Global writers’ group PEN International has urged senior government officials to introduce laws that improve transparency and protect freedom of expression, especially for minority languages and culture.

The delegation was led by PEN International president John Ralston Saul and included members of its Myanmar chapter, which was established in September. It met National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung Sun Suu Kyi, presidential spokesperson U Ye Htut, and Minister for Information U Aung Kyi in Nay Pyi Taw earlier this month.

In their meeting with U Ye Htut and U Aung Kyi, Mr. Saul said the group raised a variety of pressing issues, including the need to amend laws that restrict freedom of expression and the situation in Rakhine State.

“We had a very active and open discussion about [these issues]. They didn’t necessarily agree but they listened to it and took it on board so we’ll see what happens,” said Mr. Saul, who is also an essayist and the author of several works of fiction.

In particular, they urged U Ye Htut to ensure the government adopts a more transparent approach to investigations into communal conflict. Ultimately, this would benefit the government, Mr. Saul said. “The answer to situation where you believe you have been misrepresented is that you become transparent and you get rid of the misunderstanding.”

PEN International was founded in London in 1921 as a support network for European writers and intellectuals following World War I.  It has since grown to include chapters across the globe and focuses its efforts on advocating for freedom of expression, especially in the arts and public discourse.

Myanmar’s PEN chapter opened in September, largely thanks to the efforts of award-winning author and former political prisoner Ma Thida (Sanchaung), who took part in last week’s meetings.

At Ma Thida’s suggestion, the Pen delegation pushed for the drafting of an access to information law, which Ye Htut signaled he was interested in pursuing.

U Ye Htut could not be reached for comment on the meeting.

In the meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi talks focused on protecting the languages and cultures of Myanmar’s many minority groups.

For many minority students “there is no such mechanism for learning their own languages at the school, they really don’t know … We need to invest in their language, but also their literature,” Ma Thida said.

Mr. Saul, Ma Thida and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi agreed on the need to preserve the oral storytelling traditions of ethnic groups. As Ma Thida pointed out, groups like the Chin have more of an oral than a written storytelling tradition.

Both Ma Thida and Mr. Saul said they hoped that PEN could one day conduct a project to record these stories and translate them into Burmese and other native languages. 

However, Ma Thida stressed that the centre does not yet have the resources to complete such a large project, which makes collaboration with politicians and other groups all the more important. “We don’t even have an office yet,” she said.