Freeing the people’s voices in Myanmar

PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award recipient and Burmese blogger Nay Phone Latt
PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award recipient and Burmese blogger Nay Phone Latt

KUALA LUMPUR, July 13 – Being the voice of a new generation fighting for the right to freedom of expression can be both a blessing and a curse.

Myanmarese blogger and activist Nay Phone Latt was here recently to share his experiences at the Cooler Lumpur Festival. His blog was an indispensable news source during the press blackout following the 2007 military crackdown. For his efforts, Nay Phone Latt was detained at Hpa-An Prison from 2008 to 2012.

The 33-year-old recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and 2010 Time 100 Hero came from a politically progressive family. He recalls, “My family, who are merchants, lived near the City Hall in Yangon.

During the 1988 People’s Uprising in Myanmar, there would be protests there.  I was only eight years old then but I saw everything – the people protesting and the military cracking down on the protestors every day.”

Despite a limited print run, Nay Phone Latt’s books help to spread the message of democracy in Myanmar
Despite a limited print run, Nay Phone Latt’s books help to spread the message of democracy in Myanmar

After the general election in 1990, Nay Phone Latt’s parents and grandfather became members of the opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi. “By that time, I was 10 years old and I followed my family to these gatherings so I grew up in politics. Later I also became an NLD Youth member. We participated in ceremonies, singing patriotic songs.”

What interests Nay Phone Latt the most about activism is the opportunity for freedom. He explains, “Growing up, I wanted to be a writer, and in our country, it’s not very easy to be a professional writer. When I first started writing short stories during the military regime, there was censorship – almost everything I wrote was censored.”

To combat the censorship, Nay Phone Latt turned to the Internet. “I used technology to express my feelings, the feelings of our people. I started blogging in 2006. At the time, a lot of access to news sites was denied and what we were blogging was illegal. If the government found out about you, you could get into trouble.”

Trouble came. He was arrested in January 2008 and sentenced to 20 years and 6 months in prison under the Electronic Transactions Law, for spreading news during the 2007 Myanmarese anti-government protests via his blog.

As part of a mass presidential pardon of political prisoners, he was released after four years but he remains ambivalent about his imprisonment.

“Being sent to prison is not strange, really, not when our whole country is like a big prison. But I’m not afraid,” he says.

Today, Nay Phone Latt is free to write but reaching out to his target audience continues to be a challenge. “In Myanmar, the editors prefer the more established writers. There is no space for the younger generation. Due to the limited number of journals and magazines, famous writers offer better financial returns. Also, despite a population of 60 million in Myanmar, we don’t have a strong readership. A publisher typically only publishes about 1,000 copies of any book.”

Has he seen any real changes since the uprising? “Honestly, we do see some changes but very little ones. The main improvement is the government now is no longer a military government. We have a democratic parliament.

However, the military still has a 25 per cent say in the parliament. The military control is still strong. They have ‘changed their clothes’ but they haven’t changed their mindset.”

He adds, “The NLD is trying to get a constitutional amendment to Article 436 – a clause that basically prevents any reform without full military approval – passed but this will need at least 75 per cent of the votes. Given the military controls 25 per cent of the votes, this is an uphill battle.”

There are two sides of Myanmar. There are Myanmarese workers in Kuala Lumpur who are here under refugee status. They would love to return to Myanmar but they can’t imagine doing that under the current rule. Then there are those who are returning; many are professionals educated abroad who see economic opportunity in their homeland.

Which is the real Myanmar today? Nay Phone Latt believes it depends on the individual. “Most of the Myanmarese I meet abroad are willing to go back to Myanmar. Some of my friends, even those with children, they want to return. But they don’t believe in the current government. They want to see if the 2015 elections are free and fair. Myanmar is in a transitional period. We have so many challenges and so many threats; the future is not so clear and not so fixed. I tell my friends, if you can take the risk, please come back.”

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