On March 15, when Myanmar’s fresh-faced parliament voted in a man named Htin Kyaw as the country’s new president, confusion ensued. Journalists had speculated on the choice for weeks. It was clear that it would not be Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime pro-democracy activist and head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), since a clause in the military-drafted constitution forbids anyone who has a foreign spouse or children from the holding the post (Suu Kyi’s sons are British). But to those not intimately familiar with Burmese politics, the name Htin Kyaw was obscure.
He was said to be a childhood friend and close aide to Suu Kyi. That much was known for certain. But in the absence of reliable information, he was alternatively described as Suu Kyi’s chauffeur, identified as a political prisoner in a wire photo with the same name, and listed as a graduate of Oxford University—none of which were correct, though he did study in England. Soon, the inevitable “Who is Htin Kyaw?” and “Meet Htin Kyaw” headlines appeared in the international press, and we started to learn a little more about the tall man with grey hair and glasses who was sworn in today as the country’s first democratically elected civilian president in more than 50 years.
The person who emerged from these profiles turned out to be a bookish 70-year-old who enjoys reading and writing.
“Htin Kyaw is a very quiet man who loves literature,” Zaw Min Kyaw, a longtime acquaintance, told The Associated Press. We learned that Htin Kyaw’s father was Min Thu Wun, one of the most famous poets in Burmese literary history. Suu Kyi recalls reading and absorbing his work as a child, and in addition to his poetry and scholarship, he is credited with inventing the Burmese version of Braille. In 2009, Htin Kyaw published a book about Min Thu Wun called My Father’s Life, composed of essayistic reminiscences that bring to mind President Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Like many other writers in Myanmar, Htin Kyaw adopted a pen name, Dala Ban, which was inspired by the life of a historical warrior.
Times remain tough for Burmese writers. The introduction of new telecommunications networks in 2014—which provided Myanmar with the kind of smartphone access enjoyed by the rest of the world—has threatened to displace Myanmar’s rich literary culture, a trend Suu Kyi has publicly complained about. Books remain a hard way to make a living; no one I know can afford to write or translate full-time. And Myanmar’s literature has a small audience outside its borders; there’s a treasure trove of Burmese fiction that has yet to be translated into English.
But for a certain kind of writer in Myanmar, the times couldn’t be better. The reason is political. After decades of playing the dissident or submitting to censorship, writers have the chance to play lawmaker, cabinet member, and even president. The historic elections in November that swept the NLD to a partial control of the government came five years after Myanmar’s military leaders launched a transition to civilian rule. This process resulted in the liberation of political prisoners who have long viewed the written word as a powerful means to register their dissent, and in the opening up of a new space for free expression and opinion for all members of society. The opposition, in large part, was characterized by its literary nature.
And so a blogger was voted into Yangon’s regional legislature; 11 poets were elected to parliament. Myanmar’s new minister of information, Pe Myint, has written short stories and translated everything from Chicken Soup for the Soul to Chekhov and Turgenev. Myanmar’s new government may be the most literary-minded in Asia, if not the world.
The admixture of literature and politics is hardly confined to Myanmar. Vaclav Havel started life as a playwright and philosopher before becoming the first president of the Czech Republic. The architects of the Russian Revolution were writers and heavily influenced by novelists and intellectuals in the 19th century. And, as noted, the current president of the United States was propelled to the Oval Office partly by the popularity of his memoir.
But Myanmar’s long history of iron-fisted rule has resulted in a deep interweaving of political activity and the belles lettres. Paul Chambers of the Thailand-based Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs points to the country’s “history of oppression under kings, colonizer, and military which most easily enabled anonymous political poetry.” After the British removed the sole remaining royal dynasty in 1885, clearing the way for 63 years of complete colonial rule, there was a lot to write about, and not just in opposition to the government. The encounter with the British was also an encounter with Western literature, which was absorbed and refashioned with Burmese settings.
Writing in a 1958 supplement of The Atlantic magazine, the author U Ohn Pe describes what he calls the first Burmese novel, published in 1904. It was, by all accounts, a domesticated version of The Count of Monte Cristo, “so well done that our grandmothers used to speak with real affection of the ill-fated raft-man Maung Yin Maung and his perilous adventures.” The motif was repeated with Sherlock Holmes, who became Detective Maung San Sha.
The independence movement that began to gain traction in the 1920s and 1930s gave literature a more political bent. The use of pen names and the popularity of subversive poetry would continue under the military government that seized power in 1962, following a 14-year period of independence. “Under the dictatorship that was going on, there was censorship and a propaganda machine, and I think the only intellectuals who could cross the boundary of censorship and propaganda were writers,” the author Ma Thida, a former political prisoner and president of PEN Myanmar, told me. The student uprisings of 1988 further bound writers to politics, since many of them spent years in prison.
From 1962 to 1988, literary publications enjoyed slightly more leeway than news outlets. But the authorities were more thorough in the aftermath of the uprisings.
“A number of topics were strictly off-limits in non-government publications, such as democracy, human rights, the events of 1988, military officials, and so on,” wrote anthropologist Jennifer Leehey in a 2012 article in the Journal of Burma Studies. As a result, writers had to resort to allegory and figurative language, as Leehey shows in an analysis of a short story called “Saturn” published in 1992 under the nom de plume Win Sithu.
As recounted by Leehey, the story starts off as a conversation about marriage between an old man named Ba-gyi Sein and his nephew, Nga Htun, who is seeking his uncle’s advice about his new bride. Ba-gyi Sein trots out a proverb about the three things that “if done incorrectly, can’t be put right.”
One of the three is getting married. The other two are getting a tattoo and building a pagoda. From there, the narrator launches into a story about a certain village’s attempt to build a pagoda and everything that goes wrong because of an incompetent and deceitful mason. The story ends badly. The structure is damaged in a rainstorm and the mason later gets cancer of the throat. After telling the depressing tale, he goes to sleep, with no discussion of the young man’s marital troubles.
Read in one way, Leehey writes, the pagoda represents the country, and the mason is a stand-in for the government that took over after 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC. It is allegorical, but not so pointed as to get the author in trouble if an ambitious censor were on the hunt for hidden meanings.
Political reforms, combined with the end of censorship in 2012, have made it easier to write without such indirection. The past few years have seen a number of memoirs and, interestingly, Burmese translations of Myanmar-specific work originally written in English, like Karen Connelly’s novel, The Lizard Cage, about political prisoners.
This artistic side of Myanmar’s new rulers is cause for optimism, and news stories about the “poetic parliament” have abounded. But it’s worth remembering that the military still controls 25 percent of parliamentary seats, and several key security portfolios. A few poets and writers are not enough to save Myanmar from its abundance of problems, which still include the muzzling of free expression. For months, I have been following the trial of Maung Saungkha, a 24-year-old poet who is facing charges of defamation and incitement for writing about having an imaginary tattoo of the president on his penis. He was recently attacked by another inmate while reciting a poem about the new government in court, and was taken to Yangon General Hospital to be treated for his injuries.
While observing his trial, it occurred to me that Myanmar may be the only country on earth where poets are both elected to office and sent to jail at the same time.