Myanmar festival celebrates new literary freedom
Dozens of renowned international and local writers gathered on Friday at Myanmar’s first international literary festival to celebrate the country’s new-found freedom of expression.
Authors hailed the festival – supported by Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – as a breakthrough for creativity after years lost to stifling censorship rules under the generals who ruled the country for decades.
“There was no freedom at all before,” said poet Saw Wai, who was jailed under the former junta for writing a satirical poem about the regime.
“As censorship has been abolished, we have become able to be more free and open,” he said, adding that poetry and cartoons were becoming increasingly “bold” with their satire.
For decades censors vetted every article, book manuscript, photograph and illustration before publication, eliminating anything considered inflammatory or damaging to the nation’s former military rulers.
But the quasi-civilian government that took office in early 2011 has effectively abolished direct censorship as part of the reforms sweeping the country.
Organisers of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival want to exploit Myanmar’s new freedoms to encourage bolder writing and debate.
“When I saw how difficult it was to buy a book – new books or modern literature at all – that’s what give me the idea,” said event organiser Jane Heyn, the wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar.
“The main purpose of the festival is to provide a platform to exchange ideas, to exchange writing and discussion.”
Around 25 international authors and some 120 local writers and poets are participating in the three-day festival at Yangon’s Inya Lake Hotel.
In a scene that would have been unthinkable under the junta, visitors openly browsed Suu Kyi’s books along with other literature at stalls and exhibition displays blanketing the waterside lawns.
Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy, historian William Dalrymple and China’s Jung Chang, who penned the epic Wild Swans, will join Suu Kyi – herself the author of several books – for a panel discussion on Saturday.
One debate on Friday was due to cover the future of freedom of speech with renowned poet-comedian Zarganar and dissident author Pe Myint on the panel.
“For many years we didn’t have a chance to collaborate like this. We’ve never experienced an international festival before,” Pe Myint said.