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Inked Over, Ripped Out: Burmese Sto

Subject: Inked Over, Ripped Out: Burmese Storytellers and the Censors

INKED OVER, RIPPED OUT: Burmese Storytellers and the Censors
[pages 1-32, 120-124]

by Anna J. Allott
Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Press, 1994


The effort necessary to remain uncorrupted in an environment
where fear is an integral part of everyday existence is not
immediately apparent to those fortunate to live in states
governed by the rule of law. 

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear

[pages 1-32]



The purpose of this publication on Burmese writing and Burmese
censorship is to enable the work of certain Burmese authors,
writing since the imposition of military rule in 1988, to be read
by a much wider audience than is usually the case, and also to
show, through their own words (in translation), how they are
continuing to find ways to express their true feelings about what
is happening in their country in spite of the very strict and
repressive system of censorship that exists there. 
Of necessity, in a country where no direct criticism of
government policy or of individuals who hold positions of power
is permitted, writing is frequently allusive or ironical, so much
so that even Burmese readers not keyed into the clues may not
appreciate the point of a piece, still less those Burmese who
have been living abroad for some time, and still less the foreign
reader. A writer in Burma has, therefore, a constant dilemma: he
is never quite certain how far he dare go, for, if his criticisms
or his protest or his satire is too obvious it will not be
approved by the censors and will be forced to lie unpublished in
his desk drawer. Worse still, it may even bring about his arrest.
On the other hand, if the work is too veiled, or couched in too
allegorical or symbolic language, the message he is trying to
convey will not be understood. Hence, in this selection for the
English reader, it is necessary to provide background information
about the writers and the works that have been included in this
selection, setting them in the context in which they were
written. And this context can be understood only with reference
to Burma's recent history, and the system of government control
and censorship that has evolved during the last thirty years. 
The stories and poems selected for translation have been brought
to my attention by a number of lovers of Burmese writing. Some of
them have been identified by the readers as carrying a political
message, often hidden to the casual reader or to anyone unaware
of the issues being addressed in them. Where these pieces have
been published in Burma, one assumes the censors either failed to
spot the subtext, or if they did not fail, believed that it was
sufficiently buried for them to let the pieces through safely,
without being accused of being incompetent. 
Many of the writers featured here already have their works
subjected to close scrutiny by the censors and are identified as
being persons to watch. The publication of their works in
English, together with my interpretations of their works, may
result in their future writings being submitted to even greater
scrutiny for hidden meanings. I can only apologize for further
adding to their difficulties and stress that the allusions and
hidden meanings that I have identified in these stories are drawn
from my own interpretation, supported by discussions with other
readers, and do not represent explanations by the writers
Inevitably, the stories represent a very small part of all works
written since 1988. They are untypical, in that the majority of
pieces published in Burma today do not have any overt or hidden
political message, as most works with even a hint of such
messages are refused publication. The consequent trivialization
of Burmese imaginative literature has been immensely discouraging
to all serious and independent-minded writers. Some feel that
they can now only produce work that is intrinsically without
worth. Others have abandoned original writing and confine
themselves instead to translating works from Western literature. 
Brief Historical and Political Background

When Burma regained independence from British rule in January
1948, the economy had barely begun to recover from the
devastation of the Second World War, and numerous political
groups were vying for power. Under the new parliamentary
constitution of 1947, the more liberal noncommunist leaders of
the Burmese independence movement formed the new government and
were immediately faced by various internal rebellions of both
communist and ethnic minority groups, some of which have
continued to this day. At this point in Burma's history, the army
(the Tatmadaw in Burmese) played a vital role in controlling the
rebellions, in holding the union together, and in helping the new
government to survive. By the end of the 1950s, however, the
members of the majority political party, the Anti-Fascist
People's Freedom League, began to quarrel among themselves. The
party split and, in the general confusion that ensued, the
then-prime minister, U Nu, was persuaded to hand over power in
September 1958 to a "caretaker" army government headed by General
Ne Win. Eighteen months later, the army conducted national
elections that U Nu's faction won, but, by early 1962, the
politicians were once again losing popular support, and amid
increasing demands for autonomy from some of Burma's ethnic
minorities, the army stepped in, ousted the civilian government
in a coup on March 2, 1962, and formed a Revolutionary Council to
rule the country. This brought to an end the period of
parliamentary democracy during which writers and artists had
enjoyed almost total freedom of expression and of the press, and
ushered in the period of military rule under which free
expression and the right to criticize government policy in public
were step-by-step completely suppressed. 
Press and Media: Before and After 1962

