MANDALAY — The second Irrawaddy Literary Festival got off to a bumpy start here on Friday, with a last-minute venue change after organizers were denied permission to hold the event at Kuthodaw Pagoda, a sacred Buddhist compound that authorities said would be at risk if the international festival proceeded as planned.
A prohibition letter issued by the Ministry of Culture was received by the Mandalay festival’s organizers on Thursday afternoon, citing the pagoda compound’s value as a global monument to Buddhism and justifying the denial in the name of its conservation.
In addition to immediate concerns about the effect of holding the festival on the pagoda grounds, the letter cited the precedent that its approval would set and said future requests to hold similar events would be difficult to deny, with potential long-term impacts on the heritage site.
“It is such a shame as there are a lot of world famous writers and authors present at the festival. However, we had to rush to move the location to Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel. We deeply apologize to the speakers, the authors and everyone for the inconvenience,” said Dr. Aung Myint, a member of the festival’s organizing committee and an author.
The organizing committee had to scramble to move festival materials to the Mandalay Hill Resort and arrange rooms for the festival’s opening speech, a photo exhibition and literary discussions.
The venue change is not the first controversy to beset the festival, which runs through Sunday. Last month more than 50 Burmese poets and 30 cartoonists declared that they would boycott the event. In a public letter, the Mandalay-based poets said they were unhappy about “manipulation” in the organization of the event, without providing specifics.
One writer who spoke to The Irrawaddy in January said the boycott was likely related to a long-standing schism between artists who had worked with Burma’s former military regime and those who maintained independence.
“To sum up what is happening now in Mandalay: the ones who have been standing up for the oppressed are not happy to stand with the ones who are for the oppressors,” said the author, who requested anonymity.
The inaugural Irrawaddy Literary Festival was held in February 2013 in Rangoon.
On Friday, Aung Myint brushed off this year’s venue snafu.
“We do not want to blame anyone but want to thank everyone who gave their kind understanding. Despite the unsmooth start, we believe this second literary festival will open another door to the world for literature and book lovers,” he said.
U Phone, a well-known Burmese author, was similarly unfussed.
“This is what happens at events all the time,” he said. “We understand that and blame no one. We just need to play our role in how to best present and promote our literature to the world.”