The PEN Pod: On Myanmar, Russia, and Impeachment with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talked about what’s going on in Myanmar and Russia, as well as the upcoming impeachment proceedings here in the United States. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 11:08 mark).
Suzanne, after four years of focusing so much on the U.S., I actually want to start with two global stories. First, with Myanmar, where a coup has wiped away the country’s democratic leadership, dissidents and writers have been rounded up, and the military has quashed the press and communications. It comes after so many hopes were invested in civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who then seemed to disappoint so many. I wonder how you view what’s happening there now.
It’s pretty depressing. For us at PEN America, we’ve had a major focus on Myanmar for the last seven years. When I joined PEN America in 2013, two of our most distinguished past honorees, recipients of our Freedom to Write Award—which is the award that we give out every year to a writer who is in prison—were Burmese writers, Ma Thida and Nay Phone Latt, and they had both been recognized, when they were jailed for their writing and their activism, by this award.
By that point, the military junta had receded and the country was in transition, both of them had been released from prison, and they put up their hands and said they wanted to create a Myanmar branch of PEN—an organization that would work locally on free expression issues and on the celebration of literature. It’s a very deeply literary culture with many poets,= and a great reverence for the written word. They wanted to take advantage of the new freedom to set up this organization and also to do advocacy on behalf of writers elsewhere in the world who are suffering the way they had suffered in prison. I always found it to be a very touching thing that, first off after being released from confinement, their thought was, “We want to create an organization to help others and to stand for the values that led to our liberty.”
“This has also prompted a searching for a difficult debate about all the disappointments with Aung San Suu Kyi and the ways in which she betrayed the hopes of the global community and human rights movements that were invested in her when she took power, by turning a blind eye to these gross abuses of the Rohingya population. And yet, I don’t think our disappointment with her should blind us to the truth of this coup and the degree of setback it represents for all of the people of Myanmar. ”
We actually ended up working with them—and have worked with them very closely over these ensuing years—day in and day out, to help build up that organization and bring know-how and resources from around the world to support them. I and our other staff members have traveled there many times, and we’ve set up programs. It’s really a thriving, vibrant organization that brings together hundreds of writers, does programs all over the country, and has become a very forceful, independent voice on behalf of free speech in Myanmar, which is a pretty unique thing.
When we honored, just in 2018, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuters journalists who were arrested for exposing a massacre of a group of Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din, in Rakhine State, PEN Myanmar was very outspoken. Even though politically, to stand up for the Rohingya as a Burmese organization was complicated, they did not shrink from that, and in fact gave an award to a police officer who had given vital evidence in the trial of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and played a key role in helping to secure their freedom. So this is a devastating setback, and PEN Myanmar this week put out a really strong, ringing statement about what’s going on. Their voice is undaunted. We’re in close touch with them. We’re protesting the detention of writers, restrictions on press freedom, shutdowns of the internet, now a suspension of Facebook, which is kind of a lifeblood in Myanmar—for better and for worse—a really vital source of information that people rely on.
This has also prompted a searching for a difficult debate about all the disappointments with Aung San Suu Kyi and the ways in which she betrayed the hopes of the global community and human rights movements that were invested in her when she took power, by turning a blind eye to these gross abuses of the Rohingya population. And yet, I don’t think our disappointment with her should blind us to the truth of this coup and the degree of setback it represents for all of the people of Myanmar. For us, it’s a somber week, but one in which we redouble our commitment to work with our colleagues and strengthen their voices on behalf of rights and freedom in Myanmar.
“In terms of whether it represents something new, I think it’s a clear message of defiance on behalf of Putin, in the early days of the Biden administration. There is an intent to demonstrate to the world that we’ll play by his rules no matter who is in power in Washington. Whenever these crackdowns intensify though, it’s also a reminder of the brittle fragility of the Putin government, and the sense of fear and almost panic that they have in the face of dissent.”
