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Another Page Turns in Burma

September 27, 2012

Thomas Fuller, the New York Times reporter who writes most of the paper’s stories on Burma, recently wrote an article about the end of  the government bureaucracy responsible for censoring media in the country. He also wrote a charming blog, A Reporter Meets His Censor, about his encounter with the unlikely and likable young woman tasked with censoring his own work. It’s yet another wonderful development in what seems to be s steady stream of positive steps in Burma. Political prisoners are being released. Government ministries are being reformed. The country’s president even praised Aung San Suu Kyi in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly. With every such announcement I’m delighted, and a little baffled. It just isn’t the country I remember.

Back in 1999 I traveled to Burma for my first real experience of foreign correspondence and investigative journalism. I went there to explore a possible uprising against the military government, a set of country-wide demonstrations that might begin on Sept 9, 1999 (9-9-99) to mirror the massive anti-government uprising on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88). During my time in the country I spoke to people who were afraid to say Aung San Suu Kyi’s name in a restaurant or on the street, out of concern that a military intelligence officer might overhear and throw them in jail. I met with former political prisoners, who amazed me not only by the hardships they faced but their acceptance of the fact that they would likely end up in jail again in the future. These pro-democracy activists, writers, and monks would not abandon their support for human dignity, and that put them on a collision course with the government. Sooner or later they would choose principle over silence and be jailed for it.

No one I met in Burma made more of an impression on me than Ludu Daw Amar, one of the country’s best-known writers. We met in the building that doubled as both her home and publishing house, in the city of Mandalay. She sat behind a big wooden desk in a small room, cramped by piles of literary magazines. She, her youngest son, and her husband had all spent time in jail for their words and beliefs. She told me about writing under the regime of censorship that had existed for years. I remember one of her comments very distinctly:

When I write, I begin with a circle. But I know the censor won’t let it be published. So I turn it into a square. When the censor gets it he will still make changes, and he turns it into a triangle. The trick is to write in such a way that the reader will see that triangle and know the circle that I originally intended.

Interestingly, Daw Amar thought that the Burmese were therefore extraordinarily sensitive readers, alert to the allusions and indirect references that writers used to talk about issues that the government deemed controversial.

Another memory from that night. The window in her office had bars across it, and a wisp of curtain. At one point she gestured to the street corner outside. Several men loitered there. Those are government agents, she told me. They keep watch, and follow whatever we do.

The day after my meeting with Daw Amar I returned to my hotel in the afternoon and found that some of my notes, which I had hidden behind a pipe outside the window, were gone. Nothing else from the room  had been stolen. While it was never confirmed, I assume that I had been trailed from her publishing house, and that intelligence searched my room the following morning while I was away. I can’t imagine the fortitude it would take to live in such a regime, continually at risk, knowing that any day you could be jailed at the whim of  thugs or censors, and continue to write and publish for decade after decade.

Daw Amar was 84 when I met her. She lived to 93. I wish she had lived just a few years more, to learn that the censor bureau had closed, and that she could stop with squares and write circles again.

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