During the time he was the prime minister in the 1950s, U Nu had
maintained a small department called the Press Review Department.
Its job was to read through newspapers and periodicals so that
government departments might respond rapidly to what was being
said about them in the Burmese press. It also read through
published books. Only on one occasion, toward the end of 1961,
did U Nu attempt to restrict press criticism by suspending the
newspaper Htoon Daily and detaining its editor, U Htun Pe. 
For about a year following the army coup in March 1962, the
Revolutionary Council allowed the journals to continue publishing
more or less without restrictions. Evidently it was waiting to
see what kind of a press it received; it also had to develop a
new national ideology and decide on policies for ruling the
country. In April 1962, the Revolutionary Council put out its
policy statement, "The Burmese Way to Socialism," and in July it
launched its own political party, the Burma Socialist Programme
Party (BSPP). The few civilian politicians who agreed to support
the Revolutionary Council were mostly of the left, some were even
former communists: their training in Marxist-Leninist politics
together with their skills with language and propaganda greatly
influenced the language and ideas of the new Burmese brand of
In February 1963, after a crisis within the Revolutionary
Council, Brigadier Aung Gyi resigned and the government adopted a
less tolerant line toward the press. In March, three newspaper
editors were arrested, and in May the Nation (the most
influential daily paper) stopped publication, allegedly because
of a failure to pay taxes. In July 1963, the government announced
that all departmental journals would soon cease publication, and
that all official information would be included in new,
government-sponsored dailies, shortly to begin publication. In
August 1963, U Law Yone, the editor of the Nation, was arrested.
The first number of the government's Lok-tha Pyei-thu Nei-zin
(Working People's Daily) appeared on October 1, 1963, followed by
the English-language edition in January 1964. Finally, in
September 1964, the Revolutionary Council "resolved the problem
of the ownership of the country's main newspapers" -- a problem
because the journalists were evidently being too outspoken in
their criticisms -- by nationalizing them, but allowing them
"full freedom of expression within the accepted limits of the
Burmese Way to Socialism." Thus ended Burma's free press, a press
which in the parliamentary era of the 1950s had been one of the
most free and lively in Asia, with more than thirty daily papers,
including six in Chinese and three in English. 
The Burmese press now had its new marching orders -- a suitable
metaphor for what had in effect become an arm of a military
government; henceforth, under the direct control of the Ministry
of Information, its task was, and has remained until today, one
of "mass organization, agitation, and objective news
dissemination" (Guardian Magazine, March 1972). Article 157 of
the Burmese constitution (adopted in 1974) stated: "Every citizen
shall have freedom of speech, expression, and publication to the
extent that such freedom is not contrary to the interests of the
working people and socialism." This has meant that for thirty
years the press in Burma, and of course radio and television as
well, have been totally controlled by, and at the service of, the
government, which has used them to explain official policies, to
inform the people of only those facts it deemed important or
beneficial for them to know, and to exhort them, ad nauseam, to
work harder and to make do with less. Until September 1988, the
goal was a "socialist society"; since that date, the word
socialism has disappeared from all official statements and has
been replaced by the "three main causes" (see below). 
System of Control over Publishing Established under the BSPP
after 1962 
One of the first tasks of the newly organized Ministry of
Information in August 1962 was the promulgation of a new
Printers' and Publishers' Registration Act, which repealed the
preceding acts. Under this act all printers and publishers were
required to register (within ninety days from October 15) and to
present two copies of all published books -- later increased to
five -- to the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB). The PSB was made
responsible for reading all published books, periodicals, and
magazines, and was given the power to forbid their distribution.
In 1966, the PSB was enlarged to about thirty persons, and in
1970, it was put under the direction of the Ministry of Home and
Religious Affairs. 
At that period and up to the present, book publishing in Burma
has been in private hands except for all school and university
textbooks, official publications, and government-sponsored
literary works. However, from the mid-1960s onward, the
government kept a close watch on the ideological content of all
books and magazines published, endeavoring to influence it by
offering national literary prizes, laying down guidelines for
authors to follow, determining the size of editions through the
supply of controlled-price paper, and, in the final analysis,
deciding the fate of particular works through the Press Scrutiny
Board. There were separate boards for film (and later video)
scripts, and for popular songs; book covers and paintings were
also subject to scrutiny. 
Except for books on politics, economics, and religion -- which
had to be submitted in manuscript form before publication -- all
books were submitted for the PSB's scrutiny by the publisher
after they had been printed. The publisher had to hold the work
until he received clearance to distribute it. Today, in 1993,
this is still the position for some books and all magazines,
except that now three, not five, copies must be submitted. 
This system creates a very strong pressure on the author to
censor himself; if the PSB orders changes in the text, or the
deletion of entire stories or articles from collections, the
alterations have to be carried out on books which have already
been printed and bound, at great cost to the publisher. And, if
the work is banned altogether, then the total printing has to be
This unsatisfactory situation was exacerbated in the 1970s by the
increasing cost of paper, and publishers became ever more
unwilling to risk publishing books, especially more serious and
socially responsible books, that might incur too heavy a loss,
either because the public did not buy them or because they were
unlikely to be passed by the PSB. The more the government
exhorted writers to produce "nation-building works" (taing-pyu
pyei-pyu), and "works beneficial to the people" (pyei-thu
akyo-pyu), the fewer serious works were issued by the publishers. 
Provision of Explicit Guidelines for Literature and the Media --
In an attempt to reduce the uncertainty about what would be
rejected by the PSB, in July 1975, the Ministry of Home and
Religious Affairs issued a new set of guidelines for authors and
publishers. This "memorandum to all printers and publishers
concerning the submission of manuscripts for scrutiny, issued by
the Printer's and Publisher's Central Registration Board," makes
very clear the extent to which the government was now seeking to
restrict freedom of expression in the country. The text reads as
The Central Registration Board hereby informs all printers and
publishers that it has laid down the following principles to be
adhered to in scrutinizing political, economic, and religious
manuscripts, and novels, journals, and magazines. They must be
scrutinized to see whether or not they contain: 
1. anything detrimental to the Burmese Socialist Program;
2. anything detrimental to the ideology of the state;
3. anything detrimental to the socialist economy;
4. anything which might be harmful to national solidarity and
unity; 5. anything which might be harmful to security, the rule
of law, peace, and public order; 6. any incorrect ideas and
opinions which do not accord with the times; 7. any descriptions
which, though factually correct, are unsuitable because of the
time or the circumstances of their writing; 8. any obscene
(pornographic) writing;
9. any writing which would encourage crimes and unnatural cruelty
and violence; 10. any criticism of a nonconstructive type of the
work of government departments; 11. any libel or slander of any

