21 – Free Thinking in Myanmar

This article about my trip to the 2012 Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Myanmar was written for the Free Word Centre. Recent events there show that freedom is as tenuous as it is precious.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Free Thinking from the Irrawaddy Literature Festival

At the beginning of February 2013, the Irrawaddy Literature Festival drew readers and writers from around the world to the city of Yangon in Myanmar. In a country which has lived under the rule of a repressive military junta for more than half a century, it was a cultural and political landmark that allowed writers to gather, speak and exchange ideas freely for the first time in recent history. Cila Warnke visited the festival to see how a country crippled by censorship is starting to find its voice.

It was, in many respects, a literary festival like any other. There were book signings and a photo exhibition. Puppets for the children and grown-ups drinking lager on the verandah. Book stalls bursting with everything from Beatrix Potter to physics texts. On a sweep of grass between the Inya Lake and the hotel were tents where you could buy journals and newspapers, join charitable organisations or get a bite to eat. There were little differences, though. Buddhist monks in brick-red robes chatted as they sifted through volumes. The food stands offered rice noodle salad sprinkled with pungent dried shrimps. Women and men alike drifted through the heat in the traditional longyi – an ankle-length wrap skirt knotted at the waist.

In the cool interior of the Cold War-era hotel (a gift to the government of Myanmar from Nikita Kruschev) other, subtler, differences became apparent. Prior to the event, co-organiser Giles Fitzherbert voiced his hope that the festival would “open a window that has been half-shut for so long… [and] help turn Burma from an inward looking country into an outward looking country.” This sense of purpose was the thread that linked panel discussions about library usage, memoirs, debates about literary developments, and conversations about how a nation successfully transitions from censorship and repression to freedom of thought.

Democratic political reform has given Myanmar new hope after nearly fifty years under an ugly-minded military junta, but achieving openness is a complex, multi-faceted task . At the Irrawaddy Literary Festival four things emerged as preconditions to lasting change: political freedom, education, economics and international cooperation.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Political Freedom

One of the liveliest speakers at the festival was Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, which tells of life during China’s Cultural Revolution. Though many of her anecdotes were hilarious (she told of accosting sailors in bars to practice her English – “You can imagine what they were thinking!”) but the bones of her tale are tragic. She was exiled at age 16; her father was forced to burn his beloved library; she was denied education. In the darkest days of Mao’s war on intellectuals there was no reason to hope. It was only when the violence eased and Mao reopened the universities that she was able to study, winning a scholarship to study in Britain.

As Chang’s story vividly illustrates, without political freedom there can be no intellectual or literary liberty. Jean Seaton, director of The Orwell Prize, spoke of being “blessed to live in peace and freedom” – a sentiment shared by the event’s other Western attendees. For those of us accustomed to freedom of expression, censorship is unimaginable. But for many of the authors at the festival it is the only reality they know. The Myanmar government lifted censorship in 2012, meaning that for the first time in 50 years writers and journalists did not have to submit their work for approval prior to publication. In January 2013 the censorship board was disbanded.

That the government could, with the stroke of a pen, abolish this long-standing apparatus of oppression is both heartening and cautionary. What can be done can be undone, and Myanmar writers acknowledged that a true end to censorship lies in the future. “We used to say, ‘the censor has moved into our head with his chair and desk, and lives there,’” said Pe Myint, author of more than 40 books. Silencing their internal censors is a struggle that every writer will face in the coming years. Myint also raised the prospect of tacit or post-publication censorship, even if the letter of the law remains on the side of press freedom.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Education

The late dictator Ne Win banned the teaching of English in the 1960s. He eventually rescinded his ban but not before a generation or two grew up without learning a word. This makes it almost impossible to communicate with ordinary Myanmar.

On the first day of the festival we set off for Inya Lake, armed with a map clearly marked with our destination. Our taxi driver didn’t speak or understand English, but he examined it, nodded and we set off through the sticky morning smog. After twenty minutes, he pulled up in front of a hotel and gestured hopefully. It wasn’t Inya Lake. Another consultation with the map and off we went again. After some quality time in one of Yangon’s ubiquitous traffic jams we arrived at another hotel. Also not Inya Lake. I was fizzing with frustration at this point. Finally, after another turn around the centre of town and several stops for directions wefinally reached our destination. Only later did it occur to me that the English place names on our map were probably as incomprehensible to our driver as Myanmar script is to me.

