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Modern Burmese Literature — Its Background in the Independence Movement


A look at the history of modern Burmese literature from The Atlantic‘s February 1958 issue.

It was only in the 1920’s, when agitation for independence led to a national awakening, that Burmese classical literature came into the curricula of the schools and Rangoon University, and serious writing in Burmese was supported by the cultural leaders of the country.

We find the earliest examples of literature in the Burmese language in hundreds of inscriptions carved on stone which still survive from the kingdom of Pagan dating back to the eleventh century. Next we have books written on dried palm leaves, such as the Maniratanapum, a fifteenth-century collection of ancient traditions, or Bhikkhu Ratthasara’s Hatthipala Pyo, a long poem based on Jataka stories of the lives of the Buddha.

Nawadegyi and Natshinnaung were our great poets of the Toungoo dynasties, and the pandit Binnyadala has left us an exciting prose chronicle of the long struggle between the Burmese King of Ava and the Mon King of Pegu. Much of our history comes down to us from the Egyins, historical ballads that were sung at the cradle ceremony of a new-born prince or princess. Dramatic literature flourished at the courts of Ava and Shwebo, in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, with the themes for poetic plays drawn first from the Jatakas and later, through contact with Siam, from Hindu sources such as the Ramayana.

Our last dynasty had its court at Mandalay (1857-1885) and here were gathered poets, dramatists, and writers of chronicle. Their works were inscribed on heavy paper folios, folded in pleats, called parabaiks, and often were very beautifully illustrated in vivid color. (See Training Elephants, Plate 38 in the art section.) With the British annexation of Burma in 1885 came new forces which were completely to change the patterns of Burmese writing: the printing press and the influence of Western education and literature. Our classical dramas in court style gave way to plays for a less refined audience, and these, in turn, to popular novels based on Western models.

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Victims of genocide or victims of history: 10 facts you did not know about the Rohingya crisis and the roasting of Aung Sang Suu Kyi

A profoundly ignorant chorus of denunciation has descended upon Aung Sang Suu Kyi over the treatment of the Rohingyas — while ignoring the historical baggage of colonial policies that created this tragic conundrum. And critics ignore the role of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which mounted coordinated attacks on police stations, army posts and civilian targets in November 2016 and August 2017. Here are some facts for your to consider:

1. It all goes back to the 1932 election in Burma (then part of British India); the Brits wanted to separate Burmese from India, and propped up the Separatist League, but the Anti-Separatists (led by Ba Maw) won. They wanted to remain loosely federated with India. Nonetheless Burma was separated from India in 1935. When Ba Maw won the next election too in 1937, the British policies of Divide and Rule were stepped up — and led to anti-Indian rioting in 1938 in Rangoon (after the Brits imprisoned Ba Maw for seeking Japanese support for his campaign of full independence from the Brits).

2. When Japan liberated Burma in March 1942, Ba Maw was restored to power (formally becoming Prime Minister or Adipati in August 1943), with Aung San as his DPM and Defence minister. The British had ensured that the British Burma Army contained no Burmese (instead comprising Karen, Kachins, Shans and Chins) while the bureaucracy contained mainly Anglo-Burmans and Indians. The majority Bamars only got opportunities in the military and bureaucracy in alliance with the Japanese.  Continue reading

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U Htin Kyaw unveils father’s book in China

By Xing Yi

Min Thu Wun’s Affinity with China – a book in Chinese and Burmese – was unveiled by the President of Myanmar U Htin Kyaw in Beijing on Sunday (9th April).

The late Min Thu Wun, the president’s father, was a famous poet who is regarded as one of the three luminaries in Myanmar’s literary movement called Khitsan (new writing) of the 1930s.

The president attended the book launch at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing during his first visit to China since becoming Myanmar’s leader in 2016.

Published by China’s Foreign Language Press in April, the book is a collection of Min Thu Wun’s essays on China and Chinese literature, reflecting the cultural links between China and Myanmar. Read more

Source: China Daily

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Review: The Female Voice of Myanmar

By Latha Anantharaman

A nuanced and insightful story of four women in Myanmar’s long struggle for freedom

In its decades of military rule after independence, Myanmar has flickered on the edges of India’s vision, and only in recent years has the country unveiled itself to the rest of the world. Its history is still as raw as yesterday’s newspapers, and we won’t get the long view and smooth narrative for a while yet. Nilanjana Sengupta’s heavily footnoted, indexed history, with archival photos duly labelled, gives us the plodding, dispassionate documentation that seems more appropriate at this stage.

Sengupta tells the story of four women visible in Myanmar’s long struggle for freedom: Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar, Ma Thida and Aung San Suu Kyi. Around each she draws a picture of Burmese society, economy and politics of the time. All four chafed under the fabled gender equality of Burmese society, premised on the economic autonomy of women often encouraged and expected to run their own enterprises. This fell far short of genuine equality while allowing society to evade the issue entirely. Casting a shadow over these four is the history of a fifth, Queen Supaya-Lat, chief queen of the last king of Burma, exiled to India by the British. Supaya-Lat was notorious for her political machinations and outright brutality, but she also was an example of Burmese resistance, defying the British so bitterly that they were afraid to let her return to the fortified palace at Mandalay. Read more

Source: The Hindu

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Myanmar: Women talk sex, censorship at literary forum

By Lillian Kalish

Filmmaker Emily Hong once said that the very act of a woman holding a camera in the streets of Yangon – by nature of its rare and provocative nature – is performance art. When women move and work in ways which counter the expectations of society, they open up new avenues for discussion, community and the transferring of knowledge.