It is hardly necessary to point out, first, that almost any
written statement or piece of descriptive writing could be
objected to under one or another of these headings, and second,
that the decision to label something "harmful" or "detrimental"
would, of necessity, be arbitrary and depend on the whim of each
individual censor. And indeed, throughout the 1970s and 1980s,
one of the main difficulties faced by Burmese writers has been
the arbitrary nature of the decisions made by the PSB -- quite
apart from the necessity of observing the eleven, vaguely worded
prohibitions above. A further difficulty was that certain
censors, fearful of being reprimanded by their superiors for
letting through some unsuitable material, would tend to reject or
ask for changes in what should have been perfectly acceptable
texts. There is one amusing story from the mid-1980s about a book
review that resulted from an overzealous censor trying to adhere
rigidly to the eleventh guideline which prohibits slander or
libel. Book reviews were considered to be writing of a personal
nature, so the PSB censor insisted on asking a certain author of
a book under review if he had any objection to the review, before
giving permission for the review to be published. A short while
later, the then-chairman of the PSB (a colonel who had recently
been moved to this post from the military intelligence), taking
this as a precedent, demanded a similar letter of no objection
from Theik-pan Maung Wa, an author who had, in fact, died in
Another absurd incident was the recent banning of a series of
articles recounting the legends connected with several famous
pagodas in Burma. The articles were turned down by the PSB
because "there was no proof that any of the legends was true." 
By 1982 the process of censorship in Burma had settled into a
routine that appears to be in place today, when nearly all
manuscripts (not just those dealing with certain topics) of books
have to be submitted before printing (in three typed copies).
Since many writers do not own their own typewriter, they have to
pay for the cost of typing -- two kyats[1] per page in 1993. The
PSB levies a reading charge of fifty pyas per page (a page is not
to exceed twenty-six lines) and ten pyas for each spelling
mistake (this is one of the very few costs that has remained the
same since 1982). The reading fee must be presented with the
manuscript, and is not refundable if permission for publication
is not granted. Most authors can expect to be requested to make
deletions and alterations in almost any manuscript, something
which is exceedingly frustrating and also humiliating for all
writers; however, it is widely known that if money is offered to
the PSB censor, the manuscript will usually go through smoothly,
if not objected to on ideological grounds, of course. Once the
book is printed (as I was informed in January 1993), the
publisher is expected to "present" eighty copies to the PSB
office, perhaps as part of the bargain for letting it through.
These copies are then quite blatantly sold off by the PSB. The
procedure for the "scrutiny" of magazines, which are very
important on the Burmese literary scene, is described below. 
The Events of 1988

By the beginning of 1988 there were signs that the members of the
PSB were becoming more relaxed about their responsibilities, and
were even permitting the publication of some pieces critical of
the Burmese government and economy. Private individuals and
organizations were able, without difficulty, to obtain licenses
to start up the publication of new monthly magazines -- the most
lively field of literary activity in Burma -- with the result
that by mid-1988 over ninety different magazines covering
literature, fiction, the film world, pop music, home and family,
religion, foreign news, and technical and scientific matters were
being published. Obtaining a license meant that the Paper and
Printing Corporation would release an allocation of paper at the
controlled price to the license holder. 
In March, a wave of prodemocracy demonstrations occurred on the
university campus in which a young student, Maung Hpon Maw, was
killed and hundreds of others were arrested; some met their
deaths in police custody. 
In early May, there appeared a very influential "unofficial"
document, a forty-page open letter from former Brigadier Aung Gyi
to U Ne Win, in which the writer made clear to U Ne Win just what
a disastrous state the Burmese economy had been reduced to under
his leadership. A few days later, on May 13, an official report
of the committee investigating the death of the student Maung
Hpon Maw in March was released. This admitted that the student
had indeed been shot by the security forces, that 625 students
had been arrested by the end of March, but claimed that by May
most of these had been released. Gradually, through May, June,
and July the students' protests became stronger and more widely
supported. On June 21, following eight days of peaceful protests
by the students who were pressing for the release of all those
still detained since March and a new inquiry into the behavior of
the police during the March demonstrations, there was another
violent clash between students and the authorities on the Rangoon
University campus. On June 22, a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was
imposed, but a week later it was reduced to 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. as
the panic shopping brought about by the curfew was fueling price
increases in the markets. In early July, as many as 784 detainees
were released, all students were told that they could apply for
re-admission to the university, and all curfews were lifted. On
July 18, the government admitted that 41 persons had, as had been
suspected, suffocated to death in a police van in March, and the
home minister and the Rangoon chief of police resigned. 
These were times of excitement and hope for those seeking a freer
and more democratic regime. Slowly, act by act, the government
was being forced by public opinion to give more truthful reports
of what had taken place, to admit mistakes, and to rescind
hastily imposed decrees. By the middle of August, after more
bloody confrontations, during which many civilians (some say
thousands) died, Dr. Maung Maung, a civilian lawyer, took over as
president and there was a lull in the violence. Former Brigadier
U Aung Gyi, who had been arrested after his frank letter to U Ne
Win, and others who had been temporarily detained, were released,
and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of Aung San, the leader of
the postwar independence movement who was assassinated in 1947)
addressed her first mass rally at the Shwedagon Pagoda on August
Burma's Brief Period of Press Freedom

