I Write Just to Be ‘A Good Citizen,’ Says Ma Thida

Writer Ma Thida says she writes about the many issues that Burma faces “just to be a good citizen.” (Photo: Langdonpix)

Writer Ma Thida says she writes about the many issues that Burma faces “just to be a good citizen.” (Photo: Langdonpix)

RANGOON—During an interrogation session at Rangoon’s Insein Prison in 1995, a military intelligence officer asked a 29-year-old woman sitting in front of him what her political aspirations were.

“To be a good citizen,” a weakened and pale-looking Ma Thida answered without hesitation. She had just fallen seriously ill in the infamous prison, where she was being held for her political activism.

Nearly two decades later, the Burmese writer and former prisoner of conscience said she remains concerned about politics for the same reason: because she wants to be a responsible and active citizen. For Ma Thida this means that one should be aware of what is happening in Burma and help tackle its numerous problems.

“I want to prove I have the ability to work for my country as a citizen. There are many things to do,” she said during an interview with The Irrawaddy. “It may not fit into other people’s definition of politics. But in Burma, everything is politics—environment, education, health, and so on.”

Ma Thida leads a busy life that covers these different spheres of work. She has a job as an editor at a monthly youth magazine and a weekly newspaper, while also volunteering as a general practitioner at a charity clinic (besides being a well-respected writer, she is also a trained physician). But in Burma she is perhaps best known as a leading intellectual, whose books deal with the country’s difficult political situation.

At 46 years of age, she has published nine books in Burmese and English, including two fictional works of and a prison memoir. Her latest English-language book, “The Roadmap,” a fictional story based on events in Burmese politics from 1988 to 2009, was released last year. From 2008 to 2009 she lived in the US as an International Writers Project Fellow at Brown University and a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University.

Ma Thida studied medicine in the early 1980s and also took up writing at a young age, quickly gaining a reputation as a talented and progressive young writer. “I wanted to become a writer because I want to share what I observe around me, like poverty,” she said, adding her interest in health care developed after falling ill as a child.

Although her writing talents were recognized early on, she had to work hard to achieve success, recalled Myo Myint Nyein, a former editor at Pe Pu Hlwa magazine, where Ma Thida first honed her literary skills almost 30 years ago.

“She was very persevering. If we said: ‘Sorry, we can’t use the story you sent,’ she was always ready to give us a new one,” he said.

Soon after her writing career took off she became involved in Burma’s turbulent politics, taking up a job as a campaign assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi during the 1990 general election. The NLD won the election but its results were canceled by the military regime.

This association with the NLD leader resulted in her first book, “The Sunflower” (which only appeared in Burma 1999 as it was banned upon release in the early 1990s). The book argues that the Burmese people have towering expectations of Suu Kyi that made the democracy icon “a prisoner of applause.”

This concern is still relevant in today’s politics, according to Ma Thida. “I see no way for someone to shoulder the burden of so many people. It’s very unfair,” she said. “Asking and waiting for her leadership alone doesn’t make sense. People should cooperate and do what they can for their country by themselves.”

Still, she is hopeful for Burma’s future. “We now see the flickers of light at the end of the tunnel, but we still need transparency everywhere,” she said.

Two decades ago, her political writing made her a target for the oppressive regime and in 1993 she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for unlawful association and distribution of “unlawful literature.”

She spent six years locked up in terrible conditions, suffering from various health ailments for which she was denied medical care (at one stage, she experienced a six-month spell of fever after contracting tuberculosis). During this time, she was awarded several international human rights awards, including the PEN/ Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.

“Were it not for vipassana [Buddhist meditation], I would not have overcome the untold hardships I faced in prison,” said Ma Thida, adding that meditation helped her during long periods of solitary confinement and continues to be important in her life.

Ma Thida graduated as a general practitioner in 1993 and was about to study abroad to become a surgeon when she was arrested. “Being a qualified surgeon was my dream, but it didn’t happen,” she said. Yet, she holds no grudge towards the regime as her prison experience taught her much about life and helped her writing—and through it the plight of the Burmese people—gain recognition.

“If I hadn’t been arrested, some of my ambitions would not have been realized,” she said, adding that the mix of work she now does is satisfying. “As a doctor I do scientific work, but as a writer and editor I do an artist’s work. I feel I’m useful to the Burmese people by using two different professional skills.”

Despite her various achievements, the tireless writer and health worker said she still has dreams left, such as founding a free hospital boat to help communities along the Irrawaddy River, or setting up a publishing house for critical academic papers.

“I’m still thinking about how to make these [goals] come true. I’m ready to work with anyone or any organization that shares my interests,” she said.

