Imprisoned Burmese Blogger Nay Phone Latt Honored in New York
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New York City, April 28, 2010—Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Bill Moyers, Walter Mosley, and Patti Smith were among the more than 500 PEN luminaries and supporters joining PEN American Center last night in honoring Nay Phone Latt, one of Burma’s leading bloggers, with the 2010 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award at its annual Literary Gala at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Speaking directly to the 29-year-old writer and activist, who is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence in Myanmar, in a short film highlighting his ordeal, PEN American Center President Kwame Anthony Appiah assured Nay Phone Latt that “This voice from America is one of the voices of a global community of writers who know about you, care about you, who are thinking about you. So do not lose faith. We’re here for you, and we won’t forget you.”
While the award presentation highlighted the ongoing suppression of freedom of expression in Burma and the severe restrictions on online freedom in many countries of the world, the focus was on Nay Phone Latt himself, an Internet entrepreneur who is also a poet. He was praised repeatedly throughout the evening as an example of the strength of the creative spirit in the face of even the most severe repression. Barbara Goldsmith, founder and patron of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, urged the world to join with PEN in pressing for Nay Phone Latt’s release in the run-up to planned national elections in Myanmar this year, and blogger and Daily Beast founder Tina Brown read a statement Nay Phone Latt managed to dispatch from his prison cell that said, “This award is dedicated to all writing hands which are tightly restricted by the unfairness and are strongly eager for the freedom to write, all over the world.”
A youth member of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party that will be shut down this year under new election laws in Myanmar, Nay Phone Latt’s popular blog offered both political commentary and poetry that expressed the frustrations and hopes of a generation eager to make its mark on society. The blog caught the attention of authorities during the 2007 monks’ protests, when it was praised by the BBC and other foreign media outlets for providing invaluable news regarding the military crackdown that followed the protests, and two Internet cafés he owned in Rangoon offered a growing number of young Burmese access to new media in a country with one of the world’s most rigid censorship regimes.
Nay Phone Latt was arrested in Rangoon on January 29, 2008, under section 5 (J) of the 1950 Emergency Provision Act, which criminalizes any attempt to “disrupt morality” or to “disrupt security, stability or the restoration of order.” After being held for over nine months, on November 10, 2008, he was sentenced by a specially-assembled court to a combined 20 years and six months in prison under the Criminal Code, the Video Act, and the Electronics Act for his blog and for owning a copy of a banned DVD. The court, formed to prosecute political dissidents within prison walls, was closed to the public, and Nay Phone Latt’s mother was banned from attending the hearing. Nay Phone Latt was not allowed legal representation after his lawyer was sentenced to prison time for contempt while protesting unfair hearings. The Electronics Act, which contains provisions establishing long prison terms for disseminating news that is considered to tarnish the image of the government, has been used increasingly to silence political voices since the protests in 2007.
On February 20, 2009, a court in Rangoon reduced Nay Phone Latt’s sentence by eight and a half years, leaving him to serve 12 years in prison. He is currently being held in Pa-an Prison in Karen state, 135 miles from his home in Rangoon, making it difficult for his family to visit.
On the eve of the award presentation, PEN American Center sent a letter to President Obama, urging the administration to place Nay Phone Latt’s case at the forefront of its current communications with Myanmar’s military rulers. “Nay Phone Latt’s blog called attention not only to the despotism of the ruling junta, but to Myanmar’s vibrant youth and creative culture; in it, we glimpse the promising future that could accompany an easing of restrictions on freedom of expression in his country,” PEN wrote. “As you pursue the dialogue with Myanmar’s military rulers, we urge you to use your influence at every available opportunity to raise Nay Phone Latt’s case, and to emphasize that his imprisonment and the imprisonment of so many others who have simply tried to participate in shaping their country’s future is both completely incompatible with free and fair elections and a significant obstacle to the improved relations it seeks.”
PEN repeated that call last night, and urged the world to join in pressing for Nay Phone Latt’s release. “That Nay Phone Latt is in jail for being a blogger reflects the global truth that Internet censorship is one of the great threats to free expression today. That he is also a poet reminds us that every society speaks with the voice of the imagination as well as through its non-fiction writers,” Appiah said. “We honor him. We thank him. We ask all who have any influence on the government of Burma to press for his release.”
PEN American Center is the largest of the 145 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled. It defends writers and journalists from all over the world who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession. For more information on PEN’s work, please visit www.pen.org
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Sarah Hoffman, (212) 334, 1660 ext. 111