The Bizarre Trial of a Poet in Myanmar
The Burmese poet Maung Saungkha does not have a tattoo of Myanmar’s President on his penis. At least, that is what he has told everyone who has asked him recently. He may soon have to prove it in court. The twenty-four-year-old’s anatomy became a matter of public interest on October 8th, of last year, when Saungkha posted a short poem, titled “Image,” to his Facebook page. The most staid translation reads like this:
On my manhood rests a tattooed
portrait of Mr. President
My beloved found that out after
She was utterly gutted,
In its brief coverage of Saungkha’s ordeal, the international media has seized on a more salacious, and catchier, version: “I have the President’s portrait tattooed on my penis/ How disgusted my wife is.”
Weeks after Saungkha posted the poem online, I went to see him in a holding cell, where he was handcuffed to a police officer and awaiting trial for defamation. Saungkha, a slim man with boyish features, told me, through a translator, that he did not think his words would stir up so much trouble. He cited Myanmar’s abolition of censorship and its transition to democracy, a process that began in 2010 and culminated, or seemed to, on November 8, 2015, when voters pushed the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, into power for the first time. “Even though it is said we have freedom of expression, now they charged me because I wrote a poem,” Saungkha said. “So I was surprised.”
Poetry has long played a political role in Myanmar, and many poets there before Saungkha have been sent to prison. In the early part of the twentieth century, nationalists used verse to rouse those who struggled for independence from Great Britain. Many of the activists who participated in the country’s widespread pro-democracy protests in 1988 were also writers and poets. Saungkha himself is an interfaith activist, and a member of a youth group connected to Suu Kyi’s party. That party, the N.L.D., tapped several poets to run for parliament in November, and eleven were reportedly voted into office. After the election, I travelled to Naypyidaw, the capital, to interview one of them, Tin Thit. I told him that his story was remarkable: a poet who defeated a former defense minister at the ballot box. Tin Thit did not seem to find it very surprising.
But the rise of democracy in Myanmar has brought some unexpected changes. One of the ironies of life under an authoritarian government is that it can be easier to navigate what is and is not permissible than it is when freedom comes. Only a few years ago, Saungkha might have published his poem in a local journal, perhaps under a pseudonym, so as to avoid detection—or he might not have published it at all: writing a poem using the words “President” and “penis” before 2010 would have been practically unthinkable, or at least very daring. In 2008, the poet Saw Wai was arrested for an anti-junta verse weakly disguised as a Valentine’s Day poem. Titled “February 14th,” the poem sounds like something from a bad romantic comedy. “You have to be in love truly, madly, deeply and then you can call it real love,” one of the lines reads. But, as authorities eventually discovered, the poem was an acrostic that called out the leader of Myanmar’s junta. The first letter in each line spelled out “Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe.” Saw Wai was sentenced to two years in prison.
When Saungkha posted his poem online, it was noticed by Hmuu Zaw, the director of the office of the President, Thein Sein. Hmuu Zaw is a prolific Facebook user, and quickly posted a rant about the poem, in which he warned that Saungkha should be prepared to take responsibility for what he’d written. If there is any connection between that post and what came next, it has not been proven, but police showed up at Saungkha’s house that same night, looking to arrest him. Saungkha fled before the police arrived. “Bard on the Run, Dodging Defamation Over Risqué Rhyme,” a headline in the The Irrawaddy, a local magazine, declared.
Saungkha went into hiding, but he continued to post on Facebook. “You can arrest only the poets/ Not the poems/ Never,” he wrote in late October. Two weeks later, three days before the election, he was arrested. He was attending the trial of student activists, who had been rounded up for protesting a controversial education law. Eyewitnesses say Saungkha was taken by plainclothes officers, moved to an unmarked vehicle, and driven away. “That day was a really noisy day,” one of the lawyers on his defense team told me, describing the people who took him as “not police, just, like, mafia.” Other activists chased after the men who arrested Saungkha, he said, describing the scene as comical. “It was really funny, you know.”
Arrests had been on the rise in the run-up to the election. In October, as police were looking for Saungkha, two people, a humanitarian worker, Patrick Khum Jaa Lee, and an N.L.D. supporter, Chaw Sandi Htun, were charged for separate Facebook posts that allegedly defamed the military. In each case, the charges cited Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which spells out violations for online defamation. The maximum penalty is three years in prison. (Khum Jaa Lee and Chaw Sandi Htun have since been given six-month sentences.)
