Op-Ed: Burma’s Writers Are In Danger Of Prison

What would happen if the government put a stop to poetry. If your written words expressing how you feel could make you an outlaw, would you continue to write about your way of life?

If the ink that flowed through your pen gave a defiant message would you be willing to live in a jail cell?

In Burma that is the reality for those who make marks on paper that the government deems defiant. And yet they write on. In cells, in exile, using brick powder for ink they script words of meaning.

Win Naing and Zargana are both being held in Burma. Zargana is a well known comedian. His cutting wit often targets the very issues that are current. Those issues are also expected to be censored.

“He’s very inventive,” says Htein Lin, an artist who himself served six-and-a-half years in prison (on false charges) and who now, having married a former British ambassador to Burma, lives in London. Htein Lin has been a close friend of Zargana’s ever since the older man awarded him first prize at a comedy competition, 23 years ago. “Zargana’s jokes always reflect current conditions in the country and are new and up to date. Other comedians just repeat old jokes,” he adds.

In Burma the military authorities know the power of words. That is why they seek to silence them.

In a country that has a higher education system than most around it though silence of the writers doesn’t happen. They just write in secret, their words reaching out to those who crave the knowledge that pen and paper bring.

International PEN, the global writer’s association, has a Writers in Prison Committee. Led by Sara Whyatt the committee is working to have nine writers released from prison. Their terms range from seven to 21 years.

Poets Aung Than and Zeya Aung were sentenced to 19 years a piece for the writing “anti-government poems”. The person who printed their poems received 14 years and their distributor was given seven.

Writers getting longer terms than killers in the United States is insane.

U Win Tin was sentenced to 20 years 18 years ago. He was the editor-in-chief for a newspaper called Hanthawaddy. His crime was running too many articles critical of the regime. At 77 years of age he still writes in his cell using a piece of bamboo for his pen and ink from the brick powder of his cell’s wall. He has suffered greatly during the past 18 years; two heart attacks, lost most of his teeth, and is suffering from diabetes, spondylitis, and a hernia. Still he writes.

I pose a question to you in the journalism world, if your home was replaced by a cell, your pen crushed in front of you, your keyboard tossed away would you still write?

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