Aung San Suu Kyi discusses books at Irrawaddy Lit. Festival

From Burma to Myanmar

images-1

On 6 June 2013, Suu Kyi announced on the World Economic Forum’s website that she wants to run for the presidency in Myanmar‘s 2015 elections

It is the smaller, less noticed acts by the few that affect the development of thought and attitude in the many. Quiet, solitary things like books coupled with cultural social events like literary festivals, help to change the world in ways guns and bombs can not. Individuals’ traveling long distances just to talk and listen to talks about books is propaganda you can’t fake. These things are born from a love of reading, thinking, and sharing thoughts via writing. The world is constructed from the strongest and most pliable of materials-WORDS.

 We wanted to see vestiges of Burma before it was all absorbed into Myanmar. Friends told us that ‘visiting the country was like stepping back in time and despite everything it felt rather nice’. Then we learned that the Irrawaddy Literary Festival and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was its patron and would be participating at the festival. We decided the festival was the perfect opportunity to experience a unique culture in transition and if we were lucky, catch a glimpse of ‘The Lady’.

 Portrait of AungSan Suu Kyi.

We encountered remainders of colonial Burma when, at our request, our guide brought us to the stately Strand Hotel in Yangon (formally Rangoon). Time swirled backward the minute we entered the preserved and polished wood lobby.

images-4                            The Strand Hotel –Yangon, Myanmar

The dining room was filled with well -groomed, well-mannered British families drinking tea as if they were in a movie set during the late nineteenth century.

images-2 The tea was ridiculously expensive and I sensed Win, our guide, was uncomfortable drinking a beverage (even though we covered the tab) that cost more than he made in a day guiding us to temples and a monastery.

IMG_5333

                         Shwedagon Pagoda with actual gold leaf roofing.

Burma lives on in hard and soft cover British novels. This one we bought from a Burmese girl in front of a temple where she was hawking her books. Most western tourist are familiar with George Orwell. The sepia tinted old photograph on the photo copied book sells a packaged nostalgia for a time none of the current readers had ever personally experienced.

 

images-3

The new Myanmar struggles to join the 21st century. Roy Maclean said, “Burma is three lands for the British reader. First, it’s the old colony of temple bells, flying fishes and dynastic despots (home-grown as well as imported). Second, it’s the betrayed golden land enslaved by be-medalled generals who enrich themselves through drug deals and gun down unarmed protesters. Third, it is modern Myanmar, a deeply wounded and fractured multi-ethnic society that is working through – in a phrase favoured by optimistic citizens – its “democratic transition”.

Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma

.    by Rory MacLean

.

9781845116224

IMG_5055

The noonday meal for monks and orphan novices.

Young-nuns-in-Hsipaw-550x336

IMG_5132       procession of nuns at orphanage in Yangon. photo by Tamarra Kaida

Myanmar is undergoing post-colonial growing pains and enduring the current Military dictatorship. The need for better jobs, universal education, as well as economic and social reforms is evident every where one looks but it is most ly manifested in the aspirations of the ambitious hard working twenty something year olds we encountered throughout the trip. Each of the four guides we had were university graduates and spoke excellent English, understood the attitudes and habits of western travelers and were highly professional. There is fragile freedom of speech politly expressed by our guides and others we met at the Literary festival.

I asked Ai,IMG_5562

our guide in Began, what she felt was the biggest change she has experienced in her country during the last five years.  She brightly answered my question from her personal experience.

“Cell phones!”

IMG_5579

    Local Burmese women enjoying cell phone photos of themselves.

IMG_5535

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_5557                         stylish local wearing Western attire

If Burma is a romantic literary image then Myanmar is a story torn from newspapers headlines, black and white reportage and documentary films about ongoing political struggles for power. At the center of this contemporary story is Aung San Suu Kyi, a petite woman with flowers in her hair who has chosen the Buddhist way of non- violent resistance and has stared down the barrel of soldiers’ rifles and not blinked. She endured 15 years of separation from her husband and children while under house arrest in her family’s house on Lake Inya in Yangon.IMG_4998

Iron clad front gate guarded by military during the period (1998 -2012) of         Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a living symbol, as well as the embodiment of an archetypal heroine imprisoned in a tower by an evil power and waiting to somehow be freed. That is the mythic model. But, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not after personal freedom or a prince charming to rescue her. She already had freedom, an Oxford University education and a loving, supportive husband and two sons she loved dearly. All she had to do to re-acquire her personal family life was return to England and never return. to homeland. But, like her father, Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s destiny is welded to Myanmar and the Burmese people. She is a living, walking, talking, symbol of resistance and hope for a democratic society.

