A Literary Festival in Myanmar?
The other day, as I was researching reports that the Myanmar government has lifted laws banning gatherings and dissolved the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), I found an article touting Myanmar’s first literary festival. A literary festival? In Myanmar? It couldn’t be, I thought. But indeed, it is.
The Irrawaddy Literary Festival, organized by the wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar, is set to launch tomorrow and will feature events in Yangon through Sunday. The organizers have managed to put together an impressive lineup of foreign writers, and have nabbed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to headline, but what’s even more exciting is the roster of writers that PEN has worked for, and with, for a long time.
Remember Zarganar, the poet and comedian who was serving a 35-year sentence before he was released in the first wave of a general amnesty in the fall of 2011? He’ll be there.
Remember Nay Phone Latt, the 2010 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award winner who was serving an 11-year sentence for his blogging activities before he was released last January? He’ll be there.
Remember Zaw Thet Htwe, the journalist who was serving a 15-year sentence for reporting on Cyclone Nargis before he was also released last January? He’ll be there.
Remember Ma Thida, the physician and writer who served six years of a 20-year sentence beginning in 1993 before she was released following an international outcry of her peers? She’ll be there, too.
Jane Heyn, the organizer, says that “the consensus is that it’s a literary festival and not a political platform,” but of course debates about literature can easily turn into debates about the freedom to write. There are still free expression concerns in Myanmar (reports, for example, that protesting monks were recently attacked with phosphorus) a literary festival in Yangon is certainly a positive sign. Even more positive is that onstage at the festival will be some of the country’s best-known dissidents—those same dissidents who not so long ago were in prison for the very crime of speaking out.