In 2013, we witnessed the sudden and dramatic loosening of decades-old restrictions on speech and political activity maintained under the military regime in Myanmar. Writers such as Nay Phone Latt and the poet U Zeya were released from prison under a selective amnesty, and in 2010 activist Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. However, recent developments suggest that the new climate of openness may be fragile. Members of the recently established PEN Myanmar issued a statement this week against the repressive treatment of writers, as detailed by the website Eleven Myanmar:

Writers Nyi Pu Kalay, Maung Sein Win (Padigon) and U Phone (Chemistry) were recently banned from giving public talks in Pyawbwe Township on February 4, after a township administration officer claimed they were propagating for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). “In Myanmar, as you know, the upper level says what they want to say and the bottom must comply. Although they are speaking about human rights and democracy, they are afraid of it. They despise it,” said writer Nyi Pu Kalay.

Far from propagating any party line, writer U Phone (Chemistry) said that they only stated that people should rightly vote for those who can genuinely serve the interest of the country in next 2015 election. The authorities have also prohibited any video distribution of the talk.

“Writers will say their opinions. He cannot be told not to say this and that. It is not acceptable that those who attended the literary talk were warned so,” said Aung Zar Moe, a resident from Pyawbwe Township. In another case, a literary event was cancelled in Pyawbwe, Mandalay Region in January because hardline monks complained that one of the writers Ma Thida (Sanchaung) worked with Muslims.

“They demanded me to replace Ma Thida as she works at a Muslim hospital and she has said that she does not accept the anti-interfaith marriage law while she was in Singapore,” event organiser Thin Yi told Eleven Media.

Writing to us by email, PEN Myanmar president Ma Thida explained:

Throughout our history, writers have been key defenders of freedom of speech and expression. Even under the socialist and military regime, writers tried not only to inform and interpret what’s going on inside the country and what is right or wrong but also to trigger readers to think deeply about these issues. Writers used to write between the lines and beyond the text in order to fulfill the reader’s right to know and right to think. And most literary talks are designed to open readers/listeners’ minds to have the freedom of opinion. So writers still play very significant role in defending freedom of expression.

Over the next year, PEN American Center will be working closely with PEN Myanmar to expand its capacity and develop an exciting new literary exchange.