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“Our will and words are free, nobody can get to it”

Interview with Ma Thida. This Story belongs to the Myanmar Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

Oxford, March 18th 2019

Ma Thida (ca. 1966) is a medical doctor, writer, human rights activist, and former prisoner of conscience. She currently edits at a Burmese magazine, Shwe Amyutay and a two-weekly journal, Info Digest; and also volunteers at a free clinic run by a local NGO. She is in the board of PEN International and she was the President of the PEN Myanmar Centre.

G.A. How did you first hear about PEN and when did you join?

M.T. As citizens of Myanmar, we were isolated by the socialist government. We did not know about PEN International, but after the 1998 Democratic Movement, when we were organised against the military government a poet called, Ko Min Lu and Myo Myint Nyein, the current President of PEN Myanmar, were arrested in September 1990 together with another colleague. They wrote a poem that was very satirical and circulated underground, since the censorship prevented this kind of pieces to be published. It became very popular. Myo Myint Nyein arranged a secret printing of the poem. I was helping them. We had no press or computer to type it, so I had to use the stencil to write. Then, we printed and photocopied it. An activist, called Sein Hlaing, distributed it underground. The poem was satirical, and people would make it circulate, sometimes by copying it by hand. The title, in Burmese, meant something like “What is happening?”. Seeing its popularity, the writer wrote two other poems. After the third poem, they were all arrested in September 1990.
We went to visit them. I wrote another poem, and made it circulate. The message I expressed was that these people were not the right ones to arrest, and that we needed to do something for them. In 1991, I noticed for the first time that both Ko Min Lu and Myo Myint Nyein were accepted as honorary members of one of the PEN Centres, it might have been either English PEN or PEN Hong Kong. At that time, the first secretary of the UK Embassy was my friend. We were working together to do something on current literature. She showed me some information about how these two had been included in the honorary members list: it was the first time I heard about PEN International, in early 1991. Since then, I became a fan of the institution, because it was really needed. After a couple of months, we could meet with the family members and we could send messages to the writers through them. It was an encouragement to us; we knew they could not be released.

In 1993, I myself was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. I also became an honorary member of PEN. Both PEN International and Amnesty International worked hard for my release. During those days, I did not know what was going on outside, because I was in total isolation. However, as soon as I was released, I got so much information through my friend VicKy Bowman, who became the British Ambassador in 1999. She gave me a journal published by the National Coalition Government of Burma. In 1990, even though the NLD won the majority of the seats, the military regime didn’t transfer the power. Instead, they created a National Convention and so on, to try to keep the power. Some of the MP elected in 1990 left for abroad and made this Coalition Government outside of the country. They published periodicals, and I got one through Vicky. At that time, we were against the National Convention. In 1993, that National Convention was aimed at drawing the Constitution (2008). I was sentenced to 20 years in prison for opposing to this. Vicky thought my arrest was her fault for having given me that journal. She managed to talk about me and send my pictures to many organisations, and for that reason, I was known by the circles of PEN International and Amnesty International. In 1995, PEN America gave me the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. As soon as I was released, I started thanking all the Centres that had helped me.

I couldn’t get my passport, and there was no law to grant freedom of association, during the military regime. I finished my Postgraduate Diploma from London University as an external student in 2005. I got the invitation to attend the Graduation Ceremony and applied for it. I got a passport for the first time. London was the first city I ever visited abroad. It was 2005. I visited all the office of PEN. It was the very beginning of my re-connecting with my PEN International family. I met Joanne Leedom-Ackermann and Marian Botsford Fraser. I kept in touch with them and attended some Writers in Prison Committee meetings, in Krakow (Poland). During my trip in 2005, I also visited other European countries. I visited other PEN Centres, like the Catalan PEN.

I have been connected with the PEN International family for a long time, even though I couldn’t start running my own Centre until 2013. Only after 2010, the military regime changed to a quasi-military regime in 2011. In 2012, and 2013, we got the Freedom Association Law. So as soon as we noticed the law had been established, I started to do all the necessary things with the PEN International community and I also made gatherings with some writers, especially young ones.