Like Nelson Mandela her life is not her own. It belongs to her country and the people and to the history she is helping create. International pressure and behind the scenes diplomacy have persuaded military officials to release Aung San Suu Kyi. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (1991) along with every other notable humanitarian leadership award in the free world. From what we saw and the people we  talked to ,free speech is more prevalent, but they are long way from where they hope to be someday.

IMG_7031-279x230

 

Jane Heyn- founder and director

 

In 2013, Jane Heyn, the British Ambassador’s wife, invited Aung San Su Kyi for tea and suggested they started up an international literary festival in Myanmar. Suu Kyi agreed to be an official sponsor and occasional speaker. And so, amidst china cups of Earl Gray and mountain green tea the Irrawaddy Literary Festival was born. It is heartening to read the following remarks, as there is recognition for the political and economic value of literary festivals, which are primarily initiated and organized by women.

timthumb.php

Jane Heyn founder and director, announcing change of venues for 2014 Irrawaddy Literary festival.

“……. The Irrawaddy Literary Festival, organised by the Ambassador’s wife [Jane Heyn], achieved more for freedom of speech in one afternoon than most of us manage in a lifetime”.Rt Hon William Hague MP, British Foreign Secretary, speech to the FCO Leadership Conference, May, 2013

 

The festival began in Yangon 2013 then moved to Mandalay in 2014 . It was scheduled to take place at the site of the world’s largest book, The Kuthadow Pagoda. Paul and I arrived in a rattled tuk-tuk thirty minutes early, eager to see what we had imagined as a marble carving of a giant book. No such book existed except in our mental western paradigm of what a book should look like. The Kuthadow Pagoda site proved to be acres of stone tablets housed in small stone mausoleum like buildings. I took it in and instantly my understanding of a book was enlarged to include man-sized tablets.

IMG_5329

Tents with plastic rattan chairs were awaiting participants to enter and for the games to begin. But people were just standing around waiting. I approached a handsome elderly gentleman wearing a tailored navy blue linen jacket with a creamy silk ascot at his throat and large literary horn rimmed eyeglasses. The very British gentleman was polite and angry all at the same time. “We have decided to read the letter to inform everyone this has occurred the way it has.” It seems that the government higher-ups had decided to rescind their former permission allowing the literary festival to take place at the symbolically appropriate Kuthadow Pagoda site.

Street life continued around us as we talked and waited. We discussed the ability of street dogs to sleep in the midst of hustle and bustle around then.

IMG_5378

 

festival participants waiting for the festival to begin outside Kuthodaw Pagoda

IMG_5321

A small child sold offering flowers to Pagoda visitors. It was moment worth noticing. The leaf design on her cheeks is made with a natural plant paste, which many Burmese women use as sun block ( in this case very decoratively).

At exactly 10:00 o’clock, Jane Heyn the festival founder read the short communication she had received the night before the start of the festival, which belatedly claimed reasons why the Ministry of Culture and Tourism would not allow the Irrawaddy Literary Festival to take place on the famed pagoda site. their argument was that other groups and festivals would want to use the Kathadaw  site as well. No arguments, no debates occurred. No one was in the mood for a battle with police (not visibly present). But we all figured out that this late date denial of a venue was a deliberate harassment of Aung San Suu Kyi, the British embassy and the fledgling Festival.We piled into buses and headed to the Mandalay Hills Resort where volunteers were setting up venues for all the presentations.

IMG_5432IMG_5432

 

Mandalay Hills Resort- new venue

By midday the previously published schedule was on track and on time. We were impressed with the popular tee shirt slogan “ keep calm and carry on” attitude, which accomplished what needed to be done in a short amount of time.

IMG_0888

The list of speakers from abroad was balanced with Burmese writers, poets and journalists.