Use of the Internet in Myanmar has soared in recent years. In 2014, SIM cards, once a luxury item, became widely affordable, after two foreign telecommunications firms, Qatar’s Ooredoo and Norway’s Telenor, launched new networks in the country, creating competition with state-backed Myanma Posts and Telecommunications. The chip-sized subscription cards can now be bought on the street for less than two dollars, inserted into smartphones, and hooked up to one of the three networks in a matter of minutes. Soon after the new firms arrived, seemingly everybody was online, from lawmakers to Buddhist extremists to former generals and poets. Myanmar’s Minister of Information was dubbed the “Minister for Facebook” on account of his frequent posts. One former M.P. self-published a book consisting entirely of his Facebook posts. According to a 2015 report put out by PEN American Center, Myanmar has the fastest-growing Internet market in Asia. “Their country has leapfrogged from near silence and isolation to a connected, smartphone society: more people now have mobile phones in their hands than electricity in their homes,” the report says.
Facebook is one of the most popular social media services in Myanmar, along with the messaging app Viber. But, as in neighboring Thailand—where “liking” a post deemed defamatory to the King can get you in trouble—the platform is a blessing and a curse. The government has had difficulty controlling hate speech that swirls online and erupts into real violence. And it has provided the authorities with a new way of monitoring what people are saying. Myanmar has a population of roughly fifty-one million, but Facebook has made it feel like a much smaller place.
On a morning in late November, I took a taxi to Shwe Pyi Thar Township, on the northern fringes of Yangon, the country’s largest city. The contrast between new industry and persistent poverty was stark; along one stretch of road, squatters live in one-room shacks across the street from a gleaming soda factory. The Shwe Pyi Thar Township Court is a compound made up of a row of rooms that, from the outside, could be mistaken for a school. In the back, however, are the holding cells, crude wooden structures, with a narrow waiting area protected by barbed wire. When I first entered one of the courtrooms, I was struck by how small it was. A Burmese member of an international trial-monitor group leaned over to me and said, “This courtroom is the biggest one I have ever seen.”
I had come for what I thought would be Saungkha’s first hearing. Saungkha lives in Shwe Pyi Thar with his parents and studies English at Yangon’s British Council. I was the only foreigner at the trial, but the courtroom grounds were packed with supporters and friends wearing white T-shirts that said, across the front, “Poetry Is Our Right.” Saungkha was sitting on the bench outside the two holding cells. “I think I will get released if they are fair,” he told me. “But I don’t expect too much, because they thought I wrote it intentionally.… I am worried because I am just twenty-three years old”—his birthday was in January—“and I have to continue my education, and I have a lot of things to do with poetry. It’s like they are oppressing my young life.” He pointed out that he didn’t mention any President by name in the poem, and so it couldn’t be defamation. “It can be the President of U.S.A.,” he said. “It can be the President of Afghanistan.”
Robert Sann Aung, his lawyer, strode into the compound. Sann Aung is the most famous human-rights lawyer in Myanmar. He was there when Saungkha was arrested, because he represents the student activists whose trial Saungkha was trying to attend. Sann Aung wears a frayed hat with a brim, chews betel nut, and carries a satchel. He handed me his business card; under his title, “Advocate,” it said, in parentheses, “6th time Former Political Prisoner.” Sann Aung said he wanted to find a male judge who could handle the case. The female judge to whom the trial had been assigned might have to look at the evidence, he added, laughing. But he wasn’t kidding: that day, he filed a request for a new, and male, magistrate.
A new hearing was scheduled for a week later. Before leaving the compound, I asked Saungkha’s parents what they thought of the case against their son. “I am not surprised that this is happening, because it used to happen in Myanmar,” his father, U Aung Than Myint, said. “We are hoping that he will get released, because we are his parents. And I think he didn’t do any big mistakes, so I think he will get released.” I asked one of Saungkha’s friends, Ko Zey, what he thought of the poem. “It could be any President,” he said, echoing the defense’s argument. But did he like the poem? His answer seemed deliberately vague. “Whether it is good or not is a question of whether you like it or not,” he said.
On December 4th, when the trial was set to resume, I returned to the courtroom, along with a translator. A male judge had been chosen, but the chief of police, who filed the original complaint, did not show up. The trial was pushed back again. By this point, Suu Kyi’s party had won the election—but the next President has yet to be chosen, and the President’s five-year term will not start until April. Suu Kyi, whose backers want her to be President despite a constitutional clause barring those with foreign children from the post (her two sons are British citizens), had the support of the creative class during her campaign: poets, rappers, singers, actors, painters. Sann Aung said that he believed her government would make things better for them. In an encouraging sign, the N.L.D. has said that political prisoners will be a focus of the incoming administration. In January, dozens of such prisoners were freed by the same outgoing President whom Saungkha is accused of defaming. “The poem is just a metaphor,” Sann Aung said, noting that it’s the broad wording of the criminal code that makes prosecuting Saungkha possible. “These sections should be repaired in the time of the new government.”
