When the Ministry of Information’s director general visited Ye Htet Oo’s library in 2010, it could have been disastrous. Ye Htet Oo, then a recent college graduate, was running his new library in downtown Rangoon on the sly, without approval from the former military regime, and was told he could face three months in jail for every book he lent without permission from the censorship board. Unable to get a library license from the government, which saw libraries as a way to spread subversive ideas, he fronted his operation as a bookshop but kept a collection of unapproved library books hidden in a back room. Then one day, unknown to the young bibliophile, the ministry’s director general—who has since become the deputy minister of information and President Thein Sein’s spokesman—entered the “bookshop” and walked straight into the secret room.
Still before Burma would begin its transition from military rule, that incident could have been the end of the library, but in an unexpected turn of events, the ministry agreed to not only allow Ye Htet Oo’s operation to continue, but to actually let it expand. From two shelves and about 500 books, his collection has grown to about 18,000 books in circulation today in the Rangoon area. “My journey was quite lucky,” the 27-year-old told The Irrawaddy recently at his nonprofit Tharapa Library, now based in Rangoon’s Hlaing Township. In addition to the main branch, Ye Htet Oo has launched four “mobile libraries” around Rangoon, sending his books to monasteries and other religious centers for students who otherwise lack access. He has also sent about 10,000 books to west Burma’s Arakan State and north Burma’s Kachin State.
With book donations from the American Center in Rangoon and the Asia Foundation, the US-educated librarian funds his book network by teaching SAT prep and TOEFL language lessons to local students. In this interview, he tells The Irrawaddy how Cyclone Nargis helped inspire his library; how the end of censorship has—or hasn’t—changed Burmese literature; why libraries at government schools are in a sad state of affairs; and what happened in the secret room that fateful day that changed his life.
Question: What was it like running a library under the former military regime?
Answer: I started [my library] in 2009, but until 2010 my library was not registered with the government. The township government wouldn’t allow us to submit an application [for library registration] because I was trying to start my library on 28th Street [in downtown Rangoon], and the [pro-democracy] Saffron Revolution happened in 2007, so they didn’t want people to gather in one place and share ideas. I was quite upset, because the township leader said that if I had books without approval from the censorship board, I could face three months in jail for each book, whether they were about politics or anything else.
Q: So you weren’t getting approval from the censorship board before lending your books?
A: It was a risk. But I have to say, in the development of this library, I met a lot of good people. Despite what the township government said, an official at the lower level of government was a good guy, so I talked to him. After his boss said no, he said he could help. He recommended that I apply for a bookstore license from the municipality, which was kind of legal, and he said that if I wanted to have English books, I should hide them in a room and keep the Burmese books outside.
Q: The government didn’t want you to lend English-language books?
A: Because they couldn’t manage those books, so they didn’t want to take the risk.
Q: Did many other libraries also pretend to be bookstores?
A: At that time, there weren’t many libraries yet [besides government-owned libraries], especially in townships. Most libraries were attached to monasteries, but there weren’t many libraries like mine—outside, renting a room and operating like that, although now there are a lot.
After [opening the library] I asked people at the Ministry of Information what I should do to have a library. I kept talking with them, and after a year, I still didn’t have a license. But I was lucky—one day the Information Ministry called me and said I could submit my application, they would allow me to register as a library. I went to their office, I couldn’t believe it, and I asked what made them change their minds. They said the [ministry’s] director general had visited my library—I didn’t know—and he was in the English room as well. You know who he is now? He’s the presidential spokesman, Ye Htut. He was director general at that time. He visited my library without telling anyone, but I never saw him, I never knew. I had a chance to talk with him three months ago, and I asked how he heard about me. One of his kids attended English class upstairs and told him my library was good, so he decided to visit and saw I was very systematic with my stuff. He asked [the ministry] if the library was registered and they said I had a problem, so he decided to issue a library registration. At the time, the information minister was strict, so I was thankful for what he did with his authority. My journey was quite lucky.
Q: Is it easier to start libraries now, under the new government?
A: Yes, I’m sure it is easy to register, very easy right now.
Q: You went to a university in the United States. When did you get back to Rangoon?
A: In 2008, May, just before Nargis. That was part of my inspiration, or one reason why I wanted to make the library. Because I could see and feel that we had been destroyed, that we were unprepared, because we lacked knowledge. And I saw a lot of things I shouldn’t see—the mindset of people was upsetting. People would get on a boat, and the boatman would try to steal their stuff; people were exploiting each other, even though we were in troubled times. That’s because we lacked ethics, knowledge. So I felt we should do something to help give knowledge. I know I’m not going to fulfill the whole country’s needs, but who knows, maybe we’ll get more people to join our cause.
Q: What is a mobile library and why did you create them?
A: I call them mobile libraries because my books were moving. I chose to open my libraries at religious centers so I wouldn’t lose books, and also because the religious leaders like monks and bishops knew the local people better than we did. I started talking with the religious leaders, asking if we could come put our books in their corner. Right now I have four mobile libraries—two in Thanlyin, one in Shwepyitha and another in Insein [townships].
Q: How is Burma’s reading culture changing now that the censorship board has been disbanded?
A: Censorship is gone, but even so, with literature, not many good books are coming out. Books that weren’t allowed under the military government are being reprinted, that’s it. … Censorship is gone so people can write more, but all the books are about politics. Most books are about the past experience of political prisoners, how they spent their lives in jail, how they were arrested. This is good to know, but doesn’t give much knowledge to improve your life. Maybe if they could try to explain why they decided to devote their lives to their country, I think that would be better.
Q: Was fiction more popular before?
A: I’ll say yes, but before we focused on jokes, like funny stories, because daily life was very difficult and nobody wanted to read heavy stuff when they were trying to relax. That’s understandable. And the military government affected the reading culture by systematically destroying critical thinking skills and ethics. I think the country will improve, but right now most libraries are struggling, including mine, because we need to promote reading. We’re trying but it’s very hard.
Have you seen the book corners near the train stations? They’re supported by the Ministry of Information, because in Myanmar [Burma] you don’t have train schedules, you just have to wait, so the idea is to promote reading while you’re waiting. The books are free. Tharapa Library is cooperating with this effort, but we’re running into budget problems. The government doesn’t want people to keep the books, so normally they assign two of their staff to a book corner—right now there are 77 book corners around the country. Two people at 77 book corners is a lot of officials. Also there are budget issues: One book corner costs 70,000 kyats ($75) per month.
Q: Are certain Western authors really popular here?
A: Among Burmese students who study internationally, Agatha Christie is a favorite. They also like the Twilight series and teen magazines. Students from government schools, like myself, often prefer older books like Sherlock Holmes.
Q: In Burma’s government-run schools, are there literature classes?
A: In government schools, no. The teachers focus on science, math, biology, chemistry. I went to State High School No. 1 Dagon, one of the good schools in Myanmar, and even though we had a lot of funding with a big computer room, we didn’t have a library. Well, we had a library, but it was only filled with old journals and computer magazines that nobody read. The government is giving funds for libraries, that’s for sure, but the libraries aren’t getting better. The library at my old school, it’s the same now as it was when I was in second grade.
Q: How does the reading culture in Burma compare to reading culture the United States?
A: In Myanmar, I think we have a more active reading culture. Many places here are not developed yet—even if you drive two hours from Yangon [Rangoon], you will reach a place where there’s no electricity, so in those places the only outlet people have is books. But, as I said, they like to read humor books. But the reading culture in Myanmar is really promising. Reading habits are better [here than in the States], and people give high respect to writers. People go listen to their favorite writers give literary talks.