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,” said a passerby.
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’s the sort of thing you couldn’t really talk about here for 50 years.
Nearly two years into reformist 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 speech. But change has also brought questions about how licensing requirements and market capitalism will shape public debate and how speech should be regulated in a multiethnic 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 in August, was officially rebranded the Copyrights and Registration Division at the end of January, 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 around 80 Myanmar authors, including exiles and former political prisoners like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and international writers, like Jung Chang, 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 didn’t 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.
Myanmar’s constitution enshrines freedom of expression if it doesn’t harm “community peace” or “public order and morality”. While that could be used to block the kind of hate speech that fuelled 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.
The years of censorship have given author Tin Tin Win, who writes under the name Ju, an enduring sense of the power of writing.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’s 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 now 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.”