Words of Warning
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Saturday, December 09, 2023


Words of Warning

By Khin Maung Soe OCTOBER, 2006 - VOLUME 14 NO.10


Burmese literature—in past eras a barometer of political will and a vehicle for cultural identity—has lost its focus, say some of the country’s leading writers


The 1988 student-led uprising in Burma has been likened to a storm. It demolished the old political structure to pave the way for a multi-party election. It blew away the centralized economy and brought in a market system. It kicked socialism out of office and opened the door for democracy and human rights. It had a huge impact, and since that time all aspects of Burmese society have to some extent changed. Burmese literature is no exception.



In Burma, politics and literature have always been closely connected. Literature has served as an indicator of o­ngoing political trends. The well-known poet Dagon Taryar used to say that Burmese literature was the subject of Burmese politics—whenever there is a change in politics, there will be a change in literature.


Burmese literature has always been colored by the dominant political ideologies. This relationship began with feudalism under the country’s former kings and turned to nationalism during the colonial period. After Burma regained independence, conservative and leftist factions fought vehemently for power and o­nce defeated, the communist factions went underground. Civil war soon followed, and the competing ideas of communism and capitalism heavily influenced the literature of this period.


In 1962 Gen Ne Win seized control of Burma and made alliances with some of the country’s leftist factions in order to put the country o­n the road to socialism. During the so-called socialist era that followed, Burma’s most influential writers were leftists. They wrote novels and short stories about the miseries of working-class life under authoritarian rule, and they advanced the concept of Socialist Realism with the motto “literature for the peoples’ sake.” This trend prevailed until the early 1980s.


“The problem was they could not point the way out. I do not mean that they do not know the way out,” said o­ne writer, requesting anonymity. “They may know, but how can they show the way out under strict censorship? That is why the people’s literature lost its influence.

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