Ma-ThidaCensorship Today

Keynote address given by Dr Ma Thida

First presented at EWWC Kuala Lumpur, #Word – The Cooler Lumpur Festival

Dr Ma Thida keynote text: “Freedom and Literature”

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen.

First of all, I’d love to express my pleasure and gratitude for being here to make this lecture happen.

Indeed as a native of Burma or Myanmar, the title ‘Freedom and Literature’ seemed surreal to us in the recent past. However, for me, literature itself, either creating or reading it, always relates to freedom.

Literature itself is truly a medium which conveys, maintains and appreciates freedom between writers and readers. Compared to other forms of art, literature is the most modest art form which mainly relies on or includes ‘words’ only. For music, we need not only words but also a tune or sound to have a song. For a movie, we need more. But literature always simply does not include sound, color, motion and image. Without the assistance required by music, movies, pictures, and other art forms, ‘words’ and ‘sentences’ make themselves into ‘literature’. So literature is a form of art which is free from dependency on any other assistance like sound, picture, colors.

Without this assistance, how does literature work as an art which relates to writers and readers? The way literature connects people – writers and readers or readers and readers – is with freedom. For a movie, viewers need to just follow one scene after another in order to know it. Viewers are voluntarily forced to just look at the screen, and accept the scene provided and the actors or actresses performing it as characters of the movie. For example, while watching the movie ‘Gone With the Wind’, viewers experience Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. But while reading the novel by Margaret Mitchell, readers can imagine anyone else or themselves as Rhett Butler or Scarlett O’Hara. Imagination through words is truly more boundary-less or free than imagination through pictures.

While reading, readers have full freedom to imagine the literature or words as they comprehend them. ‘Words’ and ‘Sentences’ alone encourage readers in their imaginative power, free in their right to use their preconceived knowledge to expand or add on the knowledge provided by literature. For example, a simple sentence saying ‘The Sun rises’ can be imagined differently by different readers. But a movie scene of a sunrise can only be the same for every viewer. That is why literature is such a truly free art form for both writers and readers. And even among readers, the perception of a single work of literature will be different. According to their own private knowledge, readers try to imagine what the characters or setting of a novel looks like, or try to relate their experiences to the experience of the characters at a particular period in a short story, or also try to empathise with the feelings of the poet or writer in his or her poems. Even for a single work of literature, perception, feeling and appreciation by different readers could be totally different or more or less similar. It is totally unpredictable and so it shows the nature of freedom in literature. That is why I would like to say literature is truly freedom for both writers and readers, and even among readers themselves.

However, publishing literature might not be related to freedom. For example, in my own country, we had the Press Scrutiny Board for nearly five decades. This censorship board prohibited publishing some literature. In the early 1980s, it took from 1 to 2 years to get permission to publish a novel. Even with permission, there would be much editing. Sometimes writers decided not to publish his or her own works because of immense and nonsensical editing by the censorship board. But at that time, for periodicals, we didn’t need to submit manuscripts before printing, but we did need to submit the print copy before distributing. In the early 1990s, the censorship board asked to remove paragraphs or whole short stories or articles from printed periodicals before distributing them. So we put black or silver ink over the paragraphs or glued facing pages together or ripped out some pages to remove them from magazines/journals. In the early 2000s, the censorship board asked us to submit before printing any form of literature or books including advertisement pages. So we needed to submit them two times, before printing and before distributing. Then there were no more ugly magazine pages. All forced editing was finished before printing. So just before the censorship board abolished its process in mid-2012, a weekly current affairs journal would be submitted three times before it was printed and one time before it was distributed. That is why it is impossible to have regional papers in places far from the office of the press scrutiny board and where people from ethnic minorities live. For this reason, media or literature in ethnic languages was almost impossible establish. This process also prohibited not only the freedom of the press but also pluralism in the press.

For that reason, the investor or owner didn’t want any editors who were willing to test tolerance or censorship or take the risk to reprint all time-and-cost consuming manuscripts. Then some editors refrained from accepting any literature or works which might be censored heavily. And no definitive rules were mentioned by the censorship board. So it is sometimes hard to imagine which one might be censored or not. Since all publication houses need a licence to operate, there were risks in publishing some works. These risks could be terminating a licence, going to trial under one restricted printing law, or a person being putting into prison without any other reason. Eventually writers were forced to give up their freedom to think and write as they wish, ever having to count on the risk of censorship. This is what our Burmese literature has been through. This is how the role of the government’s censorship prohibited the freedom of publication and literature. And consequently this is how media ownership prohibited the freedom of editors and writers also.

