A Burmese Publisher Turns the Page on an Era of Repression

By Yen Saning 7 April 2015

RANGOON — School was a bust for San Mon Aung, a well-to-do kid growing up in the aftermath of Burma’s 1988 uprising. It was all palm juice, card games and women, he said, not enough to satisfy his intellectual ambitions.

At 17 years old, San Mon Aung dropped out of Thanlyin Government College and stumbled blindly into the world of publishing, a world still stifled by the country’s strict censorship rules and trying economic circumstances.

“I didn’t like the education I was getting,” he told The Irrawaddy during a recent interview at his retail shop in downtown Rangoon. “I read and I just knew I wanted to publish books.”

At the time he knew next to nothing about publishing—or business at all, really. The early years were full of mishaps; for some time he was accruing major losses and authors were often displeased by the quality of his bookmaking. Looking back on it now, he describes the physical quality of first book he published—an anthology of short stories by Burmese writers, including himself—as “embarrassingly bad.”

But what he lacked in experience and industry prowess, he made up for in other ways. “I know who is writing good books,” he said matter-of-factly.

San Mon Aung was also lucky, of course. He came from a rich family, and they supported him throughout the rocky start of what would later turn out to be a successful publishing house called Ngar Doe Sar Pay, which translates to Our Literature. Now with more than a decade of experience, he has published about 150 books, many of which became best-sellers and potential classics of Burmese literature.

Times Have Changed

During the censorship era, San Mon Aung was drawn to creative writing, mostly novels by writers such as Min Luu and Tharyar Min Wai. A writer himself, San Mon Aung has published five of his own fictional works under the pen name Myay Hmone Lwin. His most famous work, “Stone Inscriptions Cannot Be Erased,” was a recollection of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a pivotal moment in Burma’s modern history that was rarely captured in the arts.

There are obvious reasons for that; at the time, freedom of expression was a term that simply didn’t apply in Burma. Shortly after the book was published in 2012, Ngar Doe Sar Pay was temporarily shut down because the censorship board—which would be dismantled later that year—deemed it obscene and liable to provoke unrest. Much of the book’s plot took place around real events of the Saffron Revolution that the government would have preferred to suppress to the general public.

Other offending passages were sexual in nature, describing in an oblique way the rebellious, reckless spirit of some of Burma’s [mostly male] pro-democracy figures. The narrative included scenes of rampant womanizing, which the censorship board and some readers found distasteful. These descriptions were not always explicit, and the board interpreted some passages as social metaphor. This led to speculation that the censors’ harsh response was in reaction to what they viewed as politically subversive material.

One of his peers, however, a well-known blogger named Nay Phone Latt, defended the work. “There is no reason for us to criticize him for this,” he said, remarking that the book’s detractors were mostly elders and perhaps unaccustomed to modern themes. “As young people, we understood.”

After the press scrutiny board was dissolved in August 2012, San Mon Aung enjoyed a bit more freedom. Ngar Doe Sar Pay went on to publish two seminal books reflecting on Burma’s politics: “Saturday Born,” by former Prime Minister U Nu; and “San Chaung, Insein, Harvard,” the autobiography of renowned writer and former political prisoner Ma Thida.

San Mon Aung said that he began publishing those books at a time “when no one dared,” testing the limits of newly promised freedoms when the Burma’s reform process had just begun. Those tests proved successful in many ways, he said. While censorship has eased, however, writers and publishers now face new dilemmas such as predatory laws and preferential subsidies that benefit the government and its affiliates.

But ultimately, those early publications may have broken the ice for other publishers, and the local literary scene is inundated with political writing. So much so, he said, that his company is scaling back on the genre and focusing on broader trends in creative writing. Instead of advancing a political agenda or trying to cleverly skirt barriers installed by an oppressive government, San Mon Aung’s mission is now much simpler.

“I read it and I publish if I like it,” he said of his newly liberated selection process.

The Next Chapter

The future for publishers in Burma may be plagued by the country’s digital makeover, an oversaturated market and the expenses of print production, but San Mon Aung sees potential for certain types of books. He said he now has two priorities: translating foreign literature into Burmese; and reviving both local and foreign accounts of Burma’s past.

He’s also attempting to reel in a younger generation of readers by publishing a series of graphic novels by Canadian artist Guy Delisle, including “Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea” (2003); “Burma Chronicles” (2007); and Jerusalem (2011). A translation of the international bestseller “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared”, by Swedish author Jonas Jonasson, is also in the works.

But his pet project is bringing back books about Burma, so readers can enjoy literature about their home country that was once hard to find. Ngar Doe Sar Pay has begun publishing a special edition of three books from English to Burmese: “From the Land of Green Ghosts” by Pascal Khoo Htwe (2002); “Golden Parasol” by Wendy Law-Yone (2014); and “The King in Exile” by Sudha Sha (2012).

The trilogy covers major historic events including the fall of the Burmese monarchy, a 1962 military coup d’état and the 1988 popular uprising, and was conceived to renew interest in the country’s rich, complex and under-examined history.

After all, he said, despite Burma’s swift embrace of internationalism, “There are still a lot of things we don’t know about our own country.”