On August 25, 26, and 27, 1988, no newspapers appeared. All the
workers were out demonstrating in support of four demands: the
resignation of the government; the formation of an interim
government; the holding of multiparty elections; and the right to
publish freely. The official newspapers that reappeared after the
break were much changed -- they were reporting more accurately
what was actually happening. At this point the first unofficial
news sheets also began to appear, with much fuller detail, with
graphic, even lurid photographs, and containing many expressions
of personal opinion, as people lost their fear and became
prepared to speak out, sensing that the changes they were asking
for might be within their grasp. Nearly one hundred such
unofficial publications have been recorded and are available in a
collection in the British Library.[2] The earliest of these is
dated August 27, the latest September 21, 1988: the honeymoon
period of press freedom lasted less than one month. 
Journalistic activity continued to increase in intensity and
effectiveness, almost as if the free, unofficial publications
were spurring the official press to give more accurate
information. And indeed this is what government employees working
in radio, TV, and the press had just gone on strike for: the
right to put out accurate information about internal events. They
knew, as everyone else knew, that for years the picture they had
been presenting to the Burmese public had borne little relation
to reality. In the exciting atmosphere of what was hailed as the
Burmese version of glasnost, they too wanted to be able to speak
freely and truthfully. The official press began to carry numerous
pictures of peaceful demonstrators marching in Rangoon, lists of
their demands and, more worrying, accounts of widespread looting
on a massive scale, with shocking incidents of mob revenge. As
yet, the press contained little analysis or comment. Indeed, some
of the leaders and feature articles were staggeringly irrelevant,
as if they had been written to order months in advance. The
unofficial press, however, carried all this news and much more:
dramatic photographs of the demonstrations taken from Asiaweek,
long interviews with opposition leaders including Daw Aung San
Suu Kyi, feature articles about the British Broadcasting
Service's World Service, and about how elections are conducted in
Western democracies. Most important, there were courageous
personal statements by older Burmese journalists, silenced for so
long, of their reactions to events and to Dr. Maung Maung's
speeches. They wrote about the abuses of the present system,
about the desperate need to find a solution to the nation's
problems, and about the need for the army and the people to work
But tragically a new solution was not found. On September 16,
amid more bloody confrontations in which the military brutally
slaughtered many civilians (again, estimates vary), the
government ordered all military, police, and public servants to
resign from the BSPP -- many civil servants had already done so
-- and to return to work. On September 18, the army seized power
from the government of the country, and General Saw Maung became
the chairman of a new governing body, the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC). Burma has remained under the SLORC
control ever since, despite the results of the 1990 elections, in
which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for
Democracy, won a commanding majority of the vote. 
On September 19 and 20 there were no official newspapers, but by
September 21, the old-style Lok-tha Pyei-thu Nei-zin (Working
People's Daily) was back -- a newspaper that contained little in
the way of real news and nothing in the way of objective comment.
In April 1993, the SLORC decided that, in order to shed the
paper's socialist image, it should be renamed Myanma Alin (The
New Light of Myanmar), the name of one of Burma's leading
nationalist newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s. 
Publishing and Censorship after 1988

