In Burma people learn about politics from literature—especially in times of oppression. During the dark years of authoritarian rule the role of the press community was therefore important in order to salvage public memory for the future. Since the state also rewrote history in favour of their view in the war-torn nation, the voice of the opposition became vital in order to stave the erasure of public political memory. During half a century of army rule in Burma, alongside the students and intellectuals, the monks and the peasants, one of the main threats against the state were the press and media. Under colonial rule, ever since the 1920s, there has been a tradition of activists who began their political careers in the press.
While he was a member of the Youth Improvement Society my grandfather Ludu U Hla founded a magazine. He later extended his literary activities to include Ludu publishing house and a daily and weekly paper in Mandalay. Similar to other nationalist press in colonial Burma, he was close to the young left-wing politicians who became leaders of the Burma Independence Movement. When the Civil War broke out in 1948, U Hla and his journalist wife Daw Ahmar faced severe restrictions on the freedom of press and at one time the government army troops threatened their lives. But they continued to inspire literary and peace campaigns through journalism, and gained a base in Upper Burma. To silence him the ruling state negotiated with U Hla offering him civil duties such as the post of university councilor.
The oppression continued however and this time Ne Win’s government planned to destroy the press for inciting an angry mob in support of Ludu’s stand in the Sino-Burmese communal riots. The daily paper was then shut down, and their two sons joined the underground communists; one was later sent to a penal colony with other political activists. Despite these harassments, the couple was still productive in research and in the publication of historical and socio-cultural biographies. Also, they supported literary reforms such as using colloquial Burmese in the press, and by collecting ethnic folktales in Burma.
The 1988 Uprising and its consequences of political upheavals also brought Ludu into more difficulties. Like U Hla, his widow Daw Ahmar was actively involved behind the scenes in the Mandalay protests; the new military regime arrested her youngest son, a prolific fiction writer, with charges of connecting unlawful organizations and he subsequently got a sentence of ten years in prison. I still remember my grandma Daw Ahmar in her eighties trying to visit her son in various prisons hundreds of miles away. At this time censorship was harder than ever, and, in that period, publishing only one or two books per year, the press barely survived. Some books were banned for reprint and some were heavily censored. Daw Ahmar used to contribute at least five to six articles per month in the periodicals, but some months the audience did not get the opportunity to see her columns, and sometimes she was attacked by the regime’s daily papers due to her harsh criticism of the press and the radio in exile.
I spent my teenage years with my grandma near her writing desk and got a chance to observe her daily chores. She used to sit at her desk every day and write several columns for monthly magazines on a variety of subjects. Also, she had visitors from across the country and from abroad alongside meetings for charity services and literary issues, which were a regular feature. In her nineties she was regarded as the most senior writer and one of the last of the independence activists. In her old age her children and grandchildren asked her to continue her writings and to document her past struggles and memories.
Like other activists and media persons under this authoritarian regime, the Ludu family was under close surveillance. Nevertheless, in the late years of the military period the birthday gatherings for Daw Ahmar continued to expand. Some years, figureheads of the opposition movement attended these occasions, and she was accused of using the festivities as a political stage. Poetry and literary readings were strictly discouraged at these events, but despite this the crowd was mostly active and it became a festive gathering for political prisoners and their families.
Censorship has now been abandoned but the world of the press in Burma faces other challenges such as the challenge from newer and bigger media and the high rise in expenses. The threat coming from extreme Buddhist movements also overshadows the secular writers. Ludu, however, continues its publication since seventy years, and it also runs a resource library for researchers with thousands of rare Burmese books and periodicals from the early and mid-20th century. It is currently in the process of digitalizing these invaluable materials for future generations. In the Burmese language Ludu means ‘the people’ and Ludu will continue to serve as a press and cultural community for the people of Burma, who, for more than half a century of army rule, have mostly lacked exposure to a free press and to un-distorted information and knowledge.
Ludu’s unique contribution to the Burmese press and beyond is the promotion of national culture and of people’s rights to participate in politics, while at the same time highlighting social crises emerging from the drawn-out Civil War. Fragile journal pages serve as witness of Burma’s bitter years of wars and political struggles. Ludu will continue to bridge the wide gap between the past political struggles and the current activists in all fields in order to help people understand more about their complex and mostly hidden Burmese political history. Also, as it did in its publication history throughout its eighty years of existence, Ludu will also encourage the new creative artists and intellectuals of Burma.