Writers in Burma

Excerpt from a feature in this weekend's Guardian (UK) about people in Burma who write despite threats of imprisonment or worse, sometimes "scratching poems on cell floors, or making ink from the brick powder of the walls"...

Poems - words - have power in Burma, and the military authorities realise it. International PEN, the global writer's association, has a Writers in Prison Committee, led by Sara Whyatt, which is currently campaigning for the release of nine writers serving sentences ranging from seven to 21 years. Among them are two young poets, Aung Than and Zeya Aung, who wrote a book of verse called Daung Mann (or The Pride of the Peacock - the fighting peacock being a symbol of the pro-democracy movement). Last June they were convicted of writing "anti-government poems" and received sentences of 19 years apiece. Their printer received 14 years, and their distributor seven.

U Win Tin, a journalist, was for years editor-in-chief of a Mandalay-based newspaper called Hanthawaddy, until it was shut down by General Ne Win for running too many articles critical of his regime. In 1988 he established, briefly, the Burmese Writers' Association; from the beginning he was a leading figure in the National League for Democracy, and an important adviser to Suu Kyi. For these crimes, and ostensibly for harbouring a girl who had had an illegal abortion, he was sentenced to 20 years; he has now been imprisoned for 18, since 1989. He too has gone to great lengths to keep writing, making ink out of brick powder from the walls of his cell, writing with a pen made from a bamboo mat; now 77 years old, he has, according to PEN, had two heart attacks, lost most of his teeth, and is suffering from diabetes, spondylitis, and a hernia.

Link, by Aida Edemariam (via Arts Journal, thanks Susannah Breslin).

Image: Government poster in Mandalay, Burma, from the collection of Flickr user racoles.

In related news, PEN in England has this page up about the recent arrest of Burmese comedian Par Par Lay, whose current fate is unknown:

Par Par Lay, also known as U Pa Pa Lay, was arrested on 25 September 2007 in the city of Mandalay during the crackdown by security forces on anti-government protestors. He was arrested after leading a group of opposition party members in offering donations to Buddhist monks. It is not known where he is now detained. Par Par Lay is a popular comedian in Myanmar. This is not the first time that he has been imprisoned.


  1. We don’t often hear a lot about what is going on in Burma in the mainstream media.

    Thanks for the info.


  2. This is really sad. I saw the Moustache Brothers in Mandalay in Dec 2005 (a few pics at http://flickr.com/photos/cybertoast/sets/72157602453461416/). ParParLay, his brothers and the entire Moustache Brothers troupe (Par Par’s wife and his his sister-in-law I think) are so very fun to watch.
    I think by far it was one of the most heart-warming things I’ve seen. They’re hard-core comedians, and despite the hard labor they were subjected to while detained in the 80’s and the health impacts they were still willing to do a regular performance poking fun at the military junta.
    If I remember correctly, Par PAr was released from detainment thanks to the work of several comedians in the US. I wonder if that would work again.
    BTW, Myanmar is a gut-wrenchingly beautiful place, and it’s really unfortunate that the neighboring countries (India esp.) are so silent on the issue going on there right now!

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