Maung Aung Pwint Places Empathy at the Heart of his Work

By Petr Lom & Khin Aung Aye 17 November 2017

Maung Aung Pwint (b. 1945) is from the city of Pathein in the Irrawaddy River Delta.  He lives on a bend in the river, where it sweeps by towards the sea, in a two-story brick house at the edge of town. He and his wife live together with their daughter’s family, who run a stationary store and lending library from the ground floor. The street he lives on was paved last year, one of the visible signs of Myanmar’s new economic boom.  This year, together with a business partner, his wife has been able to save up enough money to buy a taxi.

The many visitors who stop by his house address Maung Aung Pwint as Saya, or teacher. They come to pay respect, read their poetry, and ask advice, sitting at his feet. For he is widely recognized as the most distinguished living dissident poet in the country.

Maung Aung Pwint discovered poetry as a solace to family misfortune:

My mother died in the civil war when I was a child.  I always remember this. In my childhood, there was no more playing and happiness. Fortunately there was a small library in my village. I went there and read books. There were a few magazines where you could read poems. They became my closest and dearest friends. They taught me how to face all the troubles in my life. Poetry taught me how to find strength, peace of mind, how to live.  

As a young man, he gravitated into political activism, as an editor and distributor of an anti-government newspaper, and as a documentary filmmaker documenting minority injustice and forced labor.

I traveled all over the country, including to the ethnic regions. It was so beautiful. The region was not deforested yet.  I even mailed stones from there home. It felt like they were living creatures. But the government army was already on the assault.  Ethnic people were badly tortured. The army used rape as a weapon. I saw these things with my own eyes. I decided to become involved.  Writing poetry was not enough. 

Hi activism led to his arrest and imprisonment on four occasions: 1967-68; 1978-1980; 1997; and 1999-2006, sometimes for charges as absurd as “possession of a fax machine.” With a smile that seems to radiate from his entire being, he quips, “I seem to go to jail every ten years”, and explains:

When we were locked up together, I was the oldest of the lot. All the youth were helpful to me. We’d recite poetry every night and deliver poems to those in other wards who could not hear us. We never stopped learning, collecting poetry and sharing our experiences.  So in a strange way, my time in jail has been worthwhile.

In prison, Maung Aung Pwint wrote one of the most famous poems in the country – “Night of a hot bosom” – after one of his wife’s visits, scribbling it on the whitewashed wall of his cell to calm his desperation.  The poem is about unrequited love for his wife and for the moon he was unable to see from his cell.  He turns over his drinking pot and sees at least the moon’s reflection in the spilled water on his concrete cell floor.

I’d like to gather the moonlight, and pour it into ants’ nests where darkness reigns.

Maung Aung Pwint’s health is fragile, his years of imprisonment have left deep marks.

In 1999, I was interrogated for twenty-five days. They didn’t allow me to sleep. The warden clanged the keys in my cell door-lock every half hour at night. I still can’t stand the sound of keys.

He now suffers from Parkinson’s, and many days he is no longer able to write, instead dictating his poetry to his ever-present wife, Daw Nan Nyunt Shwe.  She says that during his imprisonment:

We felt like invisible ghosts.  People were repulsed or scared by us because of his involvement in politics.  But I have to understand, everyone was afraid.  The key to my survival was never to show I was afraid.  When the police came to search our house, I told them to take their shoes off before they entered. And they did.                                 

To make a living, she sold soup in the market early in the morning before going to work as a schoolteacher.

Imprisonment was not easy on the family. Maung Aung Pwint says:

When I was sent to jail in 1978, it was International Children’s Day. I only learnt about that day when I was already in jail. It was August 6th. We were even playing football that morning.  It was raining, and my son was only three years old.  He was so happy when I dived for the ball. They arrested me in the evening.  August 6th was also the day the Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It was like a bomb was dropped on our house too.  The day I was sentenced, I was at the gate of the jail, and my son came running up towards me. But he was not looking and ended up hugging a guard by mistake.

Maung Aung Pwint named both of his son and daughter “peace” – Nyein Chan.  But this has been elusive for his family.  His son became a rebel soldier in the jungle, ultimately fleeing to Thailand and then resettling as a refugee in Finland.  He only returned to see his family again for the first time in almost twenty years just this past year.

Maung Aung Pwint reflects on his country’s history:

During the military dictatorship and our 66 year-old civil war – the world’s longest – there was so much cruelty and suffering. We empathized with this suffering, and our feelings are reflected in our poems. Now, even religion doesn’t have much place in my mind. Only poetry, empathy, and yearning for peace. That’s enough to lead a life of value.  

 Empathy, above all, is at the heart of his work:

To respect feeling. Feelings are important. The nature of poetry itself is that of empathy. That is why only feelings are important in poetry, not the form or style.

There may be some who care about form first. But without feeling, what else do you have?

 Authors’ Note: These interviews are excerpted from Burma Storybook, a poetry and photography book inspired by the documentary film of the same name, produced by Corinne van Egeraat and directed by Petr Lom. 

The English language hardcover edition of the book is for sale at Hla Day, Innwa Bookstore, Myanmar Book Center and the Strand Hotel.

 A Burmese language-only paperback edition of the book is for sale through Yangon Book Plaza.

There will be a Free Open Air Screening of the Burma Storybook documentary film (82 min.) in Mahabandoola Park in Yangon on November 25 at 6 p.m.From Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, you can visit the interactive Burma Storybook Photo Exhibit at the Tourism Burma Building.

 For more information: www.burmastorybook.com