Leading writer and human rights activist Ma Thida recently became the first president of Myanmar’s branch of PEN International, a global association of writers and editors that promotes free expression. Established last autumn, PEN Myanmar aims to revamp the local literary scene, currently dominated by lecture-style book talks.
The 47-year-old Ma Thida, who is also a trained surgeon and former political prisoner, spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Samantha Michaels about her work with PEN Myanmar, while also sharing her thoughts on the country’s opening media sector and explaining how meditation helped her survive prison.
Question: Fiction writers and journalists have more freedom today than they did under the former junta. What are some of the biggest remaining challenges?
Answer: For fiction writers, there’s self-censorship. For nearly five decades, they only thought about how to bypass censorship. And now, even when they get a chance, they forget to touch on current issues, such as land conflicts, in their writing. It’s an intellectual inertia—our thinking has been changed by censorship. For journalists, there’s a lack of training. Some reporters are struggling, even though they are so enthusiastic.
Q: As president of PEN Myanmar, what are your main activities?
A: We aim to protect free expression, to establish a new literary culture and to promote aesthetic literature in schools. Literary talks here are like one-way lectures, so we are holding interactive writing workshops with local writers and readers. We want the community to participate, so we say, just grab a book and read out loud any part, or a poem or short story or essay, and based on that, we have a discussion. We are also organizing a peace writing contest, calling for poems and short stories in Myanmar language or any ethnic language, to be published into a book. Another project is the conflict sensitive media monitoring project—we are making a report based on our research regarding civil war, ethnic conflicts and hate speech.
Q: Earlier this year you were blocked from speaking at a literary event because you once volunteered for the Muslim Free Hospital in Yangon. Has your association with this hospital ever been a problem for you in the past?
A: I don’t think so. And I was quite happy with my involvement in the Muslim Free Hospital. Throughout history, a lot of political prisoners and their family members couldn’t go to state-owned hospitals, so they relied on the Muslim Free Hospital. I am not a Muslim, but this was where I could best help the needy and my political prisoner friends and their family members.
Q: As editor of the ECHO news journal, you focus on politics, civil society issues and ethnic issues. Do you think there’s enough coverage of ethnic minority issues in Myanmar?
A: It’s under covered. A lot of the reporters and editors lack background knowledge, so they may try to cover it but they are not very effective. I encourage regional papers to run by themselves, but they also lack skills. The language barrier is a problem, and the education in their states is not very good.
Q: The government has proposed a controversial Public Service Media Bill which would turn state-owned newspapers into “public service media” that would, in part, cover ethnic issues. Is this a good idea?
A: Throughout history we have already been reading their public service newspapers, and I have never seen any brilliant coverage of ethnic issues, or any issue for the matter. As an example, when Minister U Ohn Myint made some very bad speeches to the local people, every independent journal wrote about it. At the time, if I ran the government newspaper, to serve the public I might have interviewed the minister and asked why he made this speech. But instead, they printed all the good things about him, like propaganda about how he works so hard. According to this example, how can we believe this public service media can serve the public? Why should we spend our tax money on this kind of paper?
Q: What social work are you doing now? I heard you had plans once to open a school in the countryside?
A: I volunteer at the clinic of the Free Funeral Service Society once a week. And I did have a dream to create a big compound—it wouldn’t be a school, but inside there would be a free clinic, or a free hospital, and also a nonprofit publication to publish research papers. And an orphanage. Families would work for the clinic or the publication and could host the orphans. There would be a family atmosphere.
Q: What are your latest writing projects?
A: I’m translating a memoir by Suad Amiry, a Palestinian engineer and writer, about her experience as a migrant worker traveling to Israel. The title is “Nothing to Lose but Your Life.” I’m also trying to edit an English version of my own prison memoir, which was published in Myanmar language in 2012.
Q: In your memoir, you describe how you meditated sometimes up to 20 hours per day in prison. Are you still practicing meditation today?
A: I don’t keep aside a particular time of day to meditate, but I meditate off and on, especially when extreme emotions come to me, to keep myself calm. Sometimes, more than sometimes, I regret not having enough time to meditate these days. … I was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and I used to wonder, who can release me? It truly was not me—for this, I needed to rely on others, the authorities. Since I was young, I wanted to be independent, I wanted to rely on myself. I thought, if I want to escape the vicious cycle of samsara [the Buddhist cycle of birth and rebirth, which involves suffering], who can do that? For this, I didn’t need to ask anything of the jail authorities. I could be released from the vicious cycle if I did meditation.
This interview first appeared in the July 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.