Here I would like to tell my personal story. I had been writing many short stories in the 1980s. But because of my political activities and written criticisms of the government, my pen name was on the brown list and most of my short stories were banned. And in 1993 I was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for four accused crimes, and two of them were the printing and distribution of illegal materials. Then all of my writing was banned and I became on the black list. Though I was released after 5 and a half years, most editors didn’t dare to publish my works and no publisher wanted to publish my books. And furthermore I couldn’t get permission for a media licence. I really wanted to run a news or current affairs journal. But I knew it was impossible. I tried to apply to get a licence to run a health journal in mid-2000s but I didn’t get it. And because of the censorship board’s heavy pressure, neither did any publishers want me to be an editor of their publication. The press scrutiny board had the power to refuse any works by particular writers to get published anywhere by any means. So even if a writer weren’t arrested in person, the censorship board could prohibit him or her to become an editor of any official periodical or to write under their own name or a pen name. If this happened, no editor would dare to publish my works. So even though a writer is not inside prison, he or she has very limited freedom, not in creating literature but in publishing it.  Then in 2011, I was awarded a freedom of expression prize by the Norwegian Authors’ Union. But at that time the situation inside Burma was not very good and I was still working as an editor of literature magazines and writing for many other periodicals. So I decided not to go to Norway and accept the prize but I sent a video thank-you note to them.

Here I want to read some passages from this thank-you note in order for you all to understand much more about our Burmese freedom and literature:

What a shame for a Burmese writer who was rewarded the prize but she decided not to come and accept it in person? What made this? I dare to say the reason of making this decision is not to save me but to save my ‘words’ or ‘creativity’.

Writing creatively is indeed very basic and simple needs for any writers around the world. However for us, creativity is not with freedom but with hunting for freedom.

Though I have been trying a lot of new forms and presentations of writing, content and message of my works are usually not out of our struggle and hope. Why? Why I keep writing these? I do care of expressing my feelings and suffering of my people freely. I really do care of creating works to convey our speeches to the others. With free creativity, world has been experienced about rest of the world. I just want the world to be exposed to our creativity on expression of our speechless people. I cannot confiscate both creativity and freedom of expression in my works. We, Burmese writers, use creativity to get freedom of expression at the expense of losing our writing career or physical freedom. And we love to do it. 

For me, loosing chance to be a writer in Burma is worse than being imprisoned. To keep freedom of expression, I have to create and my works should be reached to my beloved people who have full of imaginative power. In other words, freeing the words with efficient creativity is more important for me than freeing myself.

That is why I dare to say that it might be easy to prohibit writers to write but indeed it is hard to prohibit both writers and readers to lose their freedom of creativity. For writers, creativity in their writing itself always helps to expand the boundary of freedom permitted by censorship. So for Burmese literature, creativity is not because of the freedom we have, but it is for the freedom we want to have. And for readers, creativity in their imagination helps them to read between the lines, among words or even inside a vocabulary. For Burmese readers, imaginative power is a very basic need, to understand or appreciate more about literature. For this, they just need freedom in their imaginative power. And for writers too, they do not need to get permission from the censorship board in order to be creative. So writers and readers remain free in their own creative and imaginative power though under a period of heavy censorship. So in this sense, we can still say literature is a kind of art which can still hold freedom. This is the role of writers, to still keep freedom in literature by their creativity, and the role of readers by their imaginative power.

Therefore literature needs freedom but it also brings freedom. Censorship indeed prohibits only the publishing of the literature, not its freedom. The free nature of the creation of literature and its appreciation still remains, even in censored works. However, in order to have freedom of literature, we need more than one party to try hard. So in order to keep freedom in literature, we need not only governments to abolish censorship, but also investors/publishers and editors to be free from the fear of being at risk, and writers to be creatively strong or readers to be imaginatively strong.  Therefore, what we, writers, need in order to have freedom both in creating and publishing literature, is also freedom or independence from fear, greed, hate or dependency.

Eventually I would like to say this; freedom and literature is mutually inter-related and cannot be separated from each other. Then we do not only to fight for freedom but also to keep it in our literature. Let’s be free ourselves to do the best for literature and freedom or freedom and literature. Thank you. Thank you.

© Dr Ma Thida, 2013