It is easy to forget that Burma, or Myanmar as it is now called, is a huge country. It is smaller than Turkey but bigger in size than France. It is a country that is home to sixty million people, and the country is unusually rich in natural resources. Despite this it has long been a country closed to the outer world—in this respect somewhat similar to North Korea. To state that an opening up towards democratic reform came suddenly to this nation is both self-evident and a bit of an exaggeration. When Burma—or Myanmar—used to be mentioned in international media it was often in connection with how in Aung San Sun Kyi’s days the political opposition was being harassed, or how she herself was sentenced to yet another period of house arrest. There has always been a democratic movement surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi, one that can count its beginnings back to 1988 to the student demonstrations that were brutally suppressed by the military regime. Since then, in the quiet, there has been a resilient and persistent opposition movement at work.
How might this new opening up towards democratic rule be understood? In a highly interesting text here on PEN/Opp, James Byrne, an expert on Burma, writes about how the growing Chinese economy is making an imprint on the whole region, and that this economic superpower in the East is inspiring counter-reactions even from staunchly unwilling and authoritarian regimes. It would of course be an extremely happy outcome if merely economic growth in the region were to automatically result in the development of democratic movements—reality though is not quite that simple.
The economic dynamics in the region are undoubtedly inspiring change in several of China’s small neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, however, in Vietnam repression instead seems to be escalating. The same can be said about Cambodia, and Thailand too is experiencing political unrest. In Myanmar though in 2015 there will be free elections that will strive to live up to the United Nation’s definition of democratic elections, and a possible outcome may see Aung San Suu Kyi elected president. On the down-side, however, the retreat of the military regime has revealed other problems that we recognise from other parts of the world where the fall of authoritarian rule allows for the uncovering of old issues. For example, in Myanmar an ethical conflict has gained momentum—a conflict in which the country’s Muslim minority, the Rohingyas, are subjected to a growing, harsh persecution. At this sensitive time when much is still being formed, such a build up of violence of course threatens the newfound freedom of expression. In this regard none of the newly revived political movements in the country have managed to indicate any way forward.
Due to the newly revived public arena that is tentatively searching its bearings, it is now possible for us outsiders to gain more insight into current events. In this issue of PEN/Opp we are reminded that this public arena has its history too. In a gripping text, Bo Bo Lansin describes how his grandparents—especially his grandfather—worked hard to keep the oppositional newspaper Ludu alive during the years of suppression.
Moreover, medical doctor, author, and civil rights activist Ma Thida describes a situation we sadly know all too well from other parts of the globe: the on-going and seemingly perpetual fight to maintain human dignity within political prisons world-wide from Robben Island to the Siberian prison camps. What she describes could very well be taken from the Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye’s and Johan Persson’s narrative about the time they spent in the Kality Prison in Ethiopia.
If courage and degradation are similar around the world, then so is the determination to gain freedom of expression and thought. Today Ma Thida is free, and she is currently the Chairperson of PEN Myanmar that began to operate as late as 2013. Step by step the newly found freedom of speech and freedom of the press is being tested by the introduction of new newspapers, new magazines, and by the organization of new publishing systems. These voices from within the recently secluded country are the voices we want to hear. That is why we are dedicating this issue of PEN/Opp specifically to Myanmar.