During the heady months of August and September 1988, many
regular contributors to Burma's numerous monthly magazines were
drawn into helping with the numerous unofficial publications,
with the result that many magazines temporarily ceased
publication. After the SLORC's seizure of power, a considerable
number of leading writers decided to continue their political
activities and took up functions in the emerging political
parties, which left them little time for ordinary writing. At the
same time all "socialist" journals and magazines put out under
the aegis of the BSPP ceased publication. Prices were rising and
publishing became more expensive. 
The PSB, however, although a creation of the Burmese Way to
Socialism, far from being disbanded, was strengthened; it
tightened its supervision and continued to censor all
publications in accordance with its previous guidelines, merely
dropping the word "socialist." If anything, the PSB now appeared
to writers in Burma to pursue ever more restrictive policies,
becoming extremely sensitive to hidden meanings and democratic
ideas in stories, poems, and articles. With each fresh instance
of censorship, writers and magazine editors would be forced to
alter their future approach. 
Censorship of writings was not always enough. In July 1989, when
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest, several leading
writers who had been actively campaigning with her in the
National League for Democracy were arrested. Among the most
famous of these was U Win Tin (former editor of the NLD
newspaper), who is still in prison, and Maung Thawka, a poet and
short story writer who died in June 1991 during his imprisonment.
Some have since been released: Maung Ko Yu (in early 1991), Daw
San San Nwe (in mid-1990) but rearrested in mid-1994, and Ma
Theingi (in April 1992). Others have since been arrested (for a
list of those currently detained, with brief biographies, see the
It is well known that there is a blacklist, supplied to the PSB
by the military intelligence, of authors and people whose work
may not be published at all, and whose names may not even appear
in print. Neither the work, nor even the name of someone
currently in jail may appear in print. And the same restriction
also applies to some (but not all) released writers, for example,
Daw San San Nwe, one of whose stories appears in this collection.
Others who were outspoken in their support of the prodemocracy
movement, such as U Pe Thein (whose gentle humor and wisdom makes
him Burma's best-loved cartoonist), have been totally banned from
appearing in print. For such people this means that they have
been prevented from earning their living in the way that they had
been doing before. In March 1993, these restrictions seem to have
been lifted in certain cases, but not all. 
An example of the great harm done to the literary life of Burma
is the case of an anthology of short stories that was published
in December 1991, issued in memory of an outstanding woman
writer, Mo Mo (Inya), who had died suddenly in March 1990. The
book, The Best Short Stories of the 80s, is a collection of
previously published works and included the work of thirty-seven
carefully selected authors. However, in between the time of
choosing the authors and that of printing the book and submitting
it to the PSB, three of the selected authors were arrested. The
result was that the publisher was forced to rip out their three
stories from the already printed and bound book. The author's
names also had to be blanked out, using silver ink, from the
table of contents. A fourth story, about a noted political
figure, Thakhin Kodaw Hmaing, was also torn out, since he had,
for unclear reasons, become a persona non grata. Even more
pettily, throughout the volume, wherever a story was listed as
having first appeared in Pe-hpu-hlwa, a magazine which had been
shut down by the SLORC, this name also had to be obliterated. The
final assault on the volume, before it was permitted to go on
sale, was to the cover: an image of Mo Mo's head, embossed on a
medallion, had to be covered over with a strip of gold paper,
because the PBS feared that the Burma's reading public might be
reminded of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the Nobel Peace Prize she
had recently been awarded. This volume was an exceptional
publishing venture, presenting as it did a carefully chosen
selection of the best short stories of the 1980s in a
large-format, highly-produced volume costing an unusually
expensive seventy-five kyats. Future generations of Burmese
readers will doubtless decry the mutilations to the volume at the
PSB's behest. 
As well as the blacklist, there is since 1988 a new range of
topics that may not be touched upon in nongovernment-sponsored
writing. (The government, however, reserves the right to write on
all topics). Off-limits topics include: democracy; human rights;
politics; the events of 1988; senior government officials; the
BSPP (the word "socialism" was actually blanked out of the phrase
"socialist realism" in the foreword by Daw Amar to a book of
short stories in 1992); the Nobel Prize or anything that might
bring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to mind (a story in which the
heroine's name was "Ma Su" had to be ripped out of a magazine);
criticism of the SLORC or of military personnel; "immorality,"
such as references to two unmarried people living together;
prostitution in Burma; and any other topics determined unsuitable
by the PSB. 
The interference with an author's right to decide about his own
work starts at the petty level of spelling. For example, the word
do ("we" or "our," as in do-bama, meaning "we Burmese," an
evocative usage), may only be used by those in power, while
ordinary writers must just use the spelling to (which has no
nationalist overtones). The interference also affects such final
decisions about books as the cover design: too much red is not
permitted, boys must not be wearing trousers,[3] young couples
should not be shown kissing. A further indignity endured by
authors is that every book and magazine is obliged to carry on
its first or second page a series of government slogans, starting
The Three Main National Causes are nondisintegration of the
Union, nondisintegration of national solidarity, and the
continuing maintenance of national sovereignty; and ending with
the hypocritical statement: 
The emergence of the state constitution is the chief duty of all
Sometimes the SLORC's inclination to put words into writers' and
editors' mouths goes further -- magazine editors have frequently
had pressure put on them to publish government-sponsored articles
intended to foster the reader's national pride and to preserve
traditional Burmese culture in the face of growing Western
Soon after the announcement of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize
to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in October 1991, the PSB instituted an
objectionable new rule by which authors have to submit
biographical details together with their manuscript. The form
requires them to state if they have engaged in political activity
or if they have served a prison sentence, in which case their
work may well be rejected. Editors of magazines are also required
to countersign these forms, with the aim of flushing out banned
authors who are writing under a pseudonym. Political
acceptability, rather than literary merit, is what enables a work
to get into print, and editors of monthly literary magazines are
increasingly embarrassed by the changes they are obliged to ask
writers to make, especially in cases of senior and respected
Monthly Magazines, 1992-93

