Writers Commemorate Burmese Uprisings, Rally for Jailed Colleagues
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New York, New York, September 24, 2008—Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Kiran Desai, Siri Hustvedt, Joseph Lelyveld, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, and George Packer shared the stage of the Great Hall of Cooper Union last night with the Venerable U Gawsita, one of the leaders of last year’s “Saffron Revolution,” and more than a dozen other monks as PEN American Center paid tribute to the thousands of writers, monks, and ordinary Burmese citizens who have risked their lives to further freedom of expression in Burma.
Reading Burma: A Benefit for Cyclone Relief and Freedom of Expression in Burma/Myanmar brought last year’s brutal crackdown and the military regime’s mismanagement of the response to Cyclone Nargis earlier this year to life through a series of readings, images, and a moving on-stage interview. More than 650 people attended the event, which raised over $13,500 for the International Burmese Monks Organization, a network of Buddhist monks distributing relief aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis.
Salman Rushdie opened the evening by observing that “for the past two decades, there are few countries that have been tougher on writers than Burma”—but that PEN’s efforts on behalf of Burmese writers have been complicated by the failure of the United States to protect basic human rights. “Tonight we will hear accounts of governmental neglect and incompetence in response to Cyclone Nargis, of the suppression of information and official propaganda, of hooded prisoners and torture and abusive detentions,” Rushdie said. “It is a deeply disturbing sign of the times that so many of these passages hit so close to home.”
Maureen Aung-Thwin, who directs the Open Society Institute’s Burma Project—which co-sponsored the program together with the New York Review of Books—denounced a wave of cyber-attacks earlier this week against leading exile news and information web sites, and paid tribute to the monks and nuns of Burma, who “were the first—and in many places the only—responders for over two million victims of the cyclone,” and who “continue to be hounded, jailed, and derobed at will.”
The essential role Burma’s Buddhist Sangha, or monastic community, plays as a pillar of civil society was highlighted throughout the evening. After a brief film with stirring scenes from last year’s Sangha-led peaceful demonstrations and harrowing footage of the government’s violent crackdown, author and New Yorker staff writer George Packer sat down with the Venerable U Gawsita, one of the leaders of those protests. Soft-spoken and regal, the monk told Packer that the protest marches had been designed to urge the government into dialogue with a population suffering from a five-fold increase in fuel prices, and that they had been carried out with the full awareness that there was a grave risk of a violent response. His monastery, which also runs an AIDS hospice in defiance of the government, was attacked by soldiers and he and a number of other monks were severely beaten.
Reading Burma also illuminated the mechanisms of the regime’s heavy-handed and far-reaching censorship and its propaganda machinery, and paid tribute to the writers and journalists who have refused to be silenced. Author and former New York Times Executive Editor Joseph Lelyveld, read works that had been crafted to elude the government’s “Scrutiny Board,” including a poem by leading poet Saw Wei entitled “February Fourteenth.” The poem, ostensibly in honor of Valentine’s Day, included a coded message in which the first letters of each line, read from top to bottom, declared “General Than Shwe is crazy with power.” The magazine in which it appeared sold out before officials realized their mistake and arrested Saw Wei on January 22, 2008.
In one pointed and poignant exchange, novelist Kiran Desai and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk traded accounts of Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath from eyewitness reports and from the official media. Desai, reading from on-the-ground interviews broadcast by Radio Free Asia and IRIN, described decimated villages where “there are no rescuers, where government aid workers are just faking it, and where people are living on the boiled rice and dried noodles and food provided by the monasteries.” Pamuk countered with writings from The New Light of Myanmar in English, a government mouthpiece, which revealed a preoccupation with public relations and a startling indifference to individual suffering. In one piece, the government’s propagandist insisted people in the devastated Irrawaddy River delta could feed themselves “just by fishing in the fields and ditches” and by eating “large edible frogs” in the monsoon season. “The people of Irrawaddy Division can survive with self-reliant efforts even if they are not given chocolate bars from the international community.”
The evening’s other readings featured four of Burma’s most courageous writers. Novelist Siri Hustvedt gave voice to leading poet and comedian Zargana (Maung Thura), who was arrested on June 4, 2008 after mobilizing more than 400 leading entertainers to deliver cyclone relief and criticizing the government’s effort in the international press. This is Zargana’s fourth stint in prison, and Hustvedt read Zargana’s wry account of his first jailing and interrogation. Orhan Pamuk returned to the stage to read the names of writers who have died in prison, and then read a story by writer, physician, and activist Ma Thida, who was sentenced to 20 years in Insein prison for her work to promote democratic change in Burma in 1993. She was freed in 1999 following an intense, PEN-led campaign, and she has spent much of the last several months providing medical services to the survivors of Cyclone Nargis. Salman Rushdie followed with four poems by U Tin Moe, Burma’s most acclaimed poet, who spent four years in prison for his work and who died in exile in the United States last year.
One of the evening’s most emotional moments came when Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, recounted his very personal meetings with 79-year-old poet and journalist U Win Tin, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the infamous Insein prison. “Win Tin has been subjected to what I believe is the worst form of torture you can subject a poet to,” Pinheiro told the audience. “For 19 years he has been refused a pen or pencil and paper, completely denied the means to write. And yet he would write. He would scrape the red bricks on the wall of his cell, mix this red powder with water, dip splinters he pulled from wood in his cell into this paste, and write his verses on the floor. He then memorized the new verses and erased them.”
Standing before the projected image of his notebook, Pinheiro read the poem Win Tin had written there at his request on his last visit. Win Tin wrote, “My Time in prison./Will death be my release?/As long as democracy/and human rights are not/within reach,/I decline my release./I am prepared to stay.”
Remarkably, just hours before the program, U Win Tin, the oldest and longest-serving political prisoner in Burma, was released in an “amnesty” that included at least three other prominent political prisoners. Pinheiro, who had pressed for his release throughout his eight-year tenure, was clearly elated. Noting that Win Tin emerged from prison vowing to continue to speak out for democracy, Pinheiro said, “His Mandela-like presence, his cheerful, luminous presence and poetry will from now on shine outside the bars. Let’s rejoice. But let’s not credit the military regime that imprisoned him and his colleagues without cause.”
Salman Rushdie invited the evening’s special guests, 15 saffron-robed Burmese monks, onstage to close the evening. The monks, several of whom had been imprisoned in Burma, delivered the traditional Metta Sutta chant of loving-kindness, as they had throughout the demonstrations that took place in Burma last year—a powerful reminder of courage of all who have continued to raise their voices for peaceful change in Burma.
Photos of the event will be available upon request.
Larry Siems, PEN American Center, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105