Fighting Words
covering burma and southeast asia
Friday, February 22, 2019


Fighting Words

By Tony Broadmoor/Rangoon JULY, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.6

Steeped in tradition and stifled by repression, Burma’s literary culture remains defiant despite its seeming silence. Books are piled to the ceiling, occupying all available space, while dust-laden shelves hold countless Burmese texts. Twelve copies of the 1981 Nautical Almanac sit out, waiting to find their place in the mix of this narrow, congested bookshop in downtown Rangoon. After examining a list of banned Burmese authors, the owner climbs up and over a seemingly impenetrable wall of books in the back of the shop. He quickly reappears, passing down a stack of both fiction and non-fiction books currently banned by Burma’s military government. "They’re okay," he says reassuringly. "But you can’t have copies, because of their political background." Making copies of such books—in a country where few can afford to buy original editions of even outdated paperbacks—is deemed by the ruling regime as spreading dissent and subversion, bookstore owners say. It seems that these politically charged books are tucked away not as a precaution against potential reprisal from the government, but because 40 years of systematic censorship and government control has largely eliminated the desire to read them. Journalists in Rangoon say a combination of factors have pushed the works of revolutionary writers like Bamaw Tin Aung and Bohmu Chit Kaung, which once shaped the political ideologies of Burma’s youth, to the back bins, while at the same time putting a stress on the country’s rich literary tradition. Due to the perils of being associated with politics in Burma, many young people now eschew the sensitive topic for fear of retribution and imprisonment. This same fear has resulted in even fewer people pursuing writing careers, as the lives of writers are also heavily scrutinized. Writers, publishers and bookstore owners say they impose strict self-censorship on themselves in order to stay out of trouble. "The majority of the young people feel down and out," says one prominent Rangoon-based writer, explaining the younger generation’s lack of interest in literature and politics. "Their hopes have faded. They don’t care about democracy." As hopes for the future dim, so too do memories of the past. History books written before Ne Win’s military government seized power in 1962 are long out of print, and original copies are rare, leaving younger Burmese with few unbiased sources of information about their own history. "It’s getting harder and harder for people to get history books," says one bookstore owner in Rangoon. The suppression of works that don’t fit the military’s highly skewed version of the past has given rise to an oral tradition. Burmese in their late twenties and early thirties have been affected by the government’s strict censorship and relentless propaganda drives, but have been able to turn to their parents and grandparents, who remember life in Burma before military rule, for answers concerning Burma’s past. "We don’t know Burmese history from books," says a 30-year-old woman in Rangoon, whose grandfather is an elected Member of Parliament. "We know it from our fathers and grandfathers." These political sages, however, are a dying breed in Burma due to more than four decades of military rule. Many of them are now pushing into their 70s and 80s, and not everyone has had the opportunity to absorb their knowledge. History books that are available to the public have been distorted by the government’s line, and do not offer accurate accounts of pre- or post-independence Burma. "The younger people can read no books about [the pro-democracy uprising in] 1988 or other political affairs in Burma," says a 32-year-old underground democracy activist in Rangoon. "The government only gives permission to print propaganda books for nationalism." Most bookstores in Rangoon now primarily sell English grammar books, self-help and religious books, and science fiction, as well as other genres that are not overtly associated with politics. A number of bookstore owners in Rangoon declined to be interviewed for this story for fear of a governmental backlash. "You know the situation. I don’t want to go to prison for nothing," commented one Rangoon bookstore owner. "I want to live quietly." A number of publishing houses also operate in Rangoon, producing translated and pirated copies of English-language classics, including books by Ernest Hemingway and titles such as The Scarlet Letter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Getting these books printed is a daunting task, as they all must pass Burma’s notoriously rigid Press Scrutiny Board (PSB). The average time it takes for a book to pass the board is about six months, but some never receive the board’s blessings, say publishing-house owners. The writings of Niccolo Machiavelli did not make it onto shelves, while Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America took six long years to pass the PSB.

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