New Translation Recalls Prison and Politics under Burma’s Junta

By San Yamin Aung 22 February 2016

RANGOON — Under decades of repressive military dictatorship in Burma, thousands were jailed for their political activities, including student leaders, politicians, monks, artists and others.

Many of the stories of their time spent behind bars have gone unheard.

“The Lizard Cage,” a novel newly translated into Burmese, offers a window onto the travails of the country’s prisoners of conscience.

The award-winning Canadian author, Karen Connelly, visited Burma in the 1990s and over the years interviewed several former political prisoners inside the country and along the Thai-Burma border.

She was eventually banned from entering Burma under the military regime but “The Lizard Cage,” her debut novel, was published in 2005.

The book tells the story of a Burmese student leader who was jailed for more than twenty years and held in solitary confinement in the notorious Insein Prison for penning protest songs that were used in pro-democracy movements. He lost contact with his brother who fled from the country to the Thai border following the nationwide pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

The book won the UK’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers in 2007, was shortlisted for the US Kiriyama Prize for Fiction in 2006 and listed for the Impac Dublin Award the same year. It has already been translated into several languages.

“My original book was banned here for a few years,” Connelly writes in the preface to the new edition. “I once imagined that my book would be translated and published here one day… But I couldn’t have said whether it would be published legally.”

Connelly attended the launch of the Burmese translation in Rangoon on Friday, alongside former political prisoners including The Irrawaddy’s English edition editor Kyaw Zwa Moe, National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker Nay Phone Latt, and PEN Myanmar chairperson Ma Thida.

During the event at Pansodan Scene gallery in downtown Rangoon, Connelly told the audience she was glad that the new Burmese translation could bring this recent history to life.

“Prisons were a kind of life-learning classroom [under the previous junta]. We can’t exclude the experience from Burma’s politics or from history,” said Kyaw Zwa Moe, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a 19-year-old for his role in student-led protests.

“We were banned from writing and reading. But we tried to learn there. If you can come out of prison mentally healthy and physically strong despite physical and mental torture and the terrible conditions, you passed the examination.”

San Mon Aung of Our Literature Publishing House told The Irrawaddy the organization decided to publish the Burmese edition to let readers know the hardships political prisoners endured under the previous military regime.

The book hits stores this week and is 4,000 kyat.