12 Responses to I Write Just to Be ‘A Good Citizen,’ Says Ma Thida

  1. Dr Htay Kywe 33 years in UK. Mandalay Thar

    I strongly feel that Dr Ma Thida is a good Citizen as well as a very decent / good BUDDHIST.I wish to contribute her with my knowledge I have gathered during my professional life having worked as a Single Handed London GP Principal and also having lived in UK for more than 33 years , especially to contribute IDEAS in the areas of fighting Poverty in Myanmar lower working class/ underpriviledged public ,and to advise her regarding her effort of strong / Transparent Journalism to encourage the Myanmar Government : – establishing a National Health Service for Myanmar People as a Priority , for developing a Proper Health Care System , for supporting Disabled People as we all Bamar Buddhists have a Myittar . Dr Htay Kywe

  2. Thanks God, we have a heroine like Daw Suu in our country. I salute you, Daw Thida.

  3. Having read the above article and comment I would like to add a little more to make it perfect. To be honest, we do need educated people and the professionals like you all in our country. We do need to train people I am afraid. Like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said on the Independent Day we all need self-reliant in the country. Our people were so reluctant since 1960s and did not have open minded and to work harder for the country. The system did not give a chance to do so as well. This is why a lot of medical professionals went to UK and abroad. They have not been given an opportunity to do the full use of their medical practice in Myanmar. We do need the people like you all so that we can train and educate our the rest of citizens. I am also sharing my knowledgeable experience with our people on http://www.betweenonline.com about news from Myanmar. You may read my articles to support our citizens. Author name: Public View

  4. We have some chosen few that wrote for our Burmese People such as Ma Thida , Shwe Gu May Hnin etc. They devoted, sacrified their life being arrested, jailed inside the Notorious Prison. Indeed , Ma Thida is a good Citizen, Precious Gem and I salute Her.

  5. I am very privileged to have seen her outside Burma, once for about 45 minutes at Baltimore Penn Station,and to be distantly related to her — However, I wish her books and articles and short stories were more widely available – inside and outside Burma.

    I read with interest her translations of Japanese writer Noriko’s recollections of Daw Suu and Daw Than E Fend.

  6. I don’t know much about her previously except once she was incarcerated in the prison, a writer and physician. I could not hold back myself to say my respect for her for what she’s said this much in this account.
    Of course, we cannot achieve all of our dreams in this very life, but she’s gained some significantly. I hope I could join and contribute my energy in her noble works in the future. Every one of us should also aim to become a good citizen of our country. Bravo Ma Thida!!!

  7. George Than Setkyar Heine

    A GOOD CITIZEN with a LETHAL WEAPON (pen) is WHAT IT TAKES to CONQUER the guys running Naypyidaw today of course.
    Everyone has his/her own IDEA/THOUGHT of MAKING himself/herself USEFUL for SOCIETY.
    Ma Thida has SHOWN HER STUFF for that matter and CONVINCINGLY no less as well.
    All the BEST and SUCCESS mate!

    • Hello George,
      Will you kindly enlighten me when and how that lethal weapon (pen) kill the enemy and conquer the battle! Please cite the recent incident how the prisoners of conscience’s freedom were related to your lethal weapon.

  8. Cheers! I wish Burma has at least one thousand women like Thida. Change can come only from human beings like Thida. Long live Ma Thida! God bless you too.

  9. Cheer! Dr Thida
    Your next books or writing should be about “the ethical responsibility and duty for obligation of Panglong agreement”, “General Aung San’s kyat slogan to all Burmese ethnics for Burma independence” “Humanitarian aspect or Buddhism point of view in Rohingya issue or clash in Burma” , “Rape is the reward for wining the civil war on all Burmese ethnics (Burmese vs Indian culture)” and “just to be a good soldier”
    I sincerely request you to emphasize on those topics because there is no answer as well as no author in Burma for the time being regarding to those issues. I respect scarifying yourself for the sake of Burma, your talent , your determination and your value as a good citizen. I hope your books or writing will cause insight for “Thamadaw”, particularly bama military chief min aung laing and president thein sein. I am sure than shwe will not read your books or writing because he is busy in the research (randomized control double blind study, but concluded by fortuneteller) how to integrate between his outdated scientific psychological knowledge and his own new way of (modern) Buddhism. I wish you and Ms. Clinton should be the future president of government of Burma and USA respectively. Please, take care of your health and safety.

  10. Ma Thida ….You have my full admiration and respect for the work you have done and for the moral values you represent, I salute you as a a good global citizen….Only when we have women or men like you can Burma and the Global Community progress on..

  11. While I am quite reluctant to contradict Ma Thida when she stated that …in Burma, everything is politics_environment, health, education,and so on..,I feel that she is trying to justify herself for not getting involved in present day politics. However, everybody knows that she had been at least waist-deep in politics in the past. I also have a notion that she is doing less than what she can when some are doing more than what they can. I think she, as a doctor- cum-politician, should help the old hemiplegic politics-cum-patient walk again.

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