But why did Saungkha write the poem? I had never heard a full explanation.
“I have two sources of inspiration for this poem,” Saungkha told me, the day that the police chief failed to appear. “The first one came from a movie I watched, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1.’ ” He was thinking, he said, of the villain in that movie, President Snow. He was also thinking of tattoos of Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and other leaders; he had seen photos of such tattoos on social media. “So we put the tattoos of the person we love on our chest or somewhere,” he said. “So where should we tattoo the leaders who oppressed us, or who we dislike? But the reason I used the word ‘President’ came from the movie ‘Hunger Games,’ and the character President Snow.”
Saungkha and I discussed the incoming government of Myanmar, but he didn’t seem assured. “I want to say something to this government. If they have any plan to run in the 2020 election, they should learn how to read poems,” he said. “As long as they don’t have any capacity to understand the critical poems by a citizen, or as long as they don’t understand the mind of a poet, they can’t be an elected government again.”
The police chief, Thein Win, came to the next hearing, on December 17th. There was a larger police presence, and officers stood in the two doorways guarding the entrances, but onlookers and reporters were able to poke their heads in and record the proceedings on their smartphones. Before Sann Aung could question Thein Win, the court charged Saungkha with an additional count: inspiring others to commit harm against the state or to disturb the public. In court, Sann Aung wore one of the standard outfits for a male lawyer in Myanmar: a black robe and a shockingly pink head wrap called a gaung baung. (These are also worn in parliament, in a variety of colors.) He began by asking Thein Win how one opens Facebook, presenting him with three choices: “log in,” “log out,” and “log luck.” Everyone around me started chuckling: it was obvious that Sann Aung was trying to prove that the cop didn’t have a Facebook account, and never saw the original post, which would suggest that he was told to file the complaint by someone higher up. “I use what I need to open it,” Thein Win answered, cryptically. When Sann Aung pressed him, Thein Win said that sometimes he used “in” and sometimes he used “out.”
Later, Sann Aung asked Thein Win if he knew how to read poems. The Police Chief laughed. “How would I know how to read poems?” he said, “I’m a police officer!” Sann Aung asked if he was interested in literature. “I like to read, but I am not interested in literary art.” “Have you ever gone to listen to literary talks?” Sann Aung asked. “I haven’t gone to listen to literary talks,” Thein Win replied.
Finally, Sann Aung’s questioning took a strange turn: he accused the Police Chief of affecting the state’s dignity, and he said he would sue him in the same court. Countersuits are common in these types of cases, and they usually get thrown out. The hearing ended, and the Police Chief left immediately, declining to comment. I talked to Saungkha, who told me about his routine in jail: running during the day, reading at night. The most recent poem he had written was a romantic verse about his girlfriend, who had attended every trial. I asked him what poets he liked. T. S. Eliot and the Russian poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, he told me. For fiction his current favorite is Haruki Murakami. I noticed a batch of books that had been given to him. One was a volume of self-help poetry called “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment.”
Saungkha turned twenty-four on January 5th. The lawsuit against the Police Chief was dismissed on the same day, and Saungkha’s supporters held a little party for him at the courthouse after the hearing. There was cake and presents. Somebody bought a cage full of small birds. Saungkha opened the door and symbolically freed them; they flitted through the barbed wire. Candles were lit, and he gave a brief speech. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday” and took pictures.
Meanwhile, his case drags on. The last time I interviewed him, on the morning of February 9th, he told me he had written a new poem in custody. It was one of those long days at court in which little happens. The lawyer filling in for Sann Aung, who was busy with another case, was very late. Once the lawyer arrived, the witness for the day had yet to show up. Around 2 P.M., I noticed that Saungkha’s new poem had already been posted to his Facebook account, and it was being shared and “liked” and commented on. (He has access to a phone while waiting at court.) The poem described flinging the specific clause of the military-era constitution—called 59(f)—that bars Suu Kyi from the presidency at an unidentified person’s “bald head.” When I asked him later if he meant the President of Myanmar in this poem—the President of Myanmar is indeed bald—he shrugged his shoulders, grinned, and responded in English. “Putin also, bald head,” he said.