A Freedom to Write Retrospective: Nay Phone Latt
Each week leading up to the PEN Literary Gala and the conferrence of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on May 5, PEN will feature the story of a previous winner. The Freedom to Write Award is awarded each year to an imprisoned writer who has made significant contributions and endured personal sacrifice in the service of free expression. Thirty-five of the 38 writers who were in prison at the time they won the award have been freed, including this week’s featured winner, Nay Phone Latt.
When PEN chose Nay Phone Latt as our 2010 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award winner, we knew that he was the face of Myanmar’s future. The 33-year-old blogger and poet was arrested on January 29, 2008, and held for over nine months before a specially assembled court sentenced him to a combined 20 years and six months in prison for “disseminating news that is considered to tarnish the image of the government” on November 10, 2008. His crime? Blogging about the 2007 Saffron Uprising. He was transferred from Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison to Pa-an Prison in Karen state, 135 miles from his home in Rangoon. On February 20, 2009, a court reduced Nay Phone Latt’s sentence by eight and a half years, leaving him to serve 12 years in prison.
After nearly four years in prison, Nay Phone Latt was released as part of a significant amnesty of political prisoners on January 13, 2012. He was part of a slew of activists who pledged to continue their work. As we knew in 2010, though, Nay Phone Latt would do so not merely in the traditional fashion, but through the expanding digital world. He was introduced to blogging when he was in Singapore before his arrest. Seeing what was happening online, he said, “I couldn’t believe it—no censorship, no editor—I could finally publish what I wanted freely about Burma, and I could find a community of readers.” Upon his release, Nay Phone Latt set up MIDO, the Myanmar ICT For Development Organization, which provides basic computing and media training for youth in remote regions, and works to increase computer literacy.
Nay Phone Latt also is a co-founder of the new Myanmar PEN Center, which was formally established at the Rekyavik PEN Congress in September 2013. Last year, he said that he started learning more about PEN after he won the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. “For so long we’ve been looking inward at Myanmar and I think it’s time to start looking out,” he said in a 2013 interview. “And because Myanmar PEN would be part of PEN International, I thought it was right, as Myanmar also needs to look to the world and see how it can help other peoples who are going through what we went through.”
The struggle for free expression in Myanmar is far from over. But this is why Nay Phone Latt, who continues to pioneer this path with his fellow writers, is still our hero.
LEARN MORE ABOUT NAY PHONE LATT
Read PEN’s 2013 Interview with Nay Phone Latt
Read Myanmar Times‘ March 2014 Interview, “Nay Phone Latt Speaks”
Read about the Myanmar PEN Center
Read Salman Rushdie’s Tribute to Nay Phone Latt as one of the 2010 TIME 100