The vigor of Burmese literary life can best be judged by looking
not so much at novels as at the monthly literary magazines. These
are very different from the government-controlled daily press.
There are at least twenty of them appearing regularly, all
privately published except for three or four, which are
government-subsidized and which have to compete with the private
ones. Printed on poor-quality paper, with only the cover in
color, the magazines feature poems, cartoons, general articles,
foreign news features (more and more lifted from Time and
Newsweek), copious pictures, gossipy reports of film and
popstars, both Western and Burmese, and short stories in great
quantity. In any one month as many as a hundred new short stories
may be published: the short story is the most popular and
important literary general in Burma today, a fact which this
report reflects. 
At first sight the foreign observer may well wonder why the
readers are so fond of these story magazines with their demure
Burmese beauties on the covers. But two reasons then become
evident. First, the "scrutiny" procedure is different and less
discouraging for authors than that for full-length books. It is
the magazine editor who chooses the material for each issue, has
the magazine printed, and then submits it for censorship. If the
issue is not passed for distribution, or has to have some pages
or passages deleted, it is the editor who bears the
responsibility, and the publisher the expense. For an author, it
is less disheartening and time-wasting to have a short story
rejected by a magazine editor than to have a full-length novel
turned down by the censors. Second, the rather dull national
newspapers, with their lack of hard, national news reporting and
their continuous exhortations to the population at large, have
turned people toward the magazines, where they find in the short
stories the same kind of reassuring reflection of the ironies and
problems of their everyday lives that we in the West have in our
daily tabloid press, and more especially in our radio and TV
dramas and soap operas. 
Another reason for the popularity of the short story and the
cartoon storybook is economic. The price of paper has risen
steeply, as have other publishing costs. In 1992, a novel could
cost from forty-five to sixty kyats and the average price of a
monthly magazine is twenty-five to thirty-five kyats. This is
expensive for their usual readership -- for example, a junior
civil servant earning seven hundred and fifty kyats a month. Nor
are there any lending libraries as such. The government has
opened some reading rooms but these are mainly for government
publications. Most readers, therefore, elect to hire books and
magazines at between one to five kyats a day (for instance, a
sixty-kyat book costs five kyats a day to hire) from small
neighborhood shops, and they therefore require a quick and easy
read so that they can return the book or magazine on time. Thus,
short stories are more sought after than lengthy novels, since
the hiring of the latter could add up to be just as much as the
cost of buying the book. Some serious writers feel that
publishers and shops renting books favor lightweight love stories
and thrillers, but it is also a fact that the quality, the
variety, and the significance of Burmese short stories have
greatly increased from the mid-1980s onward. Several of the
writers represented in our selection have been able to reprint
collections of their magazine short stories in book form. 
The Mechanics of Censorship

It does not help the image of the PSB that it has its offices in
the building that housed the Kempetai (the Japanese secret
police) during the Japanese occupation. All books and most
magazines are submitted to it after printing, in itself a
powerful incentive to self-censorship. Each of the twenty or so
censors has the authority to reject a work; doubtful cases are
put before the full board, which only meets on Tuesdays and
Thursdays. More tricky decisions are passed to the deputy
minister of home affairs or even to the military intelligence for
further consideration, particularly in the case of certain
controversial writers. This can mean delays in passing magazines,
which aim to make a regular date each month. Reasons for
rejection are not given but can usually be found out unofficially
from the members of the board, by the publishers (who develop a
working relationship with the censors). There is a feeling among
authors that it is a good idea to offer some sort of present, or
even a good meal, to a censor to help one's piece through; this,
of course, does not apply to people on the blacklist or to
forbidden topics. Any story, poem, cartoon, passage, or word not
allowed by the PSB has to be eliminated before the work can go on
sale. This is done by ripping out pages, by gluing them together,
by inking over with silver paint, or by sticking opaque tape over
the offending item. This ripping and blanking out is carried out
by the publisher, following the instructions of the PSB. After
the pages have been torn out, they are sent back to the PSB which
counts them (to ensure that none have been left in or distributed
separately), and then destroys them. The PSB "knows" how many
copies have been printed, and this destruction means that
censored authors are often unable to receive the ripped-out pages
of their stories. 
In fact, the stated number of copies printed, a figure that
appears in every single publication, is not the true number at
all. Take, for example, an issue of a monthly magazine. First it
is put together and printed -- two thousand copies on its monthly
allocation of paper bought from the government at the official
price, and ten thousand copies on paper bought "outside," i.e.,
on the free market (at a higher price). Twenty to thirty copies
are given to the censors. Now there will be various outcomes. The
issue of the magazine may be passed, in which case the two
thousand copies are shown to officials and counted to ensure that
all the official allocation of paper has been used up, after
which the magazine (or it may be a book) hits the streets -- all
twelve thousand copies. This is the simplest outcome. The PSB may
say that certain items are to be inked over or that certain pages
are to be ripped out. In this case the offending item must be
blotted out with silver ink or ripped out of every single copy
(the official two thousand and the unofficial ten thousand); in
the case of ripped-out pages, two thousand must be returned to
the Scrutiny Board to be counted (while the ones torn out of the
ten thousand unofficial copies will be surreptitiously
destroyed); if the issue is banned altogether, all two thousand
copies will be returned to the PSB to be destroyed, and the ten
thousand unofficial copies will again be destroyed
The losses that can be incurred by the publishers are clearly
very great, so there is immense pressure on editors to select
only such contributions as will be acceptable. The resulting
frustration and offense felt by writers has led many to cease
trying to write anything of a controversial nature; those who
find they cannot write without being controversial are
effectively banned. 
Magazines: Recent Closures and a Progovernment Newcomer

