Ma Thida, writer, human rights activist, and practising surgeon from Myanmar, has deconstructed her role in life and abides by her beliefs, convictions and her writer's instincts with a simplicity that both charms and puzzles.
The author of The Sunflower and In the Shade of an Indian Almond Tree , among others, Thida has also documented the damage done to her country by successive repressive regimes. “I have been writing since 1985, 15 years already. Why should I give up writing?” In 1993, she was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for “endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organisations, and distributing unlawful literature.”
Way of release
She found a way of release through Vipassana and meditation. “I started reading Buddhist teachings at the age of 13, so my first exposure to reading was through religious books. I went to a meditation retreat when I was 16 or 17 but it was without a calling from the heart. As a Buddhist I had to do it. But when I had to serve a term for 20 years, I thought ‘Why not take advantage of being in prison to change my life and get out of the cycle to find total liberation… not physical freedom but total freedom. So I meditated for 20 hours. When I was younger, I used to be aggressive, angry, arrogant. After Vipassana, I changed.”
On being both doctor and writer, she says, “I started writing when I began medical school so both go together; it's not a big deal. I manage both since I write from my heart. I am happy to read anything. I like autobiographies; I love to know about people. Fiction is my next choice. Some people's lives have touched me, like Gandhi and Mother Teresa.”
She has published one book on the art of war all over the world. “I called it 1-0-10; everyone wants to be independent, to be number 1… no one wants to be dependent, the value of dependence is 0. But combine 1 and 0, you get 10. So it's better to be interdependent rather than independent. This interdependence between 1 and 0 makes you 10 times. That's my perception of interdependence.” Her next book is “a memoir of my prison experience in Myanmarese; I might translate it into English.”
On her love for her language and the effort to capture its nuances in English, she says, “I always lose those nuances. Take Ko ye Akyin . The correct translation is autobiography but Ko is I, Ye is write, Akyin is brief or Akyin also means prison... that's why I love Myanmarese. It's a complicated language.”
Loneliness is one of the strongest and most prevalent of emotions for a writer. “I love people but I prefer my own private life. For me loneliness is rich. Being alone, you don't have to negotiate with anything else, just yourself and it's just more than enough for me. I enjoy being alone.”
As a woman in Myamarese society, “We are involved in the community and society. There isn't any obvious discrimination, may be politically not socially. Working with Aung San as her medical in-charge and reporter for all her trips, made me strong. She is always alert, fresh, quick; her response to people is very attractive.”
She is also writing about the dark side of human nature. “I am struggling to come to terms with it, struggling to finish my memoir, which deals a lot with this aspect of human nature. It's hard for me to finish it.”
How does she see democracy and, more importantly, an understanding of its responsibilities? “I want my people to learn more. Education is the key. We, as intellectuals and professionals, are responsible for implementing a democratic conscience in our own environment not only socially but also professionally. If you want freedom, diversity, democracy, you implement a democratic conscience in your own family and in your professional environment and your community. That is why where ever I go, I try to do so.
More about Ma Thida
Author ofThe SunflowerandIn the Shade of an Indian Almond Tree.
Published 60 short stories during her years in medical school, 1984-1988.
Sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in Yongon's Insein Jail in 1993.
Released on humanitarian grounds after serving five years, six months and six days in 1999.
Worked as editor of a youth magazine and as surgeon at Muslim Free Hospital, which treats the poor at no cost.