US poets slam Burma's silencing

A Washington DC-based collective will protest in front of Burmese embassies in the US capital tomorrow to demand the release of jailed poets in Burma.

The group, known as Split This Rock, is comprised of socially-engaged poets from all over the US. Readings of poetry will also take place in front of Turkmenistan and Yemen embassies, where the group believes freedom of speech is also severely curtailed.

Its director, Sarah Browning, told DVB that poets who use the medium to speak out against governments across the world are often silenced.

“It is precisely because poetry refuses to be packaged and manipulated by governments that those same dictatorial governments try to silence poets and poetry,” she said.

Around 50 people will likely protest in front of the Burmese embassy in Washington DC on Saturday. “I don’t expect the people inside the embassy will be swayed by our presence, but we are speaking out on behalf of those in Burma who can’t speak out, so that their voice may join the thousands of poetic voices calling for peace and sustainability all over the globe.”

One prominent Burmese poet, Saw Wei, was handed a two-year sentence in 2008 for his poem ‘February 14th’, in which the first letter of every line, when put together, said “Megalomaniac General Than Shwe”, referring to the former dictator.

Sales of the magazine in which it was published, The Voice, soared after word got out of the coded message inside.

Another poet, U Zeya, who also worked as a video journalist for DVB, is now serving a 13 year prison sentence.

“Language of course is a favourite tool of despots everywhere. They distort it and manipulate it and flatten it for their purposes, for propaganda, for pacification. We see this ourselves in the US, where torture is referred to as ‘enhanced interrogation’,” Browning said.

“It’s meant to deaden the populace, to numb us. But poetry can wake us up, by reclaiming our language, reviving it, reminding us that we don’t have to believe what we are told over and over again by the powerful.”

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