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Since colonial days, Burma’s poets have put pen to paper to express the mood of the people, describing their trials and tribulations through verse as the country endured one political upheaval after another.
From Thakhin Ko Daw Hmaing, whose prose inspired pro-independence leaders when the country was under British rule, to Min Ko Naing, a prominent activist who emerged from the 1988 student protests, poets have long been central to dissident causes, whether opposing colonial overlords or military dictators.
Now, the time has come for poets to go from writing verse to drafting laws.
The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in Burma’s historic elections on 8 November and among its 800-odd lawmakers in the new national and state and regional parliaments are 11 well-known bards.
Instead of working with words and feelings, and turning out heart-rending prose, they will be faced with more mundane tasks such as familiarising themselves with tax legislation and state and regional budgets.
It remains to be seen how these poets, who honed their craft vividly describing the struggles of ordinary people under the junta, will acclimatise to their new role as politicians when they take their seats in parliament on 31 January.
Than Aung, whose pen name is Ani Htet, has reservations about his new job.
He won a Lower House seat to represent Ngaputaw Township in Ayeyarwaddy Region, but told Myanmar Now he enjoys being a village schoolteacher and a writer. But the state of the country and the needs of the people drove him into politics, he said.
“I never dreamed of becoming a member of parliament. I had always thought I was going to spend my life as a simple teacher and poet,” he said in a telephone interview.
Analysts and losing candidates from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have raised questions over the ability of poets to become good parliamentarians.
USDP lawmaker Hla Swe, who lost his Upper House seat to an NLD candidate in Sagaing Region, believes it would take time for poets, with their artistic temperaments, to get used to parliamentary processes such as time limits in tabling motions, he said.
“They would have to try hard. Their mother has threatened to punish them if they don’t. It’s their mother’s responsibility if they don’t try,” he said, referring to party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, often called Amay (Mother) Suu by party members.
Perhaps the most famous example of a dissident writer and poet turned politician was Václav Havel, who was president of the Czech Republic for a decade after the Velvet Revolution toppled communism in 1989.
Ani Htet said he has already started preparing for life in parliament, studying laws and planning on tabling motions to amend some and enact new ones. First, he said, he wants to tackle laws on education and media.
“It’s not easy to be a representative in parliament. I’m trying my best to study and prepare myself so what I do there will benefit the country,” he said.
A MULTI-HYPHENATED POET
The NLD’s Kyaw Zin Lin beat Thar Aye, incumbent chief minister of Sagaing Region, for a regional parliamentary seat in Butalin Township. Better known by his nom de plume Zay Linn Mg, the 33-year-old lyricist is also a medical doctor.
“I would actually prefer being a political activist rather than a formal parliamentarian because you have the freedom to say what you want. Now I’ll have to be faithful to the party’s policies,” he said of his new job.
Although slightly chafing at the thought of having to give up his freedoms, he also said he’s ready to take on the new role and already has his eyes on reforming the complex bureaucratic mechanism within the regional parliament so that it becomes more democratic.
One of his political dreams, he said, was to get the officials of the powerful General Administrative Department democratically elected, since they play a key role in the country’s wider administrative mechanism down to the township level.
Currently, the department is under the Ministry of Home Affairs which, according to the 2008 Constitution, is headed by a military general and controlled by the army chief.
“Only the village and ward-level officials are directly elected by the people, but the regional and township level administrative officials are directly appointed by the Ministry of Home Affairs. So we need to change that for better governance,” he said.
Burma’s poets have long portrayed the destitute and downtrodden through their art, and have a good sense of the needs of the people, said female writer Thwe Sagaing, voicing support for her fellow artists.
“The poets have always stood with the oppressed. So we are confident that they will be able to work for the public,” she said.
Mi Chan Wai, another writer, said the poets-turned-MPs are creative thinkers who will be able to bring new ideas and concepts to otherwise dull parliamentary procedures.
“I believe that we will be able to fulfill these expectations as we poets have always fought for the truth,” said Tint Lwin, elected as a lawmaker for the Rangoon region parliament for the NLD.
The writer, who writes under the name Maung Lwin Mon (Kathar), used to make a living working for a state-owned bank, but lost his job for joining demonstrators in the 1988 uprising against military rule.
He continued to be involved in politics and was later jailed for his dissident activities.
In a poem celebrating Aung San Suu Kyi’s 66th birthday, which fell a few months after the November 2010 elections and her release from house arrest, he called her “mother” and compared her to a rose.
“Because of your teachings, us, your sons and daughters, who are easily afraid and bereft of reasoning, are now full of strength and bravery,” he wrote.
“We have chosen to be poets and MPs at the same time, we hope we can find the right balance between these two modes of life,” he told Myanmar Now.