Friday, 1 August 2008

Writers Play Cat-and-Mouse Game with State Censors

It was a love poem, cleared by Burmese censors, in which a brokenhearted man rejected by a fashion model thanked her for teaching him the meaning of love. But when the first letters of each line were read vertically, it said "General Than Shwe [the country's principal military ruler] is crazy with power."

On January 22, after news of the hidden message reached the authorities, poet Saw Wei was arrested. But, as far as the military junta was concerned, the damage already was done, because Saw Wei had breached Burma's notorious Press Scrutiny and Registration Board (PSRB) and successfully broadcast a message of political dissent.

Burma's writers, journalists and other intellectuals have been coping with state censorship since the country's colonial days, but intense and unpredictable scrutiny in place since 1962 under the military regime has spawned subtle literary traditions and brazen attempts at self-expression, according to a source who specializes in Burmese literature.

The specialist, who spoke to on condition of anonymity, said Burmese traditions of writing between the lines, using words with double meanings, and other cryptic styles help writers get material out to their information-starved countrymen despite state censorship.

"There's a lot of interest in words that sort of pack a punch without revealing too much, and I really see that as a whole literary tradition that's developed because of the long history of state control," the specialist said. "They say art is all about constraint, and I would say that's really true. There is this sort of cleverness of working with constraint."

Some literary change is reflected in the rise of magazines and journals (gya-neh) or weekly news tabloids as the main outlets for self-expression, rather than novels or short stories that are labor-intensive and difficult to publish.

Some Burmese intellectuals consider much of the country's post-modern literature "gibberish" because the prose lacks plot and the poetry is nonspecific, resembling a "word salad." But the specialist described the new Burmese literature as "one of the more extreme responses to censorship," because it allows a writer under investigation to claim the work has no real meaning. "It's kind of their way of bypassing the censorship system and then sort of communicating in some way."

One challenge all writers face is staying abreast of the state's ever-changing list of problematic topics.

"If the general gives a talk on teenage behavior, then your article in your journal or your magazine about teen fashions might get censored, even if there's nothing political in it. There are a lot of times that things that aren't political at all will get censored, and it's more like the censorship board is worried and so they start looking for meanings when maybe none are there at all," the specialist said.

Occasionally, writers and editors will be surprisingly open in their topics, and that tolerance for risk "is really an indicator of frustration."

The June 2008 issue of Cherry magazine featured a poem "De Pa Yin Ga," about heroic figures in Burma's history who were lost because their people were unfaithful to them. But the title also could refer to Depayin, the town where democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters were attacked by a government-sponsored mob in a May 2003 incident that killed 70 people.

On June 30, Cherry's poetry editor, Htay Aung, was fired and the PSRB ordered the June issue - which already had sold out - recalled. The specialist expressed surprise that the poem was submitted, and also that it made it past the censors. Perhaps "someone on the censor board wanted the subversive poem to get through. I think a more likely explanation is that it just slipped through inadvertently." The sheer volume of material to be reviewed makes it "very difficult for censors to catch this sort of thing before printing," the specialist said. "It has to be found by readers."

Other examples:

. After Cyclone Nargis in May, a survivor unveiled a billboard reading, "We want food, not gold." In Burmese, shwe, means gold, a probable reference to General Than Shwe.

. During an October 2007 crackdown on pro-democracy protests, a state newspaper employee published a photo of a London demonstration against Burma's rulers, with a deliberately erroneous caption saying it was a protest against the war in Iraq.

. Early in 2007, an advertisement placed in a major Burmese newspaper for a fake Scandinavian travel agency contained the hidden message "Killer Than Shwe."

. In 1998, a printing error transposed a headline to the opposite page. As a result, the words "world's greatest liar" appeared over the Burmese ruler's photo.

. In 1995, the Burmese army's Yadanabon newspaper ran a personal ad wishing someone named "U Tin Maung Kyi" a happy anniversary. A backwards reading presents "Kyi Maung" and "Tin U," two senior pro-democracy leaders imprisoned at the time.

"There is a long tradition of hiding messages in this way," said the specialist who, after hearing about Saw Wei's poem, related how an anonymous writer used similar technique in 1978 to spell out "July 7" on a wall of Rangoon University - a reference to the day the army blew up the student union building in 1962.

Writers and intellectuals see themselves as the voice of the people and feel a strong sense of social responsibility despite being generally apolitical. That lends special significance to poet Aung Way's September 2007 call for other writers to support the pro-democracy movement led by Burmese monks. (See "Burma's Monks Have History of Democratic Protest ( ).")

"There's a tradition of respecting writers and intellectuals in Burma so when they put themselves on the line it gets attention. It's very similar to the monks stepping forward," the specialist said.

No comments: