Myanmar Spring Diary
Poems & Short Stories Written in the Aftermath of the February 2021 Coup
On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military launched a violent coup, preventing the democratically-elected government from starting a second term and returning the country to yet another period of repressive military rule after a decade of relative openness. According to the PEN America report Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup, published in December 2021, “Creative artists, including writers, poets, filmmakers, painters, musicians, satirists, graphic artists, and others, have been among the vanguard of the public response to the coup, using their creative tools to denounce the coup, to defend the freedoms gained during the country’s 10-year political opening, and to call for greater change. They have built upon decades of creative protest in Myanmar, from the popular and outspoken pro-independence songs of the 1930s, to the elusive but subversive poetry of the 1970s and 1988, to the mocking satire of the early 2000s.”
At the time of publication, PEN America had identified dozens of creative artists who had been detained since the coup started, with many more being hunted and targeted for arrest, or forced to flee into hiding or exile. At least five had been brutally killed and many more subjected to abuse and torture. The third wave of COVID-19, exacerbated by the coup, had further devastated the creative sector, with the deaths of many poets, writers, artists, musicians, and actors, especially from the older generations.
The authors of Myanmar Spring Diary, a poignant collection of 10 short stories and 12 poems, reflect on the countless acts of courage and tragic losses in the wake of the 2021 military coup, and pay tribute to the Spring Revolution heroes. Their stories and poems are set against the backdrop of Myanmar’s 10 year experiment with quasi-democracy, as well as the previous five decades of military rule. The poems were written in Myanmar’s languages and have been translated into English for the first time.
Museum of the Steel Souls
Exhibition Room 1
A smoke bomb must have exploded in here. Its strong smell and thick smoke almost choked me. I couldn’t see anything inside the room clearly. The dark columns of smoke curled up to the ceiling, and then back down to the floor. I could only make out objects up to three feet away.
My goodness! As I peered through the dark clouds of smoke, squinting my eyes so I could see what lay ahead, I tripped over something on the floor. I fell, but the object didn’t move. I looked down quickly. My eyes stung.
Oh, there you are! A woman’s white slipper soaked in blood. Quite a light slipper, but sticky blood had dried under its sole. So, though I tripped over it, the slipper was as firm as a hammered nail. The Myanmar basic education women teachers I know usually wear this type of slipper. It symbolized, therefore, a teacher joining the Spring Revolution till she breathed her last breath. I turned around, looking down at the bloody slipper, stood upright, and bowed to the owner, who I imagined was a school teacher in a green and white school uniform. My eyes no longer stung, but the smell of smoke had not dissipated. Maybe my nostrils had gotten used to the smell.
On the white wall I could clearly see a pair of glasses, which I thought would not cost much. They belonged to a man, a school teacher, who had devoted many years of his life to education. His soul was not able to take his glasses to the after-life, but, on his behalf, the museum had accepted his blood-stained glasses as an exhibit for posterity. For the exhibit caption there was a map showing the birthplace of the deceased owner of the glasses, in honor of his noble service. This map was different from the one displayed beside the woman teacher’s white slipper. My eyes no longer stung, but I felt tears welling up. The smell of smoke! Does it come from outside? Or does it come from inside my body — from an organ which might have been burned? The cloud of smoke almost blocked my throat.
On the wall next to me appeared one blurred image after another. My eyes strained through the cloud of smoke to see them, as though they were farther than their actual distance: tattooed letters on a poetess’s forearm spelling out her blood type; a poet in the vanguard holding a fluttering banner; the lifeless body of a poet whose organs had been mutilated and who wrote the lines, “I will live with a clear conscience until my last minute;” a worried lad pushing a wagon carrying a wounded body; a little girl behind a thin, makeshift shield to protect her from the cloud of smoke; a young man, who, taking the cover of a fiber shield, tried to carry the body of his wounded brother … 10 or 20 images, one after another. The dam of my eyelids broke, and tears flowed down uninterrupted. I could now tolerate the smell of smoke.
Bang! Something dropped from the ceiling right on my head! Sticky liquid flowing from my forehead down over my glasses. Nothing but red in my vision. The thing that dropped down on my head didn’t roll off. I turned my head to the right. A mirror was waiting. “My goodness! A motorbike helmet on my head!”
Now the wind from nowhere began to blow very strongly. Strange! The wind was blowing, not on the lower part of my body, only the upper part. I could hear the strong gust of wind blowing. The smell of smoke was blown away. Now a smell reminiscent of clinics and hospitals invaded my nostrils. The strong wind hit the helmet on my head like the brutal butt of a rifle so many times that I almost lost my balance. My glasses were smeared with red liquid so everywhere I looked was red. The wind was blowing on the upper part of my body. Should I sit down so that I feel better? Yet I stood still on my feet as though fossilized. Now, the stringent smoke of gunpowder filled the air.
“Everything is gonna be alright. Come here, and wash your face with coke.” I heard a young woman’s voice. Her voice was sweet, clear and very decisive. I headed in the direction of the voice. To my astonishment, I discovered it came from the map of Myanmar next to the caption on the wall — from the thoughts of a mass of people of different ages, races, religions, birthplaces, sexual tendencies and orientations, and everything else. “Everything is gonna be alright!” Then, the backwash from the deepest core of my heart must have blown away the helmet from my heart right up to the ceiling. The smell of gunpowder was getting stronger. But I neither sat down nor stood still, as if anchored firmly. I must move, I must move forward. A new exhibition room was waiting for me.
Exhibition Room 2
The strong smell of tears! Who would argue that you can’t smell tears? I became accustomed to all sorts of smells in the exhibition room I just visited. No wonder I could now distinguish one smell from another. So I can say that this exhibition room is choked with the pungent smell of tears. The room, filled with the smell of tears, was so suffocating you couldn’t breathe properly. Yes, before you enter this room, you must sign an agreement that your life is at stake, and you are required to cover your face with an oxygen mask, hooked up to an oxygen tank, so that you can see everything in this exhibition room, and are blessed with the chance to take a good breath. This oxygen mask, if you are lucky, will serve you well until you leave this room. Yet the flow of oxygen could stop at any time. This you must know, and you must accept the terms of agreement before you enter this room: when the oxygen stops flowing, the air through the tube could cause breathing problems, even doing harm to your life. So, you must be convinced that it is a great blessing if you do not lose your sense of the smell of tears. The smell of tears would be the meal you nibble at; and if you do not make any mistakes taking steps, with the oxygen mask over your face, you would not miss your Spring goal.
The challenge was there, ahead of me. The moment I took one step, four or five guns, trigger-ready, were aimed at my heart. Their bodies were made of cold gray stone, their heads and hands from human flesh. When a human figure came into their sights, they mechanically aimed their guns. Their masked heads and ballistic helmets could only see three fingers raised upright. They were deprived of the sense of knowing, “This is an ambulance. This is the smell of tears.” Their hands looked stone dead, ready to pull the trigger and shoot at anything, animate or inanimate, the moment they heard a puff of the wanton wind. The hospital behind these stone-sculptured soldiers was only thirty or forty steps away, but I turned around, never to go there. The hospital seemed miles away.
I came to a long corridor. There I saw a long line of shadowy figures, seated and standing, with hundreds of oxygen cylinders, large and small, in a long line. Once again, the intolerable smell of tears rose up in the gloomy air. The sounds of hard breathing and groans, high and low, rose, then exploded, then paused and thinned, and then got louder. The hard confused breathing blasted my eardrums!
Dark gray clouds floated down from the ceiling, introducing a new scene. In the wink of an eye, an invisible hand pushed those people, and their bodies fell to the ground. At that very moment, the long line of oxygen cylinders also fell and, alas!, were transformed into stretchers for carrying corpses. Right before my eyes, those thousands of sorrowful eyes, looking almost hopeless, turned into motionless, stony eyes.
I lost the heart to skim the captions. I just wanted to leave right away. Why the smell of tears? Why the hard breathing? Why such a moving scene? I didn’t want to know why. These baffling questions had numbed my desire to find out why. Is there anything more to find out? What would more messages bring to me? Just gruesome scenes of misery. Would there be anything else on earth to bring but a huge shame, a terrible disgrace to humanity?
Exhibition Room 3
The clean fresh air emanated a sweet fragrance. The beaming light was bright and calm. At the entrance were rows of many, many slippers of different sizes and shapes, neatly laid out on the floor. A three-cornered card on the floor read: when dispersed by gunshots during the Spring Revolution, many who fled were barefooted, so people in the neighborhoods collected and arranged the ownerless slippers in such an efficient manner that, if fortune should favor them, the owners could come back to claim their slippers and put them right back on. I was gazing at the slippers, pleased with the efforts, when I saw glittering silver and gold wings flying down from the ceiling. The wings gently alighted on the respective slippers. What was going to fly up to the sky was not the winged slippers, of course, but the butterflies of the noble souls of those people, who had hearts of gold to show empathy to their fellow human beings.
I stood before the rows of slippers and bowed. When I looked up, I saw a smiling, young woman holding a basket of boiled peas around her waist. What an inviting smell wafted from the steaming, boiled peas! My mouth watered. She smiled, but her eyes revealed a bit of pride. A caption on her bamboo basket read: During the Covid-19 pandemic, the prices of commodities have skyrocketed. This young hawker of boiled peas, sensing what could happen to food prices, sold her gold ring, invested in bags of peas, and sold boiled peas to her customers at normal prices. Thanks to her lack of greed, the price wasn’t raised.” Impressed by her noble mindset and laudable motives, I embraced the statue of the young hawker by the shoulder. “During the Spring Revolution,” said her clear recorded voice, “those who have sacrificed their lives outnumber the audience capacity of this museum. We have simply done what we could for our people.”
All the walls, ceiling and floor of the next section were crammed with certificates of honor for CDM heroes and Spring Revolution donors. Among them, a homeless, mentally ill man who made a donation of 30,000 kyats to a charity fund to purchase oxygen! On the wall filled with certificates, a transparent embossed screen of teardrops floated, much like animation slides. Hours passed, but the images went on and on: 22222 strike, thanaka strike, drivers’ strike, flower strike, Tumbling Kelly strike, inanimate objects strike, and many, many more. Images of the Ministry of Railway Service workers, who, adopting the lives of CDMs, took their belongings and left their barracks; striking people lying on railway lines to stop the railway service; religious leaders who begged soldiers to shoot them instead of the demonstrators; people preparing food and oxygen inside religious buildings for the Spring Revolution demonstrators; vehicles and staff of nonprofit organizations bravely sacrificing their lives for the people, doing their part to the best of their abilities; a Buddhist monk who offered banana bunches to a Muslim during the pandemic when food supply was a problem for all; a young Muslim staff member, covering her head with a shawl, vaccinating a Buddhist monk; the staff of the People’s Police Force and the army. The bursts of images continued.
On the floor, in the corner of the hall, by my right hand, there were dented pots and pans, iron rods, tin sheets, and tin boxes, large and small, with captions listing the owner’s house number, name of street or road, town, township and division. A red spotlight was hovering over these iron and tin wares, and as the spotlight fell on a particular object, an aggressive cacophony rang out — strikes of hate and resentment. More red spotlights! Then a tumultuous roar of hard strikes against the iron pots and pans, as though the hall was hit by lightning and thunder.
The compound of the museum was a cool, shady glade. Each tree growing there bore the name of an honored hero. The stories of the heroes were displayed on the tree trunks. The letters of each name were an embossed piece of art. Not only the names of individual people, but also towns and villages that had bravely resisted and taken up arms during the Spring Revolution. The trees also bore the names of people living abroad who had contributed to the revolution, along with the names of their respective cities and countries. These little steel butterflies, bearing names, performed their duties on behalf of the heroes, throughout the glade in the compound of the museum. At an exit with no re-entry, a small lottery house welcomed visitors. Unlike all the other lottery houses in the world, this one offered two choices to ticket buyers: If you win the lottery prize, are you going to take away the prize or are you going to donate it? Surprisingly, the majority of ticket buyers ticked the box: “Donate.” Thus, they chose the destiny of the revolution, not their own destiny. Now I was leaving the museum.
After I read the sign at the exit of The Museum of Steel Souls, I made a solemn promise with strong determination. The sign at the exit said: “Make a promise that you and your next generations will ensure a museum like this will never exist in the future.”
Ma Thida (Sanchaung)
Now they’ve got me. I knew I should shrug with resignation, and avoid any act or speech that would disturb them.
They came to my house in the evening. My neighbors didn’t think of me as a hero, but I followed them like a lamb. When I stepped into their car, two policewomen didn’t simply blindfold me, they also gave me a slap.
I am a native of this town, so I could imagine where we were heading, but I no longer cared to make mental notes. I knew the car was driving round and round, and I heard the movements of the security forces preparing for the car to enter a compound.
Then the car stopped in front of a building in the compound. Footsteps. Then I was dragged out of the car. I was pushed into a room, brutal hands pulling my long hair that hung down to my waist. Then the door was shut.
Then I heard the hard footsteps of boots. What I didn’t know at all was what they wanted me to say. They asked questions, not in the usual manner of a discussion, but in the manner of being forced to admit what I didn’t do. This was the usual interrogation practice.
I thought I should make a mental note of how many days I was kept in there. It was during the third week that I was taken to the place where many other detainees were being confined. Some were my friends, but they pretended they didn’t know me, which, you can understand, was pretty awkward.
Later I realized that they didn’t recognize people like me who had been recently detained. Like me, others who were thrown behind bars ‘fresh from the oven’ didn’t attract other people’s attention. It was only after a few days of close contact and care that we began to recognize one another.
More than 100 days passed in a life of downtrodden human rights. Then they took me away. Those who remained were worried about me.
Not being blindfolded, this time I could see the room very well. Only one door. No window. A small pigeon hole high up on the wall. We passed by many locked rooms, and then came to the room at the farthest corner, facing nothing but the wall.
Inside the room, I was ordered to sit on a chair. On the edge of the chair was a leg wearing a boot, his hand holding a cold cup steady, right in front of my face.
The clear, cold water in the steel cup whetted my thirst.
“Sayama (woman school teacher), you know what you’re going through, don’t you? I offer you a chance. Go home and resume your duties. Your fellow teachers have returned to duties already. If you don’t agree, this room is yours!”
When I was first taken to this camp, I was addressed very rudely, so it was the very first time I was treated politely. Yet his voice, though a bit polite, was harsh and cold.
I was sitting calmly, but my eyes were fixed on the steel cup of cold water. After more than one hundred days, it was the very first time I was addressed as Sayama out of respect, and at the same time, I found myself gazing at the crystal water in the shiny steel cup, with drops of vapor on its surface.
The more I looked at the water, the more my throat became parched, my dry lips craving the cold wet taste. At such moments you would surely be inclined to comply with any demand.
Our conversation didn’t take long. They did their job in half an hour. The water in the steel cup, the sight of which had whetted my appetite, was splashed on the corner of the wall. Bang! The one and only door of the room was shut.
Me all alone in a dark cell.
I was determined I would never surrender till my last breath.
4 July 2021
Girl Returning From the Dark
Su Htet Wai is her name.
But she prefers to be called,
‘Soe Su Htet Wai’
with her father’s name as her surname.
She loves her father,
She loves her mother,
She loves her brothers and sisters,
She also loves her father’s friends.
The apple of her father’s eye
The apple of her mother’s eye
The apple of her sister’s eye
The apple of her brother’s eye
Loves all pretty things
her father is away on business trips,
short or long,
And her little heart
misses her father’s homecoming
The thought of the first day of school
excited her little heart
The day came nearer
filling her heart with joy
leaving home for school
coming home from school
A child may get spoilt,
may sometimes cry
may sometimes nag at her mother
may smile, sometimes.
Innocence is a child.
justice has been bullied by injustice.
The brutal hands of the dictator,
when driven into a corner,
flung this innocent child
into the nights of darkness.
Her father, an activist out there
revolting against injustice,
flying the banner of justice
The brutal hands can’t get her father,
So what did they do?
Put her mother behind bars,
her sister, too,
And put this little child behind iron bars.
At an age too young
to endure mental wounds like this
Are you fuming,
Giving vent to your feelings, little daughter?
Poor little thing, you turn five behind bars
What a pity! Your birthday got lost in detention.
Oh, how you miss your younger days!
Happy birthday, daughter.
“My little daughter, a five-year old,”
said her father, in tears —
A warrant has been issued for his arrest —
“If she should live,
and if I could live,
I would wish to meet my little lamb once again.”
Tears in my eyes,
I say, “Daughter, I’m so sorry for you.”
“Little Daughter,” said the voice of justice,
“May you be free!”
The voice of justice penetrated the walls,
And the day came when she was set free.
This little child was detained for more than two weeks.
“My tummy was always hungry!”
“I had to bathe in toilet water.”
“How’s your Mom?”
“How’s your sis?”
She might be too depressed.
“How ‘bout Grandma Suu?
Is she free?” said the little child
when she was out in the open air again.
everybody would be set free like her.
Your hopes will be fulfilled soon, my little dear.
I’m afraid your mental wounds
will never be healed, my little dear.
The time will come soon
when the daybreak dispels the darkness.
Soon, with the voice of justice,
The banners of victory will be flying everywhere.
You will be happy, my little dear.
Maung Yé Nway (Pla-Leik)
30 June 2021
The time has yet to come
when the national flag should fly
over the flag post in the school compound.
When you have passed
the subjects you are taught,
“This is the bomb,
this is the bullet,
this is injustice,
this is the dictator,”
then you may all go back to your classes.
Optional subjects like
“Time of your own,
space of your own,
stream of your own,
light of your own,
freedom of your own” —
Enter “of your own” in Google Search,
then, if you feel free to join
the flow of your own —
you may go back to your classrooms.
every blade of grass, when trodden flat,
struggles to rise again.
no rivers flow
straight into the sea.
When you have an opportunity to know
which is black, which is white,
after you have left behind
this moment of being stuck up,
your path of the future will be perfect!
When schools reopen,
on the first day,
no teaching of subjects.
Your class teacher will draw on the blackboard
three big fingers standing upright.
And each of you has to come up to the front,
and give a presentation,
talking about your feelings and opinions.
Well, then, little children,
make your presentation brave and bold,
with no tears in your eyes.
Htun Thway Eain
8 May 2021
Poetry Manifesto on the Revolution
No more verses,
the lines exploited for the sake of their military power.
The subject of our poetry
Must be: how we had to steal
for a breath of oxygen, for free access.
No more discussions
about lost love.
Must write about how hate originated,
and how hate ended.
No more hearts to sing
our national anthem.
Must soak our chests with ink
to write how our fathers, brothers,
were detained in pools of blood
packed inside the blue prison car
like swine, like stray dogs.
As long as he lives,
man has hope.
If not hope for yourself,
hope for your wife,
your relatives, your country,
for wiping out injustice,
for fallen comrades.
Where there is no hope,
If you have grown up in fear,
you are a dead letter of a lifeless alphabet,
a dumb tongue that knows no history.
Must bury the story
of a group of people who, out of fear,
have become reactionaries.
we must compose the stories
of those revolutionaries
who had no fear of death.
Freedom from fear
will be imprinted
on the hearts of the younger generations,
a solemn promise that you can come to a new nation,
with new developments, new minds and bodies,
riding a brand new vehicle!
Chorus: What are you going to do
when the revolution is over?
Chorus: When our mission is accomplished,
we will go back to the public barracks,
and write poems.
Paing Thit Nwe
PEN America would like to thank the courageous writers and poets who contributed their work to this inspiring collection, and to also pay tribute to all of Myanmar’s writers, poets, and other creative artists. Zaw Tun, an award-winning poet and translator who has published his own book of poetry and translated more than 50 books of Myanmar poetry and two novels into English, translated the Burmese-language poems and short stories in this collection. Dr. Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of Free Expression at Risk Programs, and PEN America consultant Jane Madlyn McElhone provided editorial oversight and guidance for the project, along with Myanmar-based partners who wish to remain anonymous.