April 12, 2012

A new era in publishing in Burma


Aung San Suu Kyi

The Burmese publishing industry is wasting no time in responding to the country’s new political mood. In late March, a year after the new government took power, there were pledges to loosen censorship laws, and to get rid of them entirely by the end of the year; then there were those landslide wins for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, in the April 1st by-election, leading to the announcement that the Nobel laureate would make her debut appearance in Burmese parliament on April 23rd, alongside other newly elected members of the house.

A piece in the local weekly the Myanmar Times, published Monday, quotes Dr Thant Thaw Kaung of the Myanmar Book Center on the meaning of all this for books and the spread of ideas:

“During the process of democratisation, readers should have more access to political and history books, which are very helpful,” he said, adding: “I’ve heard that the censorship system will be reformed after the [April 1] by-election, by permitting books to be imported without being read by censors. We just need to register the books we import.”

He said political books such as Freedom from Fear, Letters from Burma and biographies of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that have been published abroad are in line to be imported soon, and biographies of Nelson Mandela and Dalai Lama that were not permitted in the past are also on the list to get approval from the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division.

“I want to import Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s books. Her speeches and writings are to the point and are easily understandable to the common people, even farmers. I want high school students to read her books because they are very understandable,” Dr Thant Thaw Kaung said.

As well as more imported books, there’ll be books on Burmese history and politics newly available in translation to Burmese, the language spoken by 65% of the population. Among those books will be Dr Thant Myint-U‘s River of Lost Footsteps, an account of the history of the country due for release in Burmese later this month. There are also calls for his newer title Where China Meets India, about the strategic importance of the country between these two rapidly changing states, to be translated.

This is a society not merely responding to a loosening of laws, but seeking the best path in a new political era. As the Myanmar Times has it:

Dr Thant Myint-U said democracy in Myanmar was much more likely to fail “if we don’t try to understand the historical context in which it is taking place, and understand the history of democratic change elsewhere in the world”.

“There are many kinds of democracies. And some have served their people much better than others,” he said. “We have to connect this moment of democratic change with our own economic history, the country’s long history of war and state-building, as well as the deep legacies of colonialism and extreme nationalism in Myanmar.”

In countries that enjoy relative freedom of expression, people often lose sight of how vital a free and thriving publishing industry is. The changes to come in Burma are not only heartening in themselves, but also a reminder of the value of our own media and literature industries.

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.