Another writer, his name is Nay Phone Latt, he was also imprisoned and was also awarded the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. He was with us to set up the PEN Centre. We were 25 writers in total. In 2013 Nay Phone went to an Iceland conference, and we were accepted as a Centre officially.  We did our very first conference with a small membership. I was elected as First President and Nay Phone became First Secretary. In 2015 he ran for elections and became an MP that’s why he needed to leave. In 2016 I ran for the board member for PEN International, that’s why I joined the elections.

G.A. When you were in prison, did you ever receive anything?

M.T. After three months from my release I met a friend from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and she told me that there were bunches of letters and postcards sent to me, but they had been kept at the ministry. I was told they put my pictures up to campaign for my release. Some people after I was released knew me already because of the campaign.

G.A. Did Vicky help you in any way during those five years of prison?

M.T. She had to leave the country, but she has been my key supporter and she was reaching out to the board, she was in touch with my brother. I had a good network of family and friends while I was dying in the prison. PEN International, Amnesty International, and other organisations had been helping me. My health situation was pretty bad and there was no proper treatment. I needed a particular type of medicine not available in Myanmar.  The support I had has made me more committed to PEN because I see the power in helping writers in prison. That’s why one of my ideas for running this election as a board member was to make PEN International itself not just working for others but also including them too. Because they were many writers that got forgotten after being released. I want to convey this message. In the past they got moral support and afterwards we should follow up. All organisations should embrace more writers like myself.

G.A. When was the Myanmar Centre created and what led to its creation?

M.T. We started in 2013. Most of the founding members are young writers but to be frank, they keep out of touch with the Centre and some moved to other countries and they are not very active. We have around 300 members but out of those no more than 50 are active, and among these 50 founding members, only five or six still active.

G.A. What are the challenges of the Centre?

M.T. The term freedom of expression itself is politics in Myanmar. People don’t know their basic human rights. When we talk about it they think it’s purely politics. They look at this issue is with fear and negative perspective. It’s hard to convince a lot of the isolated writers. They are very individualistic and don’t care about the community. They think they just need to write and feel no responsibility. On the opposite end, a lot of not-so-popular writers do need a space and a platform, so they are interested in promoting themselves. We have been handling these two different opposite attitudes. We are trying to change the idea that the Centre’s motivation is just to promote writers. The most famous ones say they don’t need any organisation, but we try to convince them that they can do better for the community. All of our members are volunteers and to convince people to be elected with no compensation is not easy. Another challenge is the balance between the volunteer decision making board member and the paid staff. Another big challenge is funding, that’s why we are grateful to the civil society funding. When we started running we had no office. No facility. Now we have a lot of funding. Our Centre has had so many activities and has a lot of paid staff.

Another thing is, I really want to keep the Centre PEN Myanmar as a very independent one. Even though we appreciate the funding, if PEN Myanmar cannot be recognised locally, the funding would not work. Only after being recognised the funding will be effective.

After 2015 and the end of the pro-military government we need to be a bit careful because we really want to keep our independence from the government. That’s why there are a lot of civil society organisations.  They don’t care about every detail of the wording of their statements but PEN Myanmar cares because we are writers. The concept sometimes isn’t bad, but the wording should be precise. Sometimes these civil society organisations suggest we change some words and we refuse.

PEN Myanmar, with the support of PEN America, runs about 20 civil society organisations. We work together on some scorecards on the Freedom of Expression. The response from the current government towards PEN Myanmar is not very good but we have been doing a lot of advocacy together with national and regional level parliaments, we are doing the Freedom of Expression workshop with them. We have been doing a lot of activities. The good thing is the current regional chief ministers are our close friends.

The real challenge is how to make a balance. Normally we got a lot of funding through American PEN, but we want to have more diverse funding, so we try to reach out to other state organisations.  Not relay on just one. We are working towards this.

G.A. What’s the average age of the writers of PEN Myanmar?

M.T. According to Myanmar’s standards the youth is from teen to 35. When I talk about young writers they are not that young. Because of the poor education system, the current youth are not very good at writing. Their ideas might be good, but the skills aren’t. 

G.A. Do you have any programme to help students in schools?

