RANGOON—During an interrogation session at Rangoon’s Insein Prison in 1995, a military intelligence officer asked a 29-year-old woman sitting in front of him what her political aspirations were.
“To be a good citizen,” a weakened and pale-looking Ma Thida answered without hesitation. She had just fallen seriously ill in the infamous prison, where she was being held for her political activism.
Nearly two decades later, the Burmese writer and former prisoner of conscience said she remains concerned about politics for the same reason: because she wants to be a responsible and active citizen. For Ma Thida this means that one should be aware of what is happening in Burma and help tackle its numerous problems.
“I want to prove I have the ability to work for my country as a citizen. There are many things to do,” she said during an interview with The Irrawaddy. “It may not fit into other people’s definition of politics. But in Burma, everything is politics—environment, education, health, and so on.”
Ma Thida leads a busy life that covers these different spheres of work. She has a job as an editor at a monthly youth magazine and a weekly newspaper, while also volunteering as a general practitioner at a charity clinic (besides being a well-respected writer, she is also a trained physician). But in Burma she is perhaps best known as a leading intellectual, whose books deal with the country’s difficult political situation.
At 46 years of age, she has published nine books in Burmese and English, including two fictional works of and a prison memoir. Her latest English-language book, “The Roadmap,” a fictional story based on events in Burmese politics from 1988 to 2009, was released last year. From 2008 to 2009 she lived in the US as an International Writers Project Fellow at Brown University and a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University.
Ma Thida studied medicine in the early 1980s and also took up writing at a young age, quickly gaining a reputation as a talented and progressive young writer. “I wanted to become a writer because I want to share what I observe around me, like poverty,” she said, adding her interest in health care developed after falling ill as a child.
Although her writing talents were recognized early on, she had to work hard to achieve success, recalled Myo Myint Nyein, a former editor at Pe Pu Hlwa magazine, where Ma Thida first honed her literary skills almost 30 years ago.
“She was very persevering. If we said: ‘Sorry, we can’t use the story you sent,’ she was always ready to give us a new one,” he said.
Soon after her writing career took off she became involved in Burma’s turbulent politics, taking up a job as a campaign assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi during the 1990 general election. The NLD won the election but its results were canceled by the military regime.
This association with the NLD leader resulted in her first book, “The Sunflower” (which only appeared in Burma 1999 as it was banned upon release in the early 1990s). The book argues that the Burmese people have towering expectations of Suu Kyi that made the democracy icon “a prisoner of applause.”
This concern is still relevant in today’s politics, according to Ma Thida. “I see no way for someone to shoulder the burden of so many people. It’s very unfair,” she said. “Asking and waiting for her leadership alone doesn’t make sense. People should cooperate and do what they can for their country by themselves.”
Still, she is hopeful for Burma’s future. “We now see the flickers of light at the end of the tunnel, but we still need transparency everywhere,” she said.
Two decades ago, her political writing made her a target for the oppressive regime and in 1993 she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for unlawful association and distribution of “unlawful literature.”
She spent six years locked up in terrible conditions, suffering from various health ailments for which she was denied medical care (at one stage, she experienced a six-month spell of fever after contracting tuberculosis). During this time, she was awarded several international human rights awards, including the PEN/ Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
“Were it not for vipassana [Buddhist meditation], I would not have overcome the untold hardships I faced in prison,” said Ma Thida, adding that meditation helped her during long periods of solitary confinement and continues to be important in her life.
Ma Thida graduated as a general practitioner in 1993 and was about to study abroad to become a surgeon when she was arrested. “Being a qualified surgeon was my dream, but it didn’t happen,” she said. Yet, she holds no grudge towards the regime as her prison experience taught her much about life and helped her writing—and through it the plight of the Burmese people—gain recognition.
“If I hadn’t been arrested, some of my ambitions would not have been realized,” she said, adding that the mix of work she now does is satisfying. “As a doctor I do scientific work, but as a writer and editor I do an artist’s work. I feel I’m useful to the Burmese people by using two different professional skills.”
Despite her various achievements, the tireless writer and health worker said she still has dreams left, such as founding a free hospital boat to help communities along the Irrawaddy River, or setting up a publishing house for critical academic papers.
“I’m still thinking about how to make these [goals] come true. I’m ready to work with anyone or any organization that shares my interests,” she said.