Speaking of things that keep changing, I want to turn quickly to Russia, which has been pulsing with demonstrations these last few weeks—ostensibly around the sentencing of opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. But it seems like there’s something else going on. Thousands of protesters took to the streets and were arrested last weekend. We saw dozens of journalists also rounded up and serving short sentences. We’ve seen some of this before. Is this different, what we’re seeing right now? Is there a difference now that we’re in a Biden administration, as opposed to a Trump administration?
I think we’re all sort of trying to assess that. We have been documenting the crackdown on free expression, press freedom, but also culture in Russia for many years, and working to keep alive connections between Russian writers and counterparts around the world, through exchanges and dialogues of various kinds both here and inside Russia. We’re quite close to a lot of Russian writers and intellectuals who are directly affected, some of the individuals on whose behalf we’ve been campaigning over the years who have been now detained, or in the case of Russian theater director, Kirill Serebrennikov—notified that he’s losing his post at Moscow’s Global Center for Theater. So this is close to home for us.
In terms of whether it represents something new, I think it’s a clear message of defiance on behalf of Putin, in the early days of the Biden administration. There is an intent to demonstrate to the world that we’ll play by his rules no matter who is in power in Washington. Whenever these crackdowns intensify though, it’s also a reminder of the brittle fragility of the Putin government, and the sense of fear and almost panic that they have in the face of dissent. And the idea that Alexei Navalny, after this failed poisoning attempt, was brazen and bold enough to travel back to Russia—they just weren’t going to have that. They weren’t going to have him on the loose, building up support, engaging with his followers, and being an independent political voice on the scene. I think they recognize that the grip of their government on the polity is too weak to withstand it. This is the outcome, and it’s triggered this forceful backlash. It’s always a question, in Russia, about how far it goes.
In the early days of the Trump administration, people like Masha Gessen were so forceful in alerting us to the danger of people becoming just beaten down and a government that purveys lies, undercutting any sense among the populace of the ability to discern truth and an indifference that settles in, and I think that has taken hold over a lot of Russians. There has been this impassiveness—this rather passive apparent support for Putin, a kind of reluctance for people to really take to the streets and put themselves on the line on behalf of a more credible, legitimate, and rights-respecting government. We’ll have to see whether that tide is beginning to turn.
“I do think this question of what the story is—that is told in the halls of the Capitol, that is reported in our media, and ultimately in our history books—is going to be significantly affected by what happens next week. And that could be very consequential not just in the near term, but for decades or more to come.”
Finally, I will turn to the U.S. We’re coming up on impeachment proceedings, set to get underway next week. I’m wondering what you’re anticipating, and how in particular incitement, free speech, and the crimes of the former president might all intersect.
I think this is really not a free speech issue. I don’t think this hinges on whether the president was exercising his free speech rights. In my mind, it’s quite clear that he deliberately mounted an attack on democracy, in an effort to undercut the results of a popular election, even to the point of suborning violence. So I think that’s the thrust of the proceedings. I think a lot hinges on how this goes. We had a really interesting discussion at our annual general meeting last week about reconciliation and reckoning in Trump’s America, as well as the question of how this episode will be remembered, how the story will be told, what people will take away.
It also ties into the discussion about Russia and the fact that the crimes of the authoritarian Soviet era were never really reckoned with. And so, there arose this nostalgia about autocracy that has really fed into Putin’s designs. That’s my concern with this—that if the outcome of the impeachment is equivocal and the president’s defenders are out in full force, and there’s just a reluctance to see this for what it is—it felt like there was a lucid interval, right after the attack on the Capitol, where you had a measure of bipartisan unity in recognizing that things had gotten out of hand, and that this was an insurrection against democracy and shook one of our three pillars of government really to its core. I worry that, just in the interceding weeks, one part of our polity has lost sight of that and now wants to paper it over, to move on, and is very reluctant to come to grips with the truth of it.
So I think in some ways, because Trump is out of power, yes this could affect whether he can ever run again, although I’m not sure what his prospects are regardless. But I do think this question of what the story is—that is told in the halls of the Capitol, that is reported in our media, and ultimately in our history books—is going to be significantly affected by what happens next week. And that could be very consequential not just in the near term, but for decades or more to come.