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Writers suffer from having no civil liberties in Myanmar

Guest contributor

Ma Thida

The present circumstances of writers and poets in Myanmar mirror the state of political rights and civil liberties in the country. As the tumultuous period unfolded after the February 2021 military coup, numerous writers actively participated in the resistance through various avenues. 

Certain writers who held positions as civil servants joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), while one poet who was previously a member of the national parliament assumed the role of Minister of Defense in the National Unity Government (NUG).

A blogger and a member of the regional parliament took on the position of spokesperson for the NUG Prime Minister’s office. Some poets and writers enlisted in the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), while others sought refuge in border areas and foreign countries. 

Tragically, some writers and poets lost their lives either during peaceful protests or in confrontations with the military, while others faced detention, prison sentences, and some have been released back into society. 

Many writers and poets continue to reside in Myanmar, where the present literary landscape appears to be marked by an unusual atmosphere. Following the 2021 coup, the military revoked the licenses of numerous news outlets. 

While no literary magazines or publishing houses have been officially banned, various factors such as informal restrictions, constrained distribution systems, and financial uncertainties have contributed to challenges in their operations and many monthly literary magazines have ceased publication. 

Subsequently, many writers and poets lost their print platforms for showcasing their work. Indeed, dedicated writers usually maintain the ability to write without expectations of publication, financial success, fame, applause, or the fear of negative criticism. 

Subsequently, they endeavored to utilize their creative liberty to explore various methods through which readers could engage with their works, relying on the unfettered imagination of the readers.

Prior to the 2021 coup, numerous writers and poets made substantial contributions to online platforms, garnering significant audiences. However, the increased incidents of arbitrary arrests related to social media posts made them hesitant to continue writing on these platforms. 

For example, on April 13, 2023, Kyaw Min Swe, an editor and journalist, was detained by the military shortly after he updated his profile picture to a black image as a gesture of mourning for the victims of airstrikes carried out on a village in Sagaing Region. 

This incident resulted in the tragic loss of at least 165 lives, including children. Notably, two other renowned artists from the movie and music industries were also arrested by the military for expressing similar sentiments. 

Free Expression Myanmar states that nearly 4,000 individuals were arrested, detained, charged, or imprisoned under Articles 505 and 505(A) in the year following the coup.

On the other hand, the doubling of data prices and increases to the cost of SIM cards have significantly limited internet affordability. Some writers and poets found it challenging to engage actively online due to a substantial reduction in their income, primarily because their earnings from print works had become scarce. 

The military has also hindered connectivity through internet shutdowns, slowdowns, and blocks, compelling service providers to comply with extensive restrictions and surveillance technology or threatening them with consequences. 

This includes blocking access to websites, applications, and social networks as well as content removal. Therefore, many social media users, including writers and poets, have stopped publishing online and avoid sharing politically sensitive content.

Conversely, over time, numerous new online news magazines and YouTube channels (physically based in foreign countries) have emerged and gained popularity, particularly focusing on fundraising for the Spring Revolution against the return to military rule in Myanmar. 

These channels occasionally published audiobooks of renowned novels and short stories, but some writers were upset with the use of their works on platforms without their consent. 

They faced severe criticism from resistance groups for not cooperating with those digital channels. The concept of supporting either the revolution or the military has undermined copyright issues. 

This reflects that in a time of lawlessness, very few people prioritize ethical considerations and the general population is currently mainly focused on the Spring Revolution over any other issue.

Some writers and poets struggle to produce literature, as writing requires time for reflection compared to journalism, which primarily relies on news and information. For writers and poets, creativity rests not only in freedom but also in hunting for freedom. 

Censorship prohibits only the publishing of literature, not its freedom. 

Writers, in response to numerous threats, hesitated to publish their works, either under their usual pen names or in their original forms. Some chose to contribute their works using pseudonyms, while others simply kept their manuscripts in their desk drawers. 

On top of that, after the coup, the all-year-round literary roadshows, which were crucial events for the public, including writers and readers, to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and opinion, cease to exist. 

In March 2021, the military declared that matters covered by the News Media Law and the 2014 Printing and Publishing Law would be adjudicated in courts-martial, which have the authority to issue capital sentences. 

Since 2022, some publishing houses have managed to release certain novels and literary works, despite the fact that the military has prohibited the sale of some pro-revolution writers’ works in local bookstores. 

Book launches have become a gathering place for certain writers who can safely make public appearances, although others still need to remain in hiding. In mid-2023, Nyi Pu Lay, a writer who had won a national literature award, passed away due to a medical emergency while in hiding. 

The dilemma arises from the concern that public events may project a sense of normalcy for the military, prompting individuals, especially those well-known, to avoid such gatherings.

Regarding freedom of assembly, the military consistently prohibits it, treating any such gathering as a serious offense. 

The implementation of the Organization Registration Law in October 2022 has heightened registration and operational prerequisites, imposing harsh penalties for activities that deviate from these regulations. 

This has created growing difficulties for both international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in humanitarian aid work and civil society organizations (CSOs) dedicated to safeguarding and promoting freedom of expression. 

While there were writers’ and poets’ organizations, including those supportive of the military, before 2021, right now no CSOs centered around writers or freedom of expression can operate within the country.

This situation leads to individualized responses to human rights violations rather than collective ones. Hence, it is unsurprising that Freedom House rated Myanmar with a score of zero out of 40 for political rights in 2023, marking a considerable decline since 2020. Similarly, civil liberties scores fell sharply from 16 in 2020 to 9 in 2023.

Ma Thida is a Burmese human rights activist, surgeon, writer, and former prisoner of conscience. 

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]


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