M.T. The hardest thing is to reach out through the Education Ministry but locally we reach out to some student unions and universities. We don’t have that training yet, but we aim to. One of our funders is SOAS. We’re doing a report about literature inclusiveness. According to the state they are more than 35 tribes. The languages including the dialects is more than 60, it’s huge. But the state doesn’t acknowledge them. This is why we are looking for mainstream literary magazine and then looking at how inclusive they are. After having this our aim is to advocate with the evidence. What we do need is writers exchange programs within the country and the creative writing workshop for the younger generation. It’s our big project.

Three of PEN Myanmar’s objectives is to protect and promote Freedom of Expression, support the writer culture and to make a bridge between the school education and literature. We do a lot of advocacy.

In regard to literature we do Literature for Everyone and we read poems at libraries and monasteries. We move around the country doing this. There was a very long history of having literature talks so the attendance to some of the events was up to 20,000 people. But it wasn’t the one-way lecture style. They were smaller group interactions. We made space for non-writers, since sometimes our audience are illiterate.  Then they see the philanthropic side of literature and we encourage them to practice freedom of expression.

G.A. Do you have archives? do you keep track of your activities?

M.T. We do as much as we could but in the past because of the limited facilities it wasn’t very good. I think now the problem is we keep most of the photos and data in Facebook. We try to transport it to the website. Now our PEN Myanmar website is running but not perfect, but people prefer Facebook to websites. We still need to post in the archive, so we are trying.

G.A. What is your main concern regarding changes, climate change, freedom of expression issues? What do you think you could do to help towards these problems?

M.T. These are challenging times for everyone.  One of the biggest challenges is technology. People keep wanting to protect freedom of expression, but the way they practice that right, sometimes is abusive. In that sense the older generation is in between. We try to bring our good practices from the past to the future and catch up with technology to build a bridge between past and future. It’s hard and challenging.  We need to be disciplined to respect ourselves first and then others. Most of the abusive behaviour comes from disrespecting oneself. If we have respect, we cannot do bad actions. If we really do care about keeping our deeds and words good, I don’t think anyone can hurt others. Discipline based on empathy and appreciation of the value of freedom are very important.

G.A. What was on your mind during those years that you spent in prison? Do you think the ideas of freedom of expression were already deeply rooted in you when you were in prison?

M.T. I did write this in my memoir. I was locked up in a cell for 23 hours, we were only allowed to have a walk and have a shower. In one case the prison officer said to me “you are free, we are not.” He said, “you are free in your thoughts and words, we are not because we are civil servants”. The freedom cannot be given by others. Unless we are willing to give up our own freedom. I was never willing to give up my authority. I practice freedom of expression for that reason, I don’t care about the consequences of what I said. Self-respect should be linked to freedom. One should practice the freedom with self-respect and that way we cannot hurt anyone or commit abuse. People think a person arrested in the prison cell doesn’t have any freedom at all. But our will and words are free, nobody can get to it. The willingness to give up the freedom is the key. That’s why I really appreciated reading, before I was arrested. For me to read is not just entertainment; the highest thing we get through reading is intellectual pleasure through words, through our imagination. Intellectual pleasure cannot be reached without freedom.

During the military regime there was censorship, we had freedom to write but not to publish. The real freedom should come from within. Without that you cannot do any free deeds. Even inside the prison I still had my free authority.

G.A. Do you think sharing your experience with people will make them understand it completely or is it just an exercise?

M.T. People understand a bit because I have met several other readers and they said my memoir was helpful for them to know what to expect. These days people are allowed to read in prison, so some prisoners have read my memoir in prison and they said it helped them. The other thing is I tried not to be very bold or rude to anyone else even though I am very stubborn and resistant I try to choose a positive vocabulary and tone. I think this is more effective; a lot of the other prisoners have been resisting with bitterness because they have been treated very badly. I don’t normally use my anger, but I tried to meditate, and it helped me. It’s how I survive. Because the way I respond is based on discipline, it’s never based on anger. You cannot break something that is too strong.

G.A. What would you say are those words and instruments, the strength that nobody can eliminate? What anecdotes would you like to share?

M.T. The President of PEN Myanmar spent 12 years in prison, he smuggled in radios because we weren’t allowed to read or write. At night he listened and wrote everything down on plastic sheets and brick wall with sharp object; he wrote a newsletter with what he listened and circulated it. There were many editors and writers in the main ward.