 

Jung Chang and Fergal Keane were among the exciting range of writers who covered a plethora of genres. The list of names includes Louis de Bernieres, Caroline Moorehead, biographer of many the 20th century’s most notable people, as well as Dame Joan Bakewell and Martha Kearney, two of the best known and respected voices in broadcasting in London. Earphones distributed by the festival at each venue provided simultaneous translations.

IMG_5408

 

A discussion on writing Biography with Caroline Moorhouse and Wendy Law-Yone with chair, Douglas Kerr.

Every effort possible was made in order for the festival to be open and useful to anyone who wanted to attend. And like the Jaipur festival in India, Irrawaddy is absolutely free.

IMG_0890 The day (February14,2014) Aung San Suu Kyi spoke was set aside from the main program. No other speakers were scheduled for the 1-2 pm time slot since there was no way anyone would go to any other event.

Both entrances to the venue were packed with people who had not shown up on opening day. It was no longer about the festival. It was about getting a  photo of Aung San Suu Kyi.


 IMG_5431

 

Aung San Suu Kyi at Irrawaddy Literary Festival Feb. 15,2014. Mandalay Hills Resort .

I have to admit that once we got in it was quite a thrill to be in the same room with her. Why does mere proximity to greatness enlist such powerful emotions?

I felt giddy, even dizzy, but I somehow managed to behave normally.

I understand why the Burmese call Aung San Suu Kyi OUR LADY. She is more than a celebrity. She is a kind of Buddhist Saint, although when she was asked if she is a good Buddhist she replied, “I am trying to be a good Buddhist.” A good Buddhist would never claim to be good enough.

I have to admit that once we got in it was quite a thrill to be in the same room with her. Why does mere proximity to greatness enlist such powerful emotions?

I felt giddy, even dizzy, but I somehow managed to behave normally.

I understand why the Burmese call Aung San Suu Kyi OUR LADY. She is more than a celebrity. She is a kind of Buddhist Saint, although when she was asked if she is a good Buddhist she replied, “I am trying to be a good Buddhist.” A good Buddhist would never claim to be good enough.

Festival organizers deserve kudos for setting up large screen projections outside the small venue so those who could no get in the building would still be included.

IMG_0895

                           outside viewing of inside proceedings

Martha Kearney chaired the panel on ‘Literary Heroes and Villains’ which included Louis de Bernier, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Jung Chang pictured below.

IMG_0912

When asked what was her favorite book she replied

without hesitation, Les Miserable. (‘Of course,’ I thought to myself, some one who dedicates her life to the betterment of the people is inspired by literature about the struggle of the masses). Shakespeare’s Yago and Macbeth were scrutinized as famous villains in English Literature.

IMG_5434

We got to see the playful side of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when Martha Kearney said, “I hear you are enamored with cooking”. “Ah yes”, she replied, “I love cooking and I do not want to sound conceited but I am an excellent cook.” The audience laughed and applauded. The proceedings ended on a sweet personalized remark that felt like dessert. It had been an exciting day and when it was over I realized how lucky I was to have been in Mandalay at this period of Myanmar’s transition.

When asked what was her favorite book she replied without hesitation, Les Miserable. (‘Of course,’ I thought to myself, some one who dedicates her life to the betterment of the people is inspired by literature about the struggle of the masses). Shakespeare’s Yago and Macbeth were scrutinized as famous villains in English Literature.

We got to see the playful side of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when Martha Kearney said, “I hear you are enamored with cooking”. “Ah yes”, she replied, “I love cooking and I do not want to sound conceited but I am an excellent cook.” The audience laughed and applauded. The proceedings ended on a sweet personalized remark that felt like dessert. It had been an exciting day and when it was over I realized how lucky I was to have been in Mandalay at this period of Myanmar’s transition.

My choice of words like” transition” implies that I believe Myanmar will become the next democratic country in South East Asia. and’The Lady’ will be the president.

 

IMG_5564

                           Paul and I at sunset above the Irrawaddy River

 

More photographs of Myanmar are on my Photography Blog http://mirrorwithamemory.tamarrakaida.comPlease take a look.

 

these books are good as starters for thinking about Burma/Myanmar.

 

1. Burmese Days: A Novel, by George Orwell. There is no better travel companion.

2. The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Peter Popham, is a rich new biography of Burma’s most famous dissident.

3. Living Silence in Burma, by Christine Fink, is a ground-level view of ordinary lives under the regime.

DVD- “The Lady”

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.