Dr. Ma Thida has served as a dissident author, editor, publisher, physician, political aide and activist—often at the same time. It is well known that she spent nearly six years in prison in the 1990s for “distributing unlawful literature”—among other charges—as an active member of Burma’s student-led democracy movement in 1988. In prison, she suffered a myriad of health issues, including tuberculosis. Her release on humanitarian grounds was not in small part due to international pressure from organizations like PEN International, of which she is now a board member.
During an October trip to the US, Ma Thida shared with The Irrawaddy her observations of society in present day Burma, particularly what she sees as an increase in aggression, rooted in fear. Overcoming this, she says, means confronting the country’s “real wrongdoers”—those who have perpetuated a system of physical, structural and cultural violence for generations.
Could you give us an overview of the different roles you hold today?
I am the elected president of PEN Myanmar, and an elected member of PEN International—a board member at large, as they say. But I think I won’t be able to hold both of these titles at the same time in the long run. Coming in December there will be elections for PEN Myanmar—we have three-year terms—and I won’t join the elections again. I will help them.
I’m [also] the editor in charge of the Info Digest journal. It’s database journalism—a bi-weekly journal, just by subscription. We are not interested in sentimental or sensational pieces; we are just interested in defending the people’s right to know.
And I’m still a general practitioner, practicing family medicine. Every time I have a chance to meet my patients, this is such a privilege. I started volunteering at the Free Funeral Service clinic [in Rangoon] ten years ago. Even though I travel a lot, I try to be there once a week. I still have some regular patients. For me, health is pure politics. It’s related to everything.
In the past, you have said that your primary political aspiration was to “be a good citizen.” What does that mean for you at this point in your life?
I still want to be a better citizen. But right now, my decision is to get more involved with PEN International. It’s not my own personal achievement, but throughout history, I think none of the Myanmar writers have had this kind of decision-making role in an international institution. I try to be a good citizen on behalf of my country. It’s something that shows we are not isolated anymore. That’s the message I really want to pass on: even as just an ordinary citizen, you can do something.
You once served as an aide to Aung San Suu Kyi. In your book Sunflower [written in 1992 and published seven years later], you described her as a “prisoner of applause,” due to the high expectations placed on her by the public. Now, more than six months into her government term, how would you assess her and the NLD administration’s performance?
I have only one question for her: are you still free from fear? In the position of a leader, she might not have that much to fear. But as a responsible State Counselor, she might have so many fears—not to insult the citizens, not to disappoint any groups. I can empathize. I really wonder how she handles this kind of fear—it’s not the same fears she mentioned in her  book Freedom from Fear, but there might be different ones. That’s why I really want to know about her fight against fear right now.
Do you think she is giving in to her fears?
It’s hard to say. That’s why I wonder—I wonder whether our current situation is related to fear or not.
Fear was also a theme of your talk on a panel at Northern Illinois University’s Burma Studies Conference, in which you said, “fear makes people fierce.” How have you seen this phenomenon manifested in present day Burma?
There is a short story by a well-known writer that [I heard him] share at a literary talk. At that time, [the country] was still [under] Thein Sein’s government, and he said that this was a story that could give a “bold punch” to the government. It’s about a clerk, Mr. B, who is the lowest member of staff at a company. And the manager is very arrogant, a pretty bad guy—Mr. A. A lot of the other employees gossip about Mr. A, but Mr. B, the clerk, never joins. He would simply accept Mr. A’s bad manners. And then, after the work hours, he went to [Rangoon’s] Pansodan Bridge to the manicurists and pedicurists on the street, as a customer. In our culture, taking care of someone else’s feet is the lowest thing. So now, someone is taking care of him, and Mr. B is becoming like a boss. After he gives the pedicurist the money, he says to him, “bye bye, Mr. A.”
[Making someone called Mr. A touch his feet] is like his own revenge. That’s why I say it’s so fierce. The people always have in mind a kind of revenge, even though they know it’s harmful. He was so polite to the manager, Mr. A, because of his fear. He still has a spirit of revenge, but he cannot do anything about it, because he knows he would be in danger. So he carries out his revenge on another Mr. A, who cannot retaliate against him.
People love this story as a “punch” to the cronies, to the government, but for me it’s not; I was so shocked by it. That’s why I feel that fear makes people fierce. They really don’t use their wisdom or their sense of reasoning. How do they let out their revenge? It reflects our society’s handling and management of fear. Through this story, I learned more about people’s psychology.
