Very little has been recorded as to the linguistic wealth of the Burmese people over the years. This is perhaps owing to half a century of oppressive military rule, following decades of British colonialism. This has prevented the English speaking world from fully appreciating the literary wealth of this very interesting country.

The lack of a standardized Roman character translation system has meant that the literature that was available during the last 50 years was not only strictly censored by he former Burmese military junta, but also difficult to come by and even more difficult to translate.

Now that the doors to ancient Myanmar have finally opened to the rest of the world, through a new reformation government under President Thein Sein, the west can perhaps look forward to the emergence of Burmese literary works. There are notably so many which have been masked from the world for such a long time. One such work from writer Saw Wai, demonstrates Burma’s literary capacity to battle with its former oppression and speak to the world through the confines of a prison wall.

‘February the Fourteenth’ by Saw Wai is an anti-military junta acrostic poem aimed at insulting former junta leader general Than Shwe. Well documented for his scare tactics to oppress Burmese people, Than Shwe was said to have used the threat (and reality) of disappearances, torture, rape and imprisonment as method of mental confinement. Wai’s controversial poem, written for Valentine’s Day, accused Than Shwe of being a tyrant by writing in acrostic style down the left hand side, “Ar Nar Yoo Kyi Hmoo Kyi Than Shwe” which means “great power crazy madman Senior General Than Shwe.”

Knowing military reaction would be fierce, Wai saw this as an opportunity to expose the true nature of the Junta for all to see. Wai’s punishment for simply writing a poem illustrated his point perfectly through the general’s crazed reaction to something so small, which he felt threatened his power.

FEBRUARY 14

Ar rin bek ka pyaw dair

(Aaron Beck, the psychiatrist, said)

Nar nar khan sah dat hma khan sah hma

(Only if you know how to suffer painfully)

Yoo yoo moo moo go phyit nay hma

(Only if you are crazy – crazy )

Kyi myat tet a noot pyinnya lo

(Can you appreciate a great work of Art)

Hmoo hmoan hmaing way zay det dat poan model ma lay yay

(Dear little photomodel who makes me dizzy)

Kyi daunk kyi mah kya hma a thair kwair det yawgah det

(They say it is a broken liver disease, a great and terrible one)

Than baung myah zwa thaw chit tat thu myah

(Millions of those who know how to love)

Shwe a teet cha hta thaw let myah phyint let khoak tee yway yair bar

(Laugh and clap those gold-guilded hands)

Saw Wai, January 10, 2008

Saw Wai was arrested shortly after the publication of the poem in a magazine called Love Journal, by secret police working for the military government. It is particularly interesting to note the part of Wai’s poem which refers to ‘broken liver disease, a great and terrible one.’ A broken liver is often culturally translated into English to mean ‘broken heart,’ and there is certainly reason for this. Many South East Asian cultures, as well as Egyptian cultures have made reference in the past to the liver as being a seat of certain emotion; Saw Wai’s poem has some very subtle but important differences.

Sadness, brought about my a broken liver, rather than a broken heart, pertains to a particular type of sadness which is more comparable to a sadness which stems from social isolation, feeling offended or having bad fortune, rather than through the heartbreak of a failed romance.

A sorrow of social isolation is highly indicative of the sadness which Wai, as a poet in the period of Junta rule, would definitely have felt, even more so after being clapped in prison for speaking against the government. In the last 50 years, Burma had strict sanctions against the freedom of speech through publications such as newspapers, magazines and literature. Citizens were also forbidden from gathering in public places as this was seen as a potential sign of revolt against the government.

This month, for the first time in Burma’s history, literary figures, poets and former political prisoners celebrated freedom of speech through a literary festival, called The Irrawaddy, named after the river in Burma which signifies continuity. Thein Lwin, opposition leader for the National League for Democracy, at the Irrawaddy festival in Burma last weekend said:

“This feels like the first day of our literary freedom.”

“With more openness, freedom of speech and writing, we can make our literature known to the world. That would be a good sign for our country.”

Patron Aung San Suu Kyi, who was arrested under Junta rule for achieving popularity in her opposing political party, spoke at the festival about the importance of literature in staving off long lonely periods under almost 20 years of house arrest.

It is widely recognized that literature is an important method of escapism, but escaping from the constraints of a country run by a military junta, has given literature in Burma a new meaning. Burmese people lacked a way of connecting with the outside world, of gaining access to new and important modes of thought, and above all the freedom of speech, thought and the written words were compromised.

These freedoms were considered dangerous for the government, and many of these strict laws, while relaxed somewhat, remain, either written into certain legislation or engrained in the minds of Burmese people creating fear, and continue to have a negative effect upon the publication of important, culturally challenging material.

Authors are still required to submit their work to the government for approval. However, with the arrival of a new generation, hungry for knowledge and without the fearful mindset which shackles many older generations, change looks set to stay in a fast reforming and transforming Myanmar.

The Irrawaddy festival was also attended by Jung Chang, an exiled Chinese writer, who said she ‘dreams of the day when [her] books will be read in China. The festival is seen as a very important step for Burma, when the nation could actually set an example to neighboring countries. Now, literature in Burma is hoped to mark a new era in the education of individuals, changing mindsets from old regime, and reaching out to people who were, for so long, isolated from another world of thought.