Following recent political reforms, Lucas Stewart investigates the impact on writers in the country, and whether there is real change in the air for ethnic literature and languagesHis name is Saw Myint Zaw.  He is from Karen State in Eastern Burma.  He writes in the Sgaw language. You probably have never heard of him.  I hadn’t either until a few months ago.  Yet he offers a symbol of what we don’t know about ‘Burmese’ literature.  A literature that belongs to 40% of Burma’s people and yet is barely read or recognised within their own borders.  A literature that has been systemically repressed by successive governments in an attempt to ‘Burmanise’ the 135 ethnic groups in Burma. A literature without translation.I came to Burma two and half years ago.  I now co-ordinate Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds, a 3-year British Council project encouraging freedom of expression for ethnic groups in Burma through short stories.  Eager to dig into this genre, but shamefully constrained by my poor Burmese, I bought every anthology translated into English that I could find.In the beginning I found two wonderful short story collections by Daw Khin Myo Chit, both over 40 years old and largely set in Yangon, the city she lived in; a 60-year-old Columbia University reprint of Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay’s biography of her husband, U Chit Maung, also written and set in Yangon, and a cultural guide to Burmese festivals.In all, I discovered only 24 translated works of any genre, spanning six decades, of which only two were short story collections published in the last 10 years: Myanmar Short stories translated by Ma Thanegi and Classic Night at Café Blue’s by San Lin Tun.Burmese novelist and literary activist Dr Ma Thida (Sanchuang) defined the reasons for this in her recent Guardian article on literature and censorship. But things have changed now, right?In the time I have been here, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division has been abolished, writers such as Nay Phone Latt, Zarganar and U Zeyar have been released from jail, and ethnic minorities have been given the legal right to teach and develop their own literature. Sweeping, total changes that demand to be applauded.And yet, for every literary reform policy that bursts free from Thein Sein’s office – and is so duly celebrated by the international press – those reforms, when looked at closely, aren’t always what they seem.Pre-publication censorship has been abolished, true; but a new media bill, drafted by the Ministry of Information without consultation with writers, editors or journalists, and recently passed through the lower house of parliament, threatens to replace the old, draconian 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act with similarly repressive parameters.  Only now, you can be arrested and imprisoned after publication, not before.Writers have been released, but some political prisoners have been forced to sign an official release letter which states that any future arrests, regardless of the offence, will result in the offender being returned to jail to see out the remainder of their sentence.  Put simply, the blogger Nay Phone Latt, sentenced to 20-and-a-half years for ‘creating public alarm’ but freed after four, could spend another 16 years in jail for not paying his parking tickets.Which leads me to the writers from ethnic communities.On 15 June 2012, the Minister for Education, Dr Mya Aye, announced that ethnic languages and literature would be taught up to second grade in state schools for the first time.Teaching ethnic literature in schools has been forbidden since 1964, because of a fear of communities rallying behind an identity that is not ‘Burmese’.  Similarly, the publication of ethnic language texts, both educational and literary, was banned.   The effect this has had on the creative output of ethnic writers, who have been forced to write in Burmese or publish in their own language in the underground press, needs no exaggeration.To halt the decline in their literature, these ethnic communities formed regional cultural and literature organisations in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Surprisingly, the central government turned a blind eye to the activities of these associations; as one Karen literature committee member put it to me recently, “It’s a grey area.  They know exactly what we do, they have informers, but as long as we don’t do anything political they leave us alone.”And yet, I have still to read a significant work of fiction, in translation, from an ethnic author.This might be because all but one of the regional literature associations are still illegal, despite the recent reforms.  The associations are wary of placing themselves under the central control of a government noted for its corruption.  A five-decade-old policy of linguistic and literary suppression has bred a suspicion in the associations that will be hard to dispel.  