Cooler Lumpur Festival of Ideas: A report

by Lucas Stewart, Editor-at-Large, Kitaab, Myanmar

KL‘When a baby cries, it wants something. That is the language of protest.”

Burmese former political prisoner, editor and translator, Letyar Tun remained silent as two other panellists on the stage debated back and forth on the methods of responsible speech, the control and freedom of public protestations, silence versus action. As poet/literary critic Gwee Li Sui and social commentator Sharaad Kuttan wrapped up their, often opposing, arguments on the language of protest, Letyar Tun finally picked up his microphone and spoke slowly and softly, ‘when a baby cries, it wants something. That is the language of protest’. As someone who spent eighteen years in prison, fourteen of them on death-row for not staying silent in the face of oppression, it was a powerful statement which encapsulated the theme of this year’s Cooler Lumpur Festival: Dangerous Ideas.

Now in its third year, and billed as Asia’s first and only festival of ideas, the Cooler Lumpur in Malaysia, brought together over 70 writers, artists, academics, thinkers and commentators from across Asia, Europe and America, including Indian novelist Chandrahas Choudhry, British science fiction writer Ian Macdonald and American film maker Joshua Oppenheimer, for three days of panel sessions, interviews and workshops. A collaboration between PopDigital and British Council Malaysia, with support from the American Embassy, the Romanian Embassy and BMW, the Cooler Lumpur Festival sought to inquire, explore, and bind the collective strength of the individual idea.

In the opening panel session of the festival, titled ‘what would you write about if you weren’t afraid’ Malaysian social activist Marina Mahathir and Indian novelist Ira Trivedi were joined with Letyar Tun. I had the privilege of accompanying Letyar Tun to the festival from Myanmar, and over a plate of nasi goreng in a local food stall we decided to turn the panel on its head and use the time on stage to emphasise what you cannot write about in Myanmar because the fear of repercussion is still real. It was a long list. At the top of that list was the murder of freelance journalist U Pa Gyi last September by the Myanmar army. As a former newspaper editor, Letyar Tun, was in possession of some graphic photographs of the body of U Pa Gyi as he was exhumed from his shallow grave. Receiving permission from U Pa Gyi’s widow and the photographer who took the images to show them at the festival, we felt it sensible to ask consent from the festival programme director, Umapagan Ampikaipakan, who, without hesitation, agreed.  For a few moments, Letyar Tun was able to resurrect the memory of U Pa Gyi, to an audience who may not even have been aware of what happened to him, and as the panellists continued onto other topics, such as feminism in India and the creation of Facebook tribes, a portrait of U Pa Gyi, holding a camera to his eye, remained on the screen behind them until the end.

The Cooler Lumpur Festival is a young festival, but it is clearly making its mark in the cultural calendar in South East Asia. By moving away from a traditional ‘literature’ event and embracing the broader context of ‘ideas’, it has allowed for a greater depth of discussion and dialogue, which will hopefully grow in the years to come.