmese language first for the benefit of the censorship board. Again, a few say that cultural works in the ethnic languages could bypass the censorship board altogether, so long as they were printed on presses owned by religious institutions and marked on the title page with ‘for internal distribution’. This confusion is not surprising given the rather haphazard trickling down of ever-changing laws from the state to the officials on the ground. An environment of confusion and uncertainty benefited the military junta where people would be wary of testing the boundaries for fear of the consequences.

The abolition of pre-publication censorship in 2012 could be argued to have had an immediate, if limited, benefit to Burmese language literature. It is certainly quicker for publishers to bring out books now, and in more copies; writers are finding space for previously taboo topics, though literature itself is far from free. In ethnic nationality language literature, there is no quick fix.

Two generations of children have grown up without knowing how to read or write their mother tongue. Even if they did, few to no opportunities existed for them to publish in their own language. Geographical remoteness and non-existent telecommunications have shuttered the ethnic writers from the wider literary community; novels and short stories are not part of their canon; the centres of publishing in Yangon and Mandalay are wary of books in ethnic languages, seeing neither a reason nor market to publish them.

Fortunately, despite the challenges, writers from many ethnic national communities have emerged over the years. Joel Ling, an ethnic Chin from Burma’s least developed eastern state, has written what is probably the first novel in the Lai Hakha language, The Lonely Land (2012), and used the Chin refugee community in America to translate the book into English. Daw Mie Lay Mon, the most well-known ethnic Mon writer from Burma’s eastern border with Thailand is finishing the first collection of contemporary Mon language short stories. In Kachin State, Rev. Dr. N-Gan Tang Gun is the author of several Jingphaw language non-fiction works on the culture and history of the Kachin people dating back to the 1980s, while Wawn Awng is establishing his reputation as Kachin’s leading poet with several translated pieces featured on the Poetry International website.

For now though, I keep the Kachin Reader, along with other banned ethnic language books and journals, in a plastic zip lock bag in the driest corner of my apartment to protect them from the monsoon rains. As the country looks back on 50 years of censoring ethnic literature and considers how it can be shaped in the future, the mould and damp in Yangon is slowly eating away what has survived.

An anthology with new ethnic Burmese writing was released yesterday, 27 September 2015, as a culmination of the British Council's Hidden Words – Hidden Worlds project. The English translation is set for publication in 2017. Follow our literature team on Twitter to stay updated.

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