When I checked into a hotel on my first trip to Myanmar/Burma, in 2004, the clerk asked for my preferred tee time. Thinking that in this former British colony she meant afternoon tea, I said, “Three o’clock?”
“Only mornings,” she said. “You’re on the golf package.” But I don’t play golf, I said. “You’re on the golf package,” she repeated, adding that there would be no phone or internet service in that district of Yangon for the duration of my stay. Why not? I asked. “Always repairs,” she said.
This was an inauspicious start to my cultural diplomacy mission, which was designed to meet poets and writers who might wish to participate in the University of Iowa’s world-renowned International Writing Program (IWP). What struck me in my literary encounters was the courage on display in spite of the ruthless oppression of the regime. Fearing student protests, the military rulers, the Tatmadaw, had closed the universities for all but two days of the year — commencement and graduation — and professors were ordered to sweep walkways and take turns on guard duty.
One writer, who had spent six years in solitary confinement for her ties to the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, said that in prison she and other writers referred to books as vitamins. Another novelist scanned used books for sale on the sidewalk for copies of her latest book, the reprinting of which had been forbidden by the authorities. Everybody spoke in whispers.
But change was in the air when in January 2013 I brought a literary delegation to Yangon. International pressure and skillful American diplomacy had led the Tatmadaw to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010, and when she was appointed State Counsellor in 2012, she and the National League for Democracy (NLD) began to institute reforms to bolster civil society.
We were greeted at the reopened universities with much fanfare, visited new art galleries, and learned about new books writers were publishing. For sale on the streets were T-shirts featuring a photograph of President Barack Obama and Suu Kyi, with O’BURMA emblazoned at the top. Everyone in my delegation bought some to bring back to their families.
Suu Kyi’s luster began to fade when she refused to condemn the military crackdown on the Rohingya Muslims and refugees, which led to calls for her Nobel to be revoked. Then came the Tatmadaw’s coup d’état on Feb. 1. When Suu Kyi and her Cabinet were deposed and placed under house arrest, people took to the streets in protest, banging pots and pans. The Tatmadaw responded with increasingly lethal force; more than 2,000 people have been detained, including nine poets, one of whom, IWP alumnus Maung Yu Py (see poem below), is said to have been severely beaten; he faces a two-year prison sentence when his case is brought to court on March 23, though his poet-lawyer, Nayi, has also been arrested. Two poets, K Zar Win and Myint Myint Zin, were killed on March 3, part of nearly 200 deaths thus far.
“They have come for the poets,” one observer quipped.
One poet told me the Tatmadaw had tied Suu Kyi’s hands from the beginning of her rise to power, destroying any hope of a national reconciliation process — which is why she thinks civil war is looming. Another Burma watcher believes the Tatmadaw have miscalculated, arguing that their use of water cannons, stun guns, rubber bullets and snipers with live ammunition will only backfire, bringing yet more protesters into the streets. Of Maung Yu Py’s court case, a poet said, “If we win, he’ll be out. If not, we’ll be in.”
Their fate may depend on what steps are taken by the Biden administration to restore some semblance of democracy. The signal role played by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in bringing about change may offer a road map for American re-engagement in Myanmar/Burma — a country I can’t help thinking of as “Always Repairs.”
Christopher Merrill is an award-winning poet, essayist, journalist and translator. Director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, he has published six collections of poetry and six books of nonfiction, including “Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars.” In 2012, he was appointed to the National Council on the Humanities.
What follows is a poem by Burmese poet Maung Yu Py:
Under the Great Ice Sheet
by Maung Yu Py (a Burmese poet currently detained and facing a two-year prison sentence)
Under the great ice sheet
A great country has been buried alive.
Under the great country
A great church where God no longer shelters.
Under the great church
The great wars, welded together six feet under.
Under the great wars
A great museum of culture, dilapidated and yellowing.
Under the great museum
Banknotes without currency.
Under the banknotes
Slaves with protruding bones and sunken eyes.
Under the slavery
A Stone Age cave sealed by stones.
Under the Stone Age
Under the evolution
The ocean — the mother of Mother Earth — who died in labor.
Under the ocean
A great ice sheet, unanticipated.
Under the great ice sheet …
(Translated by ko ko thett and James Byrne)