One Karen Literature committee member suggested to me they would consider registering their association when Karen state elects an ethnic Karen Chief Minister. To give an example of a different region – in the Kayin State the current  State Chief Minister is U Zaw Min, an ex-general, a USDP party member, personally appointed by Thein Sein and presumably recommended for the position by the Tatmadaw army chiefs. No surprise literature associations are cautious about registering.But by refusing to register, they receive no assistance, money or resources from the Ministries of Culture or Education.  As illegal organisations they are also unable to receive external funding through the regular channels.As a result these regional literature associations survive solely on community donations from villagers, merchants and religious institutions.  Each with varied degrees of success…The Karen Culture and Literature Association, formed in the early 1950’s, is better funded than others due to its proximity to the Thai border.  Black market trade has allowed the association to print Karen language proverbs; a Karen-English dictionary is in the draft stage; while the bulk of the Association’s budget goes towards an annual summer camp.  For four weeks between April and May, up to 10,000 junior and high school students in 30 to 40 villages across Karen state are tutored in the local languages though creative writing, short stories and essay competitions.  The summer camp ends in June with a 3-day regional summit for 2,500 people at a cost of $30,000.Others, such as the Kachin Culture Association and its sub-committee, the Kachin Literature Association, far in the north of Upper Burma, still operate within a civil war environment where cross-border trade has become negligible and people have become dislocated from their communities through forced resettlement.  They have yet to see the benefits of last year’s ‘historic’ edict.“We work out of churches, most of our teachers can’t even write Jingpaw [the dominant language among the 6 major Kachin ethnic groups] and we have no money,” a Kachin Literature sub-committee official told me.  “What about English translations of Kachin literature?” I asked.  The committee member replied, “We can’t afford the paper.”And they are not the only ones.Political instability, remoteness and a non-existent market for ethnic works in Burma’s main cities have only served to isolate the regional literature associations from their peers in the literary centres of big cities like Yangon and Mandalay.  Yangon-based publishing and writers associations, such as the Myanmar Publisher and Booksellers Association and the Myanmar Writers Union, both formed only a year ago out of the ashes of the government-regulated Myanmar Writers and Journalistic Association, are facing their own struggles in terms of indigenous readership.   General print runs of paperbacks in any genre, literary or commercial, range from only 500 to a 1000, with national bestsellers rarely running at more th
an 5,000.  With the sale cost of a printed work in Yangon running at an average of $2,40, 50% goes to the publishers, 15-20% to the author and the rest to the bookseller.  Literature doesn’t make anyone rich in Burma.Add to this a decayed educational system that values rote learning, a dearth of qualified translators, a decentralised process by which works get selected for translation, and a depressed editorial profession that is only just starting to breathe again.  It is no wonder that the entire Burmese-language-literature in English translation is reduced to post-war reprints and cultural commentaries, such as Dr Maung Maung’s fascinating Aung San of Burma and A Trial in Burma.For the ethnic writers, their situation at the moment is even more dismal.  Translation from their regional language into Burmese has a limited market and limited interest in the major Burmese cities.  Translation into English is the territory of 19th
Century ethno-linguistic academics like Jonathon Wades Thesaurus of Karen Knowledge. For now, the ethnic regional literature committees are on their own.Yet, Thein Sein has triggered a cautious renaissance that will be difficult to subdue, regardless of what happens in the coming years.  The growth of regional literature associations is intertwined with the growth of publishers and professional writers’ organisations in Yangon.  One hopes that as publishing companies start being in touch with the international literary world, so too will the regional associations be provided with translation opportunities for their own writers.Writers such as Saw Myint Zaw.About the authorLucas Stewart have lived in Qatar, Iraq, Brunei, Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and Myanmar.  He is currently working as Literature Advisor to the British Council’s Hidden Words Hidden Worlds ethnic literature project and assisted British Council in organising the first Burmese Book Slam. He blogs at (an English language blog on Myanmar literature).Additional informationDr Maung Maung’s Aung San of Burma and A Trial in Burma, both originally published overseas in 1962, was reprinted in Burma through Unity Publishers last year.U Thaw Kaung’s  Myanmar Wonderland, 38 short essays written in the 1980’s and 1990’s for the Today Journal and was published collectively this year.Thesaurus of Karen Knowledge, published in 1850 is accessible through and small, overseas ethnic community organisations such as the Karen Drum Publication Group.