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Exile is a temporary state of mind for Burmese writer Ma Thida

Now based in Berlin, Burmese writer Ma Thida, pictured here on Feb. 25, 2024, published her latest book in May about Myanmar's struggle for democracy. (Liam Scott/VOA)
Now based in Berlin, Burmese writer Ma Thida, pictured here on Feb. 25, 2024, published her latest book in May about Myanmar's struggle for democracy. (Liam Scott/VOA)

Burmese writer Ma Thida doesn’t like to think of herself as exiled.

She left Myanmar in 2021, just a few months after the military seized power in a coup that overthrew the civilian-led government.

And while Ma Thida says it would not be safe for her to return anytime soon, exile implies a permanence the writer isn’t quite comfortable with.

“My aim is not to be exiled — just to keep away from the country. And as soon as I get a chance, I would definitely go back,” she said, speaking with VOA in Berlin, where she is currently living.

Born and raised in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, Ma Thida studied medicine in the 1980s and became a physician. She worked as an aide and medic for pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and wrote her first novel in 1992.

Titled “The Sunflower,” the book explored the population’s expectations of Suu Kyi, who at that time was under house arrest.

But the book was banned shortly before being published in 1993, and Myanmar’s junta sentenced Ma Thida to 20 years in Insein Prison for “endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organizations, and distributing unlawful literature.”

International pressure led to her early release in 1999. “The Sunflower” was finally published, and Ma Thida started writing again.

Her latest book “A-Maze,” published in May, explores Myanmar’s struggle for democracy and the post-coup Spring Revolution.

“I try to understand what’s going on right now and why it happened,” Ma Thida said. “So, this is my attempt to understand the whole situation, but at the same time, my attempt to convince the readers to understand what our struggle is.”

Ma Thida, who is chair of the Writers in Prison Committee run by the free expression group PEN International, said her jailing in the 1990s made her realize it was too dangerous to stay in Myanmar following the 2021 coup.

“A lot of writers were already at risk or were already being arrested,” she said, recalling how anxious she felt at Yangon Airport the day she left.

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, has detained thousands of people, including journalists and writers.

“They’re trying to silence all forms of dissent,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, a Myanmar expert at PEN America in New York. “Many people are still either underground and hiding within Myanmar, or in exile.”

Some writers were among the prisoners released at the beginning of 2024 in an annual mass amnesty. But several remain behind bars.

Their cases show that the military has not wavered on its aversion to free expression, Karlekar said.

Karlekar cited the case of filmmaker Shin Daewe, who covered environmental issues and human rights. Authorities sentenced her to life in prison earlier this year for buying a drone.

“Those sentences are really, really extreme and are a signal to anyone else in the writing and creative community that if they step out of line in any way, in terms of even just expressing criticism of the junta, that this is a possibility,” Karlekar said.

Myanmar’s military did not reply to VOA’s request for comment.

For now, Ma Thida is grateful to have the freedom and safety to continue her work.
Her latest book, published in English, is primarily intended for an international audience.

“Some people think this is just war — not the revolution, not the resistance,” she said about what she hopes readers take away from the book. “It’s more than that.”

Despite her situation and the years already spent in prison, laughter is still instinctive for Ma Thida. She pokes fun at her own misfortunes, including her passport troubles.

Myanmar’s embassy in Berlin has resisted renewing Ma Thida’s expired passport, which she believes is in retaliation for her writing.

The embassy did not reply to VOA’s request for comment.

Ma Thida has faced this problem before. After her release from prison in 1999, she was unable to obtain a passport for five years. “I have so many problems with passports,” she said, chuckling.

Withholding travel documents from exiled dissidents is something PEN America is seeing more frequently as a method of control, Karlekar said.

For now, the German government has given Ma Thida a passport reserved for people unable to obtain a passport from their home country.

And while Berlin is safer for dissidents than Yangon these days, Myanmar will always be home for Ma Thida.

“I look at my country as my own home because I got my education there. I got my understanding of life there. I got my belief in freedom there,” she said. “I always want to go back home.”