That notion forms the framework for this weekend’s inaugural Ingyin Literary Forum, a four-day event dedicated to Myanmar women writers. Hosted by Yaw Min Gyi’s Ngarse / 50 community centre, the forum blossomed out of a desire to share experiences: Its title is derived from the name of the Bodhi tree’s flowers, which bloomed overhead at the birth of Buddha and have come to represent the sharing of knowledge.  Read more

Source: The Myanmar Times


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The Bizarre Trial of a Poet in Myanmar

In its brief coverage of Saungkha’s ordeal, the international media has seized on a more salacious, and catchier, version: “I have the President’s portrait tattooed on my manhood/ How disgusted my wife is.”

Weeks after Saungkha posted the poem online, I went to see him in a holding cell, where he was handcuffed to a police officer and awaiting trial for defamation. Saungkha, a slim man with boyish features, told me, through a translator, that he did not think his words would stir up so much trouble. He cited Myanmar’s abolition of censorship and its transition to democracy, a process that began in 2010 and culminated, or seemed to, on November 8, 2015, when voters pushed the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, into power for the first time. “Even though it is said we have freedom of expression, now they charged me because I wrote a poem,” Saungkha said. “So I was surprised.”

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Essay: Reading ‘Les Miserables’ in Myanmar–Lessons in Nationalism with Aung San Suu Kyi

by Nilanjana Sengupta

angsuukyiI was fortunate to be a part of the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival – the first of its kind Myanmar has known in perhaps half a century. It was organised at the Inya Lake Hotel, Yangon in February 2013. Winter and early spring are the traditional seasons for literary talks, or sarpay hawpyawbwe in Myanmar. This particular morning was cool, the air having lost its chilling bite and indolent, white cotton-ball clouds were reflected in the blue waters of the Inya Lake. Aung San Suu Kyi arrived amidst unprompted and seemingly unending applause – she was the festival patron and was to participate in two of the panels.

During the course of discussion she confessed to her lack of admiration for the character of Ulysses and in the same breath declared Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean to be an all-time favourite. This was greeted with surprise and the possible reason for her rejection of the cultural icon of individual self-assertion over a petty French convict, jailed for his 40 sous theft, whose climactic act of heroism consisted of carrying his former enemy through miles of Parisian sewers, was debated at length. I too wondered… till late into the night, the thought going round in slow, concentric circles in my mind even as I kept a wary watch for the gecko I had spotted crawling the walls of my lonely hotel room. Uff, I will think of it tomorrow, I finally decided, why does everything in Myanmar have to be so complicated? Continue reading


Essay: Myanmar – What does Aung San Suu Kyi’s Victory Mean for Myanmar?

Nilanjana Sengupta

angsuukyiExactly twenty years back Aung San Suu Kyi was released from the first of her house arrests and on 4 October 1995 went to visit the revered U Vinaya’s* monastery in the Kayin State – her first journey outside Yangon in six years.

She wrote of the journey with some lyricism in a couple of pieces titled, The Road to Thamanya – narratives which are rich with the fragrance of long-awaited freedom and the suppressed excitement of a child setting off on an adventure. The deep sense of connection she feels with the Burmese countryside is evident as she describes white stupas wreathed in morning mist and bamboo fences with their delicate frieze of flowering vines. Everything appears magical in the early morning light and the discomfort of travelling in a car in an “indifferent state of repair” cannot dampen her spirits – despite the car radio unceremoniously falling off and the first-aid box, firmly ensconced at the back, suddenly found nestling by her feet!

As she passes through the smaller townships of the Mon State there is a distinct softening of her tone as she describes the NLD offices, modest huts perched on slender bamboo poles, “These [NLD] signboards, brilliantly red and white, are a symbol of the courage of people who have remained dedicated to their beliefs in the face of severe repression, whose commitment to democracy has not been shaken by the adversities they have experienced. The thought that such people are to be found all over Burma lifted my heart…” Continue reading

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Essay: Myanmar – What Next?

Nilanjana Sengupta

Recently at the Singapore Writers’ Festival I met a young publisher from Yangon who confessed to spending sleepless nights, thinking what would happen on the 8th of November and perhaps more importantly, afterwards. In the last Myanmar general elections he had reached the election booth nice and early only to find his name absent on the electoral roll. He had merely written ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ on a piece of paper and slipped it into the ballot box.

Sitting amidst the well-manicured lawns of the Victoria Concert Hall of Singapore with the efficiently administered GE 2015 recently concluded, it is difficult to imagine the fever-pitch tension which is currently raging in a neighbouring country – Myanmar. The November 2015 election is a first of its kind in decades when real political parties will engage in real electoral competition. During the 1980s and 90s the country has known East European-style elections which merely confirmed the majority of the ruling party. In 1999 though the Aung San Suu Kyi-led NLD party won 392 of 492 seats, it could not persuade the military junta to hand over power and in 2010, with Suu Kyi still under house arrest, the NLD decided to boycott the elections and the government-backed USDP won by an overwhelming majority. Continue reading

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Myanmar’s multi-ethnic languages and literary works see a new day

Book Launch 6

Writer Yu Ya reading from her story

On 27th September 2015, the British Council’s ‘Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds’ project launched an anthology of ethnic short stories in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. In order to celebrate freedom of expression and creativity in multiple ethnic languages, this unique multi-lingual anthology includes 28 short stories, 21 in translation in 10 languages and 9 distinct scripts.

The anthologized pieces were produced in several workshops held during 2013 and 2014. The workshops focused on construction of short stories were conducted in the ethnic states in which participants discussed how their socio-political concerns could be crafted into narrative forms in their own languages. Short stories from the three best workshops in each ethnic state were selected on the basis of literary merit and translated into Burmese. Continue reading