This was just the first of dozens of encounters, inciting varying levels of frustration, that hammered home the importance of a lingua franca. The woeful state of English language skills is the most obvious manifestation of Myanmar’s overall educational deficit. One of the military junta’s favourite repression tactics was closing the universities. Students were sent to rural areas, or assigned home studies, to supress political action. Writing in The Irrawaddy, Denis D. Gray notes that “Burma is saddled with two generations of chemistry professors who have never conducted a proper laboratory experiment and mechanical engineers yet to handle hands-on equipment.” Another journalist I met remarked there are probably no more than five psychologists in the whole country.

There was much discussion at the literary festival about how to overcome these barriers. Local libraries, such as those attached to the United Nations and the American Centre, are working hard with limited resources. They offer books, journals and space where people can come and use computers. Perhaps more importantly, they give training in how to use libraries and computers. Thant Thaw Kaung, who helps create village libraries, noted that, as in the West, TV, mobile phones and the internet compete for people’s time and attention. In his words, “we have to support the reading habit.”

Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival. Aung San Suu Kyi speaks at the launch of the Irrawaddy Iterary Festival.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Economics

Dr. Thant Myant-U, author of the superb Myanmar history The River of Lost Footsteps, spoke at the festival in his capacity as founder and director of the Yangon Heritage Trust, which aims to preserve the city’s unique Colonial architecture, as well as promote much-needed improvements to planning and infrastructure. Yangon’s crumbling buildings and surreal pavements testify to decades when the military rulers exploited the country’s natural resources for their own benefit and poured up to a quarter of the national budget into arms.

Neglecting the basic needs of their cities and citizens had a predicitable impact on education and welfare, too. Alex Mackenzie, of the British Council, said that poorer children often leave education after primary school to work, a fact attested to by the city’s hordes of awfully young waiters, shop assistants and street vendors. Human infrastructure, even more than the buildings, is crying out for proper investment and planning. Clearly there will not be any improvement in education until the economic barriers are removed, which means legislating school attendance and funding child welfare. Broad, systemtic changes have to come from the goverment but private initiative has a role to play as well. Aung San Suu Kyi and the British Ambassador, Andrew Heyn, announced two scholarships and presented prizes to the winners of an essay contest.

Photo: Cila Warncke

International Exchange

It is easy to look at a patchily-developed country with a rocky history and conclude it needs the wealth and wisdom of the West. After a fortnight in Myanmar, I’m not convinced that they need us more than we need them. Yes, foreign investment is good for the economy, and will hopefully aid development and raise living standards, but it would be arrogant to think of ourselves as benfactors. As Alex Mackenzie put it: “Myanmar doesn’t need things, it needs the exchange of ideas.”

Myanmar is tough and self-sufficient. Many of its citizens have endured suffering we can only imagine. They are under no illusions about who they are or their place in the world, and they are not looking for charity. The literary festival was more than half funded by local businesses, and organisers Jane Heyn and Giles Fitzherbert, as well as patron Aung San Suu Kyi, expressed the hope that future festivals will be run entirely by local organisations.

This is a modest ambition. Despite its political, educational and economic challenges, Myanmar has an air of resiliance. The mere fact that just two years into its transition to democracy it is almost impossible to imagine the previous repression shows a laudable refusal to wallow. The literary festival is a product of this new freedom. It is also testament to hope for the future. According to Daw Suu Kyi, “literature is not just for fun, or to pass the time. It is a learning process.”

If there is a lesson to draw from the Irrawaddy Literary Festival it is that this process takes place in surprising ways, under even the toughest of circumstances, and as long as it does there is always hope for the future.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Routine benefits

One of the many things repeated moves have taught me about myself is that I need routine like bees need flowers. This flies in the face of the cherished self-perception that I am fearless, free, and endlessly flexible.

My youthful fantasy was to fit everything I owned in a backpack and earn a living with a typewriter (yep, it’s been that long).

To an astonishing extent, I managed it – at least for periods of time. This let me kid myself into thinking my spirit is free.

Trekking across the country, life crammed in a rented van, again disabused me of this wishful thought. That I mourn its loss suggests a reckoning. Why is routine a dirty word? What is freedom, really?

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Photo by Sorin Sîrbu on Unsplash

When routine is wrong

My mental resistance to routine – despite the fact it is essential for my mental health and productivity – springs from the fear of being trapped.

Growing up with an authoritarian father and Evangelical mother, my ability to make decisions based on my own wants and needs was basically zero. They told me what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, what to believe, with hellfire and damnation to come if I disobeyed.