After 1988, all publications overtly linked to the BSPP ceased,
but two long-established, government-subsidized magazines,
Mya-wadi and Ngwe-tar-yi, continued to appear, together with the
official veterans' magazine, Sit-pyan. These now strike people as
old-fashioned and tend to gather dust on government reading room
shelves. Between 1988 and 1990, a number of new, privately owned
magazines started up, but in the worsening economic situation of
1992 they, too, have closed down, including one of the best
loved, Shumawa. Other magazines were able to adapt their style to
suit the tastes of the younger readership in the late 1980s; one
such, Pe-hpu-hlwa, was particularly successful until its newly
appointed editor, the poet Tin Moe (see the appendix), was
arrested in December 1991, since when Pe-hpu-hlwa has been
banned. A new type of magazine, well established since the middle
of 1991, is perhaps the most lively character on the Burmese
publishing scene; with titles such as Wealth (Dana), Burma's
Wealth (Myanma Dana), Guide to Prosperity (Kyi-bwa-ye lanhnyun
gya-neh), the Burmese reader is presented with pictures and
accounts of the capitalist world outside, which were only
previously available in glossy foreign magazines. Many of the
articles are translated from Newsweek and Time magazine, others
are by Burmese reporters and also contain short stories. In fact,
the increasing amount of technical and news material translated
from Western periodicals has allowed these magazines to function
more as Western dailies. The paper is rough, gray, and recycled;
the grainy black-and-white pictures are unclear, and the small
print hard to read. But the Burmese can now read for themselves,
in Burmese, how one survives working in Japan, or what the
groaning supermarket shelves in the U.S. are like, or how the sex
industry in Bangkok and Malaysia operates -- this last with a
surprisingly candid account of the large number of Burmese girls
who have chosen to leave their country and become part of it. The
activities of the Burmese abroad and in Burma can be described in
these "business" publications in a way which, it seems to me,
would not have been accepted by the government two or three years
ago. For instance, Guide to Prosperity (December 1991) carried a
thirty-page article about the cross-border trade between northern
Burma and China at Shwe-li and Mu-se, with maps and photographs. 
There is one recent newcomer to the publishing scene that does
not have to contend with the multiple obstacles of checks on
authors, the filling in of forms with biographical details of all
contributors, predistribution scrutiny, silver-inking, or
torn-out or glued-together pages: This is a new monthly literary
magazine called Myet-hkin-thit (A New Sward). In early 1990, a
group of students that had fled to the Indian border returned and
gave a press conference during which one of them, U Soe Hla Than,
expressed the wish to start a magazine in which they would reveal
their experiences. Shortly after, Myet-hkin-thit appeared, edited
by a certain Hpo Kan Kaung. This person is suspected of being a
military intelligence official who had been detailed to join the
fleeing students and then "return to the legal fold" with them as
part of his duties. The first issue of this magazine carried the
supposedly true story of Papima, a girl student who went to the
jungle with a group of friends, and who had her morals, her
world, and finally her life destroyed by contact with the evils
of Bangkok and the Karen National Union and Democratic Alliance
of Burma rebel forces in the jungle.[4] In the story, intended to
persuade those who took part in the democracy movement to abandon
their struggle, has since been made into a lengthy TV film and is
shown at frequent intervals on Burmese television. 
Myet-hkin-thit is characterized by stories that criticize and
attack the student movement, written supposedly by students from
Rangoon University or the Rangoon Institute of Technology. It
also frequently features articles that describe in minute detail
rape, corruption, and murder in foreign countries, with the aim
of discrediting those very countries that are calling on the
SLORC to respect the rights of Burmese citizens. In February
1993, it carried a highly tendentious and inaccurate piece
directly attacking a Western diplomat (not named) for asking
questions at the official opening of a new section of railway

Burmese writers work in an atmosphere of uncertainty and
apprehension. Freedom to write according to one's sensibility
simply does not exist. In the words of one writer: "In Burma,
every writer, every poet, every cartoonist is always ruled by the
fear that what he has written will not get past the censor.
Almost every freely created work of art is subjected to
censorship." The only war for a writer to address one or more of
the many taboo subjects is through the construction of metaphors,
and, in resorting to these, she or he can only hope that the
veiled meaning will be discerned by the reader, but not by the
The actions of the PSB, the existence of the blacklist, the
setting up of Myet-hkin-thit, the imprisonment of leading authors
and journalists, and the detention under house arrest of Daw Aung
San Suu Kyi are all evidence of the importance of the written and
spoken word in Burma. They show how much the military men fear
the power of the pen and how hard they are fighting to win over
the hearts and minds of the ordinary people. 
In recent months, there have been signs of change: some writers
have been released from prison and some whose work could not be
published a year or two ago may now write again. Perhaps, if more
writers were to risk putting forward to the PSB articles and
stories that touched on hitherto taboo topics, and if they were
to request that the censors give more explicit reasons for their
prohibitions, and if, finally, the government were to enter into
a dialogue with publishers and writers that would address how the
parameters of what topics are currently allowable might be
extended, the rigid censorship currently prevailing would be
eroded and finally ended. Perhaps such a dialogue would also
enable the government to appreciate that, if it wants to develop
a true democracy in Burma, it is essential that writers be
accorded the possibility of critical comment. 
For the present, however, the government would appear to have the
more powerful weapons in the fight between the censors and the
censored. But in the end, the stories translated here will, in
all probability, be remembered and their authors esteemed and
cherished long after the dictators and their censors have fallen
from power and been discredited. 

[1] Kyat is a unit of Burmese currency containing one hundred
pyas. A U.S. dollar is worth about six kyats on the official
exchange rate. Unofficially, one can purchase between eighty and
one hundred kyats per dollar. A middle-ranking civil servant will
earn between one and two thousand kyats a month -- it is not
enough to live on, when one considers that a simple meal costs
about forty-five kyats. 
[2] See P. Herbert, South-East Asia Library Group Newsletter, no.
34-35 (December 1990, page 25). 
[3] The wearing of trousers, as opposed to a longyi, may be
interpreted as a reference to a member of the military personnel;
thus cartoonists are never allowed to depict men in trousers. 
[4] Many members of the Karen people, one of Burma's ethnic
minorities, are members of the Karen National Union, which has
been fighting a civil war in the jungle area along the Thai
border since 1949. After the events of 1988, many students and
other prodemocracy demonstrators fled to the jungle and were
given shelter by the rebel Karens. That same year, some of them,
along with prodemocracy groups abroad and other ethnic armies,
joined the Karen National Union to form the Democratic Alliance
of Burma. 

