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. 

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?

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…”

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.

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.