Physical, intellectual and emotional oppression tainted my understanding of routine. Instead of seeing it as positive and reassuring, I thought it was prison.

Real-life routine

As an adult, I’ve never quite lost my fear of it. Yet, despite a peripatetic life and work-style, routine finds me. When I was writing a book and had no outside obligations, I woke, drank coffee, ran, showered, worked, ate, slept at the same times every day. For the past nine months, I left the house at exactly 15:55, Monday to Thursday, to walk to work.

Writing, eating, yoga, walks with the cats, happened as if to a factory clock. Being displaced from them feels like be yanked from a deep salt current onto baking sand.

The geographic change has pushed sunset back an hour, the cats are disorientated; I don’t yet have the structure of out-of-home work. Worse, there is a mountain of one-off tasks: hoovering, mopping, washing, unpacking and packing. Rattled, my brain is creaking along in fits and starts, adding anxiety to the general feeling of unsettledness.

Lacing this is my stubborn, though discredited, notion that I should be able to carry on as if nothing happened. To my dream self, moving a thousand kilometres would be as easy as crossing the street.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Routine = daily ritual

Routine carries connotations of repetition, boredom, drudgery, lack of imagination. Ritual, on the other hand, has overtones of ceremony and celebration. When we think of rituals we picture weddings, christenings, funerals (even sombre rituals are elegant).

Part of readjusting my attitude towards routine is giving it a proper title: daily ritual.

Waking up, feeding the cats, boiling water for coffee are small, valuable rituals. Drinking coffee from our matched mugs (mine’s the chipped one) while the cats poke around the yard, also ritual.

The order of work, chores, movement, even grocery shopping, can all be appreciated as a part of the ongoing ritual of sustaining a meaningful, productive, satisfying life. That’s no small thing, when you grow up with no concept of what that kind of life looks like.

Routine can make us part of something bigger

Routine helps us create a collective life, too. Work, education, society and politics couldn’t function with the rhythm of ritual. That’s not to say existing patterns are sacrosanct – there are many routines we would be right to change – but the move would have to be in the direction of a better routine, not chaos.

“You hear every day greater numbers of foolish people speaking about liberty, as if it were such an honourable thing,” wrote the Victorian critic John Ruskin. “It is, on the whole… dishonourable, and an attribute of the lower creatures. No human being, however great or powerful, was ever so free as a fish. There is always something that he must, or must not do; while the fish may do whatever he likes.”

He continues: “A butterfly is much more free than a bee; but you honour the bee more, just because it is subject to certain laws which fit it for orderly function in bee society.”

Being “fit… for orderly function” isn’t just a social benefit, it is a personal good. Human beings need community and a sense of purpose. Positive routines nourish the relationships and responsibilities that make for a rewarding life.

 

 

Poem of the Month – Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem Dulce et Decorum Est speaks for itself.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Moving Words (Rock’n’Roll Shoes)

I moved house this week. For the third time in four months.

“Do you always move that much?”

“Actually,” I confessed. “Three months is a pretty long stint in one place for me.”

This is true. There was the year I moved every eight weeks. The long-haul year spent shuttling between America, Ibiza, London and Myanmar.

There were non-moving years: Glasgow 2010; London 2012. Periods of compression. On release, I tumbled from place to place in a blur of kinetic energy.

Always a spur: Don’t get stuck. Don’t miss out. Don’t settle (for less).

On at least three occasions I left a city with only a suitcase, giving or throwing away everything in excess of 20kg. “It is desirable that a man… live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety,” writes Henry David Thoreau. I came close.

This week, boxes and suitcases went into my car and were joined by my cat. Unprecedented adult privilege and responsibility. Undreamt gratitude. The sun was hot and bright as I ferried boxes. White blossoms lingered amidst the almond trees’ fresh green leaves. When I took a break at the cafe, the owner sat and chatted then wouldn’t let me pay for my tea. The neighbouring farmer lent me fruit-crates to pack my books.

Vague anxiety shrouded me like fog. It always does when I move. This time literal and figurative sunshine burnt it off. The irresistible smile of someone who’s a reason to stay. Unpacking clothes instead of piling them in the donation bin of a charity shop. Restoring my books to their shelves. Running the familiar road to San Carlos.

I wouldn’t miss a single move. Every bounce taught me something (the hard falls in particular). To stay is a new education. I am choosing something now, to paraphrase Adrienne Rich, choosing to live with all my intelligence.