Myanmar takes up PEN

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By Chit Su

Since her release from prison in 1999, Myanmar writer and doctor, Ma Thida (Sanchaung), has dreamt of a day when Myanmar writers would be able to join colleagues around the world and establish an internationally recognised forum in which to develop creative literature and critical thinking.

Her dream came true last month with the founding of a new PEN International centre in Myanmar. The centre, with 23 active members, will serve as an NGO for writers and for advocacy and education about literature, helping aspiring writers from all backgrounds in Myanmar.

The effort to open the PEN Centre was nearly 15 years in the making and came about through the persistence and steadfast effort of Dr Ma Thida.

Speaking at a ceremony at the 79th International Congress in Reykyavik, Iceland, writer Nay Phone Latt outlined Ma Thida’s efforts, citing her string of visits since 2005 to several PEN offices around the world where she tried to convince PEN to assist in the effort to open a Myanmar office. It wasn’t until last year, however, that the effort gained the momentum necessary to make the dream a reality.

PEN Myanmar received official permission to form the centre during the 79th Pen International Congress in Iceland on September 9-13, 2013.

“We didn’t have the chance [under the former government] to form that kind of organisation or to connect with international organisations,” Nay Phone Latt told the PEN Congress. “But now, we have a chance and we need to grab it firmly. So this is the time to start.”

As an organisation, PEN is not unknown to Myanmar. Several Myanmar writers – including Ma Thida and Nay Phone Latt – have already received awards from PEN international for their literary and journalistic work. Ma Thida won the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith (Freedom to Write Award) in 1996, while she was incarcerated and Nay Phone Latt won the same award in 2011, also while he was in prison.

Nay Phone Latt told the PEN Congress that winning the award inspired him and fellow prisoner, Zaganar to create a PEN chapter in Myanmar.

“When I heard the news that I was awarded the PEN Barbara Goldsmith award by PEN America, we [he and Zaganar] were told that in the near future we will have to form that kind of organisation in our country and we also have to support other countries worse off than ours,” he said. “PEN Myanmar is our dream. In the bitter past, we had to be the object – just accepting the others’ support. For the brighter future, we want to be the subject that can support and help the victims around the world.”

The mission of the Myanmar PEN Centre is threefold: to conduct a media watch on issues related to freedom of expression; to organise discussions about literature with the public and develop a culture of literature in Myanmar; and to make literature a part of the educational curriculum in the country, promoting creative writing.

Prominent author U Pe Myint said the years spent under censorship took its toll on the country’s writing community.

“Myanmar was blocked from developing for the ages by the junta,” he said. “We didn’t know the situation of the world’s literature and the activities of international writers. Myanmar people need to know about the world more, so we need to join this kind of international organisation,” he said.

Myo Myint Nyein, who is an honorary member of PEN International, also expressed his excitement about the new PEN Centre.

“PEN Myanmar is not a political organisation. It is just for us to meet international writers,” he said. “I think it is the first step we need to enter into the world’s literature for Myanmar writers.”

PEN Myanmar is accepting member applications from this month and will hold an official PEN Myanmar Congress in November to choose a director and board, although the dates are yet to be confirmed.

PEN International was founded by writer and poet CA Dawson Scott in London in 1921 and is the one of the earliest non-governmental organisations. There are 145 PEN centres in the world.

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