Truth to power

Penny Edwards

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Kyaw Zwa Moe at the Irrawaddy office in Chiang Mai in 2009. Photograph: James Mackay

Public Press Gallery, reads a plaque in Yangon’s Secretariat, a vast and now derelict parliament house, opened to the public on 19 July 2016 to commemorate Martyrs Day. It was here that Aung San and six of his cabinet — among them Shan, Karen and Muslim leaders — were assassinated in 1947, paving the way for civil war. Press freedom was another casualty of that day. Successive military regimes found a ready reservoir of censorship laws whose architecture, like the Secretariat buildings, were part of Britain’s colonial legacy.

If “publish or perish” is the mantra of academia, these verbs share a grimmer intimacy under totalitarian regimes. Hundreds of Burmese writers faced prison time, taking up their pens again when they were freed, evading censors with skilful wordplay and metaphor. The resilience of Burmese literary tradition and innovation was evident in the soulful performances and exuberant atmosphere at Myanmar’s first poetry festival, held in Yangon on 23 July.

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