RANGOON, BURMA— International writers travelled to Rangoon in recent days for Burma’s first international literature festival. The three-day Irrawaddy Literary Festival marked the first open exchange of ideas between local and foreign writers in Burma after decades of publishing restrictions and government censorship.
Two years ago it would have seemed like fantasy to imagine Aung San Suu Kyi and internationally acclaimed writers Vikram Seth and Jung Chang sitting around a table in Rangoon, talking about what books they would take to a desert island.
It’s only recently that foreign writers and exile Burmese have been allowed into the country, according to festival organizer Jane Heyn.
“The visa issue. It was then, and even in some cases has been for this festival, quite difficult for participants, some of them to obtain a visa,” said Heyn.
The festival hosted some 150 local and foreign writers who discussed formerly taboo topics - more evidence of how Burma’s political change is affecting culture and the arts.
Formerly blacklisted Burmese author Pascal Khoo Thwe, whose book From the Land of Green Ghosts was banned, is back home after more than 20 years in exile. He said this is the kind of event he has always fantasized about.
“It ought to inspire young people to write I think. They do read a lot as far as I know, but they haven’t got the confidence to write,” said Khoo Thwe.
He said literature and the arts are critical to what he called normalization after decades of military rule.
Government restrictions once made new books a rare treasure, leaving libraries and schools without books and learning materials.
Thant Thaw Kaung founded the Myanmar Book Center, which has imported English books since 1995. Import licenses and censorship once plagued his business, but he said he now looks forward to making education materials more available to Burmese people.
“We are doing a book buffet here. That’s one of our events. It’s a charity book fair, we are raising funds, and after we get the funds we buy back the Myanmar [Burma] language books and donate to these village libraries.”
Festival organizers hope the event will be annual - should the government remain open - putting Burmese literature back on the map.