What does PEN Myanmar mean for the country?

PEN was once a kind of social club for authors. The task is currently to found a PEN centre in Myanmar that can map the country's literature and its degree of freedom of expression, which plays a central role in democratisation. However, this may also be dangerous, writes Marian Botsford Fraser, chairwoman of PEN International's “Writers in Prison Committee”.

March 13 2014 Text: Marian Botsford Fraser

In March 2012, in Toronto, I met Zarganar, the Burmese poet, comedian, activist, who had been on the WiPC case list since the late 1980s, through at least three prison terms of varying length and severity. Zarganar was released in a general amnesty in late 2011, and at the age of 51 applied for his first passport. One of the things we spoke about that day was the possibility of a PEN centre in Myanmar.

Burmese writers and dissidents had been present on the WIPC case list for more than twenty years; our cases included Ma Thida, Zarganar, Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Maw, Nay Phone Latt, Zaw Thet Htwe and U Zeya, and many others. The 2011 amnesty, and the rapid shifts in the political landscape in Myanmar in subsequent years created an unprecedented opportunity to connect with Burmese writers and to work with them to ensure that freedom of expression 

In May, 2013, Ma Thida was our guest at the WiPC conference in Krakow, and the conversation about creating a PEN centre in Myanmar was well underway. Ma Thida spoke about the great opportunities for democracy in the country, but also about the considerable challenges, which include weaknesses in regional media (lack of training, lack of resources) and the overall uncertainties of any kind of infrastructure in the country. In the past year, we’ve also watched with great concern the treatment of the Rohingya minority in western Myanmar, charges denied by the government of Myanmar. While there are indications of economic reforms, and an ongoing release of political prisoners, it seems unlikely that it will be possible to measure the security of democracy in Myanmar until the 2015 elections.

In July, 2013, a PEN delegation went to Myanmar, and met with twenty writers who became the founding member of the PEN centre, formally created at the PEN Congress in Reykjavik in September 2013.

It is sometimes the case that new PEN centres, created in states with a new or compromised commitment to democracy, are afraid to deal openly with the freedom of expression challenges in their own country. They have too recently suffered themselves, and they are understandably intimidated into acquiescence or silence. They see their alliance with PEN as a form of security, and in some cases are able only to focus on the problems of publication. They struggle to free themselves from old alliances and old habits imbedded during decades of repression.

The Myanmar centre has openly dedicated itself to strengthening freedom of expression and legal mechanisms in Myanmar, in addition to working on the pragmatic problems of publication and support of emerging writers.

It is alarming to learn that the centre is already facing freedom of expression challenges. In the past couple of months, there have been separate incidents of writers being prevented from speaking, and harassed by ordained religious leaders. In one case a literary event had to be cancelled, because “several truckloads of Buddhist monks” came to the event and demanded that two Muslim speakers be taken off the programme. Ma Thida herself was prevented from speaking because, as a physician, she had once volunteered at a Muslim hospital.

Before there was a PEN centre in Myanmar, it was extremely difficult to track actual cases of writers being harassed, and to identify patterns, as well as support individuals. The Myanmar Centre in less than six months has proved to be courageous and forthright in taking a leadership role.

When we started the dialogue about having a PEN centre in Myanmar, it was in fact a dialogue that began more than twenty years earlier. Burmese writers, as individuals in solitary confinement, in remote prisons were already part of our family. Now they have come together to form a centre and strengthened immeasurably the support they can give one another, and that we are able to give to them.