In August, 1993 in Myanmar, (Burma), Ma Thida, a 27-year old medical doctor and short story writer was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison, charged with “endangering public tranquility, of having contact with unlawful associations, and distributing unlawful literature.” She had been an assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi and traveled with Suu Kyi during her political campaign.
In September that same year at the International PEN Congress in Spain, I stepped into the Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. One of the early main cases that came across my desk was that of Ma Thida.
Last week in Providence, Rhode Island Ma Thida and I shared a stage with others at Brown University in a program: There Will Still Be Light: a Freedom to Write Literary Festival focused on the situation in Burma today as well as the situation for the freedom of writers around the world. For the past year Thida has been at Brown as a fellow of the International Writers Project (a joint appointment of the Writing Program and the Watson Institute for International Studies) which gives a writer under stress a year to work and to share their work and cultural heritage.
Thida and I had met before in London soon after she was released from prison– five years, six months and six days, mostly in solitary confinement–after writers around the world had protested and written letters on her behalf as had those in other human rights organizations. No one knows for certain what levers prompt a government to release an individual so no organization can ever claim the success, but it is clear that pressure from many sources, voices from around the globe, individuals in countries on every continent caring and imagining the fate of their colleagues and acting on that does contribute.
It is a thrill and one feels deep humility when actually meeting the person who has endured, and who, up until that point, has only been represented by words on paper. In Thida’s case as I searched old files, I found fading words on fading fax paper, verses of her poems and parts of stories clandestinely translated and smuggled out by a British official, who was also at the literary festival last week.
Earlier this week another writer Liu Xiaobo, who is under house arrest in China, was honored by PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Award. Liu Xiaobo is one of the drafters of the Charter 08 manifesto which urges democratic reform in China. He is a well-respected literary critic and writer and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. A worldwide campaign for his release is ongoing. One hopes for the day when we might also meet Liu in person. Right now he can be seen and read and heard–no longer on fading fax paper–but on the internet and on You Tube.
The technology of the globe has changed considerably since Ma Thida was imprisoned, but thought has not progressed as rapidly. Recently I was in a meeting in Washington on Capitol Hill relating to human rights and an individual said, “I can’t be worried about a few poets in prison.” The statement wasn’t meant to be callous; the speaker was aware of the complexity of problems in places like Burma and China and of the competing policy needs. The view, which was perhaps intended to sound practical and experienced, is at best short-sighted and at worst dangerous.
As policy is being crafted to try to assist in opening up Burma and China, to increase the space for freedom, to end the abuses of torture and long term imprisonments, as questions of sanctions versus trade, engagement vs. isolation, questions of real politic are debated, let us not forget the poets–and the short story writers, the novelists, the critics, and the journalists–who are on the front line of ideas and therefore often imprisoned. They are among the citizens who will do the opening up in these countries; they are the citizens who live there.
Supporting voices of citizens around the world can help, but it is “the few poets in prison” who will be among those who prepare the lamp and light it and carry it on.
* if the moon does not shine
and the twinkles of the stars are faint
the lamp will be prepared
at the entrance to the house
there will still be light
— from “The Road is Not Lost” by Burmese poet U Tin Moe (1933-2007), imprisoned in Burma from 1991-1995