Myanmar's SEA Write laureate Maung Sein Win talks about the new freedom in this country.
With its long and distinguished history in Myanmar, poetry is a form of literature to which the country’s readers naturally turn. Sentimental but also rebellious, Myanmar’s poets have conveyed threatening messages to the ruling military regime in their verses for much of the last 50 years. Under the permafrost of dictatorship and oppressive censorship, though, the poets have needed to find ways to write without finding half the words inked out. They’ve proved as ingenious in metaphor as the times have required.
The bird you’re reading about, says Maung Sein Win, may not be a bird.
“It is very hard to live as a poet under the military government in Myanmar,” says one of the winners of this year’s SEA Write Award.
“Poets and writers alike have to use metaphors to get past the censorship and allow us to publish our works.
“If I want to write a poem to encourage Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, I cannot say her name. I must mention her as a peacock so the censorship board will have no idea about who and what I’m really talking about.”
A successful poet and author at home, Maung Sein Win has been speaking out for his country and the people of Myanmar through his poems, short stories and novels for the last 40 years. The Award’s committee describes the 63-year-old in his biography as a respected and productive author.
Born in the small township of Padeegone in Bago Region, Maung Sein Win holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He published three poetry tomes while still studying at Rangoon Institute of Technology: “Golden Fragrant Particles”, “Ten Suns, Ten Moons”, and “Footprint of Anxiety”.
His first novel “How Cruel Ms. Pearl Is!” was published in November 1983. To date Maung Sein Win has published 90 novels, and more than six collections of short stories, many of them turned into videos and films. Likewise, some of his poems, several of which have gone through 10 reprints, have been adapted into popular songs.
Like other Southeast Asian Writers Award recipients, Maung Sein Win spent a few days in Bangkok before receiving his prize at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel yesterday at a gala luncheon presided over by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Srindhorn.
We meet up at the Bangkok Bank’s headquarters during a special lunch organised by the bankers for the 10 awardees. Maung Sein Win shows up in a white Polo shirt and dark-blue blazer. His eyes, magnified slightly by a pair of John Lennon-style specs, look thoughtful.
“I was an engineer and worked in a factory before losing my job after the Pro-Democracy Protests in 1988,” he says quietly. “The dictatorship forced me to leave my job,”
Known as the “8888 Uprising”, Myanmar’s popular pro-democracy protests erupted in August 1988. The rumblings began nine months earlier when the government declared several denominations of the kyat worthless, thereby wiping out the savings of tens of thousands of Burmese. They ended with a brutal crackdown on the protesting and striking masses.
But unlike the university students, pro-democracy activists and writers who fled Burma in search of safety and freedom, Maung Sein Win never wanted to leave his country.
For him creativity lay not in freedom but in hunting for freedom. The military dictatorship might have taken his job but they couldn’t away his poetry.
“I didn’t want to leave my home,” says the SEA Write Awards laureate firmly. “I wanted to live in Myanmar with my people and be with them as we made our lives under the military government.
“As a poet, I think it is important to get a feeling before creating a single word for a poem. I could never find such feelings outside Myanmar.”
A quarter of a century on from the uprisings and after 50 years of dictatorship, the pall of junta rule seems to be lifting. The country’s Information Ministry has relaxed the country’s draconian censorship policies and political reforms continue apace, with the poet’s “peacock” now a politician in her own right. Scrutiny before publishing is no longer needed and writers, poets and journalists alike are revelling in freedom of speech and free will.
“The literary scene is now blooming”, notes the 63-year-old poet. “People are excited about the new freedom”.
More than 150 literary seminars have been held across the country so far this year, says Maung Sein Win, who now regularly travels around Myanmar to encourage younger poets and writers.
So will the hard-earned freedom lead Myanmar to a new literary landscape and frontier? Only time will tell but certainly Myanmar’s writers and poets have great expectations.
“With more freedom, we are like the birds in a new forest,” says Maung Sein Win. “We are flying high.” Though quite what is waiting beyond the freedom of the branches remains to be seen.