Who are people in Burma taking out their revenge on?
I think it applies to the sectarian violence, or racial and religious violence. The whole population was deeply rooted in fear. They have a high spirit of revenge, and are looking for someone who cannot retaliate. And they found the minority. That’s why I say fear makes people fierce.
How do you think people should address their fears?
People say, now we have more problems. I say no, the problems are more or less the same as in the past. What we now have is more awareness and more admittance. In the past, we didn’t admit we had problems—we just pretended we had no problems. Now we dare to admit the problems. Why should we keep the politeness, pretending like the clerk, Mr. B? Instead of this unwilling politeness, why don’t we directly face the real wrongdoers, and speak with courage?
Who would you like to face directly in this way?
There are so many people. I have called for an official public apology [to former political prisoners]. Without an apology, even if we are ready to practice our right to forgive, it cannot be fulfilled. On the other hand, only the guilty people do repeated wrongdoings. I want them to liberate themselves from their guilt by apologizing. It is not only for our sake, but for their sake. Some people might say they are naïve, that they don’t know whether they are guilty or not, but I don’t believe that. I think it would be good for them, to be let out from their guilt.
Who in Burma do you think deserves to receive an official apology?
The general population—generation by generation. We deserve it. Some people got arrested or lost their family members, but not only them—ordinary people, too. They have been under structural violence, even if it is not physical violence. Cultural and structural violence has been done to the whole population.
But is an apology enough?
Indeed not. But an apology can shake the hearts of the people, and reduce the tension and the spirit of revenge. Then it’s better to apply it legitimately, or legally. An apology is the first step.
Now there is much talk in Burma of “national reconciliation.” What do you make of this concept—what does it mean to you?
Without acknowledging or admitting wrongdoing, national reconciliation discussions for the future are not a healthy way to sustain peace.
You became a writer originally to share your observations about poverty. What observations do you feel compelled to share now?
Not the physical poverty, but the lack of knowledge, lack of wisdom. It’s a serious problem. That’s why [advocating for] the freedom of expression is at the top of my activities. I believe that even if you are rich or have a position of power, if you don’t have enough knowledge, you are powerless. I really want to encourage the whole population to become powerful with knowledge. Without powerful, voluntary, responsible participation of the people, how can we make a change?
What kind of knowledge is needed?
Knowledge about the systems, about where we are heading—knowledge about their ability or capacity. Until and unless they feel they are the ones who feel they can make a contribution to change the society, they will still be powerless.
I used to ask at my talks, who is the most important person in the country? And [people] would say, Aung San Suu Kyi, U Htin Kyaw. I said, look in the mirror: you are the most important one. Every one of us should acknowledge that. If you feel you are important, you are going to make an effort. Otherwise, you’ll just wait for others to do things for you. I want them to feel like they are the most important person in our country—every single one.
You’ve said that the issue of freedom of expression hasn’t been discussed enough in Burma. What would you like to see being done in this regard?
When we look at freedom of expression, it is not just about individual rights. It’s about collective rights. Until and unless we can defend other people’s rights to practice their freedom of expression, we will have no freedom of expression. We need to look at four levels: constitutional, legal, institutional and personal levels.
Why have you taken a more collective approach to this issue?
Even though you believe you can practice your freedom of expression, constitutionally, you are at risk. And legally, you are also committing a crime. Institutionally, you cannot be part of the society, because you are just practicing it on your own. When we look at freedom of expression at an individual level, we include minority language rights. So if we say, ‘we have so many different periodicals now,’ and ‘oh, there is no censorship’—for a non-Burmese-speaking person, what does it mean? There is no press freedom for them.
Alongside the protection of free expression, you’ve also highlighted a need for greater media literacy among the public. Can you explain more about this?
Many people cannot differentiate between information processed by media and by primary data sources. That’s why people cannot decide what information is reliable, and what information either processed or biased. Media ownership also has a big influence on our censorship—self-censorship, peer censorship is also related to media ownership. People don’t really know which media is representing what.
What would you still like to accomplish, that you have not done yet?
I would like to finish a novel. I already have a title and the design, but I haven’t had enough time to do research and writing. It’s about a town: the protagonist itself is a town.
Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps Through Insein is Ma Thida’s most recent book, a memoir of her years as an activist and political prisoner. It was originally published in Burmese in 2012, under the title Sanchaung, Insein, Harvard and was translated into English in 2016. It was reviewed in The Irrawaddy in September.