Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Bizarre Trial of a Poet in Myanmar

At the New Yorker in March, Joe Freeman did an informative piece on the trial of a poet in Myanmar, Maung Saungkha who managed to get himself arrested in six lines of verse. The case definitely pushes the limits of freedom of speech in Myanmar, and I think there are some interesting lessons that we can look at here for Lao poets everywhere in terms of technique. Especially the safety and hazards of poetic ambiguity.

For those of us living in many nations with considerable rights to freedom of speech, I hope we take the lesson to heart that we must write to the limits of our imagination for the sake of those who cannot.

While I tend not to write poems like Maung Saungkha, in the new Myanmar, I would have had hope that his right to write whatever he wanted would have been seen as one of the most sacred rights of Myanmar society. But it also shows where we still have room to grow.

"One of the ironies of life under an authoritarian government is that it can be easier to navigate what is and is not permissible than it is when freedom comes," was an interesting take-away from this incident. But we absolutely should not read this as a reason to tolerate authoritarian governments, benevolent dictatorships or whatever term apologists come up with for such systems. We have better options, even if so often imperfectly implemented.

An interesting incident from Myanmar that Freeman wrote about was the 2008 arrest of poet Saw Wai: "In 2008, the poet Saw Wai was arrested for an anti-junta verse weakly disguised as a Valentine’s Day poem. Titled “February 14th,” the poem sounds like something from a bad romantic comedy. “You have to be in love truly, madly, deeply and then you can call it real love,” one of the lines reads. But, as authorities eventually discovered, the poem was an acrostic that called out the leader of Myanmar’s junta. The first letter in each line spelled out “Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe.” Saw Wai was sentenced to two years in prison."

I applaud Maung Saungkha's courage to pen the lines “You can arrest only the poets/ Not the poems/ Never.”

Another interesting aspect of the article, however, was Maung Saungkha's remarks that Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 was one of the inspirations for his poem. In addition to the reaction of Thai police to Thai citizens giving the Hunger Games salute in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand, it feels like The Hunger Games has really taken a unique hold on Southeast Asian consciousness west of the Mekong. I wonder how many in Southeast Asia have read a translation of The Hunger Games series, beyond just watching the films.

While a good many Lao I know like the Hunger Games series, I haven't met many who are as passionate about it as others have been. This may warrant future inquiries, and an appreciation of the role speculative literature is having outside of the US.

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