Where writers work under fear of arrest

Penelope Todd highlights the plight of dissident writers in Myanmar (Burma).

It's a year since the monks marched in Myanmar (Burma), leading protests against the military government's removal of fuel subsidies, which doubled the price and put the daily bus fare beyond the reach of most citizens.

Cyclone Nargis has come and gone, as has the daily news from that country.

Only now and then does it strike me how fortunate I am in New Zealand to be able to read, write and do pretty much anything I please.

I don't need to stifle impulses towards learning, discussing anything under the sun and being who I am. It's not so in Myanmar.

One of the privileges of attending writers' residencies overseas in recent years has been to meet those taking brief stints away from the tricky ambience of their own countries.

I met Hnin Se last year in Iowa where we were participants on the three-month International Writers Programme. At home in Myanmar, Hnin Se's journalistic and allegorical writings had all been self-censored or encrypted before they passed under the scrutiny of (and were altered by) government censors.

They were further censored according to her publishers' justifiable caution.

In Iowa, Hnin Se's warm smile and gentle manner quickly won her friends - friendships cemented by shared stories and the tears, suppressed at home, which now fell almost daily.

Tears of relief at being in a peaceful place, of fear for her friends and family, of insomnia, and sorrow for her country, as news came in over September/October of the monk-led demonstrations, then of colleagues, comrades and friends imprisoned and tortured.

Hnin Se's apparently fragile frame is deceptive.

She was imprisoned, herself, for a year in 1991, after she distributed poems protesting the Government's refusal to let opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize, travel to Oslo.

Hnin Se was arrested and sent to Insein, spending the first months on death row.

While in Iowa, she was warned from Myanmar not to come home when the programme ended in November. She was likely to be arrested at the airport, before she had a chance to take her two young children in her arms. She wavered and waited, but in December went home.

There her work as a journalist soon dried up, as any but government publications found it too risky to carry on.

She busied herself, unpaid, working for three monk-administered primary schools, each catering for hundreds of students whose families can't afford the fees for government-run schools.

Unfortunately, her four fellow organisers had been imprisoned so she carried on alone, knowing she was under surveillance and could be arrested at any time.

Writing this article, I've tried to hunt out the online chats we've exchanged since Iowa, but Hnin Se has had to delete them behind us in ongoing efforts to fox government vigilance.

In early May came Cyclone Nargis.

Hnin Se's first letter from Yangon (Rangoon), where she lives, talked about the numbers of people dead or lost and of damage to her house: "Only boiling rice and salt but not enough. We also didn't have clean water and enough food but better than victims".

Each day, she and her husband loaded their car with donated food to drive out into the flood zone and further by boat. She sent me photographs of bodies still floating days after they had drowned.

Months after the cyclone, this work is not finished, the Government having all but abandoned its token efforts to give aid.

New Zealand Pen Inc, the international arm of the Society of Authors, is writing letters of protest to the Myanmar Government on behalf of two writers imprisoned in June this year in Yangon.

From the NZ Pen Writers in Prison newsletter: "Zargana, leading comedian, poet and opposition activist, was arrested on the evening of June 4, 2008, after police raided his home in Yangon. Some linked his arrest with his private relief efforts to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis"

Zaw Thet Htwe, journalist, was arrested on June 13, 2008, while visiting his sick mother in the town of Minbu, central Burma, and transferred to an interrogation centre in Yangon ...

"Thet Htwe had been working with comedian Zargana and other leading Burmese figures to deliver aid and support to the victims of Cyclone Nargis."

If found guilty they face up to 15 years in prison.

To understand what is happening to Hnin Se these days, I try to read between the lines of her emails.

I find myself replying in curt leaden code that I hope will cause no offence. 

Her story may be found, among others, in the August 25 New Yorker online: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/08/25/080825fafactpacker

Penelope Todd is a Dunedin writer.



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