[pages 120-124]


Writers and Journalists in Prison in Burma as of September 1994 
The following people are to the best of PEN's belief imprisoned
for no reason other than the peaceful expression of their views.
The list may not be comprehensive, and contains only those cases
for which PEN has been able to confirm the facts. 

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is a children's book author and General
Secretary of the National League for Democracy, which won a
landslide victory in Burma's parliamentary elections on May 27,
1990. She has been held under house arrest in Rangoon since July
20, 1989. On October 15, 1991, she received the Nobel Peace
Prize. The Nobel committee in Oslo described her as "one of the
most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent
decades." She has written three children's books on Burma, Nepal,
and Bhutan and a biography of her father, and a scholarly book
entitled Burma and India: Some Aspects of Intellectual Life Under
Colonialism. She has also written numerous papers on intellectual
and political life in Burma, a collection of which was published
in English by Penguin in December 1991 under the title Freedom
from Fear. Her husband and two sons, who were allowed to visit
her for the first time in early May 1992, reported that her
spirit remains "indomitable." Her husband announced in November
1992 that she had decided to refuse food and assistance from both
her family and the government in protest at the government's
continuing refusal to honor the results of the 1990 elections, in
which the National League for Democracy won a commanding
majority. However, concerns about her health were alleviated
after her husband visited her in April 1993; she is reported to
have resumed a normal diet, and the conditions of her house
arrest have reportedly improved. 
Tin Moe is a well-known poet, essayist, and editor of the banned
literary magazine, Palm Leaf Manuscript, which was closed down by
the government one month after he became editor. He was a
National Literature Award winner, a literary consultant to Daw
Aung San Suu Kyi, and was active in the National League for
Democracy. He was arrested in December 1991 and, seven months
later, was sentenced, on charges that are unclear to PEN, to four
years in prison. 
U Win Tin, a former editor of Hanthawati newspaper, served as
secretary of the executive council of the National League for
Democracy, and vice-chairman of Sarpay Thamagga (the writers'
association). He was active in the prodemocracy demonstrations in
1988, and a key advisor to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. He was arrested
on July 4, 1989, and sentenced in October 1989, to three years'
imprisonment with hard labor on charges of harboring a woman who
had had an abortion (abortion is illegal in Burma). However, his
colleagues believe that the true reason for his arrest lies in
his opposition activities. In September 1992, he reportedly was
in poor health and denied medical attention. His sentence was
reduced from eleven to ten years in a 1993 amnesty. 
U Ohn Kyaing, also known as Aung Wint, was editor of Bohtataung
Daily also worked with U Win Tin (see above) on Hanthawati before
retiring in 1988 to become a member of the National League for
Democracy's Central Committee and a Member of Parliament for
Mandalay South East. He was arrested on September 6, 1990, and, a
month later, was sentenced to seven years' hard labor because of
his participation in demonstrations in Mandalay in August 1990. 
Nyi Pu Lay, whose story, "The Python," appears in this
collection, is a satirical writer and artist. He was arrested
with six others on December 25, 1990, and later sentenced to ten
years' imprisonment on charges of being in contact with illegal
organizations. The sole evidence brought against him was the
authorities' allegation that, in 1984, he had once sold a ring
that originally belonged to a member of the Burmese Communist
Party. He was initially held in Insein Prison in Rangoon, but, in
December 1991, he was moved to Thayet Prison in Central Burma. 
Myo Myint Nyein is the publisher and editor of What's Happening?
magazine. He and his colleague Sein Hlaing , were both arrested
on September 24, 1990, and both were sentenced to seven year's
imprisonment because of their publishing activities. What's
Happening featured articles about culture and short stories, and
contained a poem by a well-known writer, Min Lu, which lamented
the killing of innocent civilians and deplored the brutality of
the military (Min Lu was also arrested but has subsequently been
Aung Khin Sint is a doctor, a writer on health issues, and a
member of the National League for Democracy. On October 15, 1993,
he was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment on charges of
distributing "threatening literature." The charges reportedly
stem from letters he is thought to have written to other members
of the National League of Democracy which were distributed at
Burma's January 1993 National Convention and which advocated no
collaboration with the military government in drafting a new
Ma Thida is a doctor and a short story writer. She was arrested
with ten other opposition activists on 7 August 1993. After a
closed trial the following October, she was sentenced to twenty
years' imprisonment for "contact with illegal organizations,
endangering public peace, and distributing banned literature to
foreign-based opposition groups." She is being held in Insein
San San Nweh, her daughter, and a journalist name U Sein Hla Oo,
were arrested around August 5, 1994. At time of press it is
unclear what the reasons are for their detention. San San Nweh is
the author of over five hundred short stories, twelve novels, and
over a hundred poems. She has also worked as a journalist on
several national newspapers. She was a member of the National
League for Democracy's central executive committee and was
previously detained between July 1989 and April 1990.