Burmese Bards to Boycott Literary Festival

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 14 January 2014

RANGOON — More than 50 Burmese poets are planning to boycott an international literary festival in Mandalay next month, apparently objecting to the inclusion of government-linked artists in the event.

The poets, who released a statement Sunday declaring their plan, are joined by about 30 cartoonists, who similarly say they will steer clear of the high-profile Irrawaddy Literary Festival 2014.

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is the patron of the festival, which runs from Feb 14-16 and will feature world-renowned authors including Louis de Bernières (author of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”) and Jung Chang (author of “Wild Swans”).

The planned boycotts appear to be related to a longstanding divide between those in the literary community who have worked with Burma’s military dominated governments, and those who have insisted upon independence from the country’s rulers.

In their statement, the group of Mandalay-based poets said they were not happy about “manipulation” in the organization of the event, without giving specific details about the allegation.

“We have publicly announced that we Mandalay poets feel we don’t need to join the festival, so we won’t read poetry during the festival or participate in any part of the festival,” said Ko Htet (Ye Oo), one of the boycotting poets.

Cartoonist Aung Maw told The Irrawaddy that he and about 30 fellow cartoonists in Mandalay had also decided not to join the festival after they learned that several prominent writers who they respect left the festival’s organizing committee amid disputes over fundraising and the selection of participants.

Aung Maw said the organizers had originally agreed donations would not be solicited from the public to fund the festival, but later decided to collect funds for “entertainment” during the event.

“We learned that they were asking for donations. We can’t accept it,” he said.

Thike Tun Thet, a prominent writer in Mandalay, told The Irrawaddy that he quit the organizing committee because he disagrees with what the committee is doing.

“I think we can’t work together wholeheartedly for the festival,” he said, without being specific. He added that other prominent writers Kyaw Yin Myint, Dr Aung Gyi and Hus Nget had also left the committee.

Ma Ma Naing, a leading organizer of the festival, told The Irrawaddy that the writers were not pleased with her because she had invited writers from government-linked writers’ associations to appear at the festival.

“I did it because [the festival’s] organizer and director, Jane Heyn, told me that she wants as many writers as possible as she welcomes every Burmese writer who would like to take part,” she explained.
“They [the disgruntled Mandalay writers] have never had a healthy relationship with writers from writers’ associations.”

According to a Mandalay-based writer, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, many writers in Mandalay are not impressed with those from writers’ associations as they write for government-related publications and produce work considered propaganda.

When the late dictator Ne Win was in power, he founded a literary association known as “Literary Workers” for propaganda work. His successor military government inherited the association, but with a different name—the “Literary and Periodicals Association.”

Now, President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government has its own equivalent, the “Myanmar Writers’ Association.”

“It has happened since long time ago,” the writer said. “We have two different types of artists: ones who stand up for the oppressed and ones who are for the oppressors.

“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.”

Despite the ongoing hiccups, Ma Ma Niang, who is herself a Writers’ Association member, believes the festival will be a huge success.

“Even though there are some people who won’t join the festival, we still have enough artists to make it happen,” she said.

“Make no mistake, people who won’t join the festival will surely be left behind as it is the first ever international festival in Mandalay.”