In Shwedagon’s Shadow, Free Newspapers Shed Light

By Lawi Weng 22 May 2013

After evening prayers at Shwedagon Pagoda, some elderly Buddhists descend from the temple’s eastern gate and settle into chairs before an array of free newspaper offerings that await their perusal.

It’s a peaceful scene, and quiet, at a reading nook where some will spend hours reading newspapers, one after another. There is no shortage of variety to the publications available at the library, whose organizers call it “Twilight Reading.”

The library opened about one-and-half months ago. It is open from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. each night, according to an officer who helps manage the free service. Readers can choose from a newspaper archive with some editions dating back to 2012. The bulk of the selection, understandably, brings more current news to readers’ fingertips.

A small pool filled with fish adds ambience to the library, which sits in the shadow of Rangoon’s most famous landmark.

With a bus station nearby, some of the library’s patrons are travelers who find its newspaper offerings a pleasant way to pass the time as they wait for buses bound for destinations near and far.

With political reforms in Burma unleashing a long-suppressed media environment, press freedom has brought with it a multitude of new journals and newspapers. Twilight Reading makes that newfound freedom literally free for the community.

“This is the first time that we’ve opened a free service for readers who love to read newspapers,” said Nyunt Wai, who is one of those in charge of the library.

The library’s founder is Thein Aung, a 60-year-old trustee of Shwedagon Pagoda, who began by bringing to the pagoda stacks of journals and newspapers that he had collected at his home. He has continued to buy newspapers daily, while Rangoon residents have donated other news publications to supplement the collection.

Thein Aung opened Twilight Reading for those visiting Shwedagon Pagoda and others who simply love to read or want to stay informed.

“It depends on the weather,” Nyunt Wai said when asked about typical attendance at the library, adding that at least 15 people every evening will spend time catching up on the news at Twilight Reading. “When the weather is good, a lot of readers come here.”

He said most readers were older people, Buddhist monks among them, with only a few younger patrons.

“I feel very happy when I look at the people reading. I hope that more people come in the future after they find out about it,” Nyunt Wai said.

Thuang Han is a 50-year-old mainstay at the library.

“I come here every day,” he said. “I go to pray at Shwedagon Pagoda first, then I come to read here. There are a lot of newspapers in here. We can get a lot of general knowledge as it has many different types of newspapers.”

He said the service provided by Twilight Reading was particularly beneficial to those in Rangoon who could not afford to buy newspapers.

“Those who read a lot of books are like people who are in the light, and those who do not read anything stay at the dark,” Thuang Han said.

“Without reading these newspapers, we may not know about the situation in Syria, the Boston bombing or Iraq. It is especially good to know about the case of Letpadaung [a controversial copper mine in Sagaing Region] in our country.”

For Htin Lin Aung, a younger but equally dedicated reader, Twilight Reading has given him an opportunity that was previously out of reach.

“I could not afford to buy every newspaper,” he explained. “I come to read here because it has different newspapers.

“I find that a lot of people visit the library during the weekends. … After praying at the pagoda, I come down to here.”

Htin Lin Aung said he was drawn to the many interesting newspapers and journals available.

“I spend two hours every day reading here,” he said.