A few months ago, the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN decided to organise an evening in celebration of our Honorary Member Aung San Suu Kyi’s astounding courage throughout what has now been twelve years of imprisonment. The event soon developed into a homage to all the Burmese writers who have continued to write despite the danger and suffering they risk each time they put pen to paper.
As we watched the horrifying events of the past months unfurl, we began to realise how relevant, and indeed necessary, such an event was. No-one any longer needed to be reminded of human rights abuses in Burma, but the writers’ stories still needed to be told, and now there was an audience hungry for the stories behind the headlines. Last night’s event, Freedom Writ Large, was sold out over two weeks in advance, and the Prime Minister sent an extraordinary letter of support to the event, mentioning each of PEN’s most long-standing cases by name. To read Gordon Brown’s letter, please click here.
The Guardian ran an excellent piece trailing the event, which you can read here, and within hours news of the event was broadcast into Burma by Radio Free Asia and The Voice of America. Scottish PEN joined with The Burma Trust to produce a parallel event on the same evening in Edinburgh, which was also reported to be a great success.
English PEN’s evening opened with an introduction by Melissa Benn, of the Writers in Prison Committee, and Alastair Niven, President of English PEN. This was followed by the opening moments of John Pilger’s 1996 film, Inside Burma: Land of Fear, after which John Pilger himself spoke briefly about the Burmese struggle, which he described as being “almost beyond the imagination.” He spoke disparagingly of international involvement in Burma, warning the audience, as Aung San Suu Kyi had previously warned him, to look beyond personalities at the under-lying issues, and not to be distracted by the “posturing” of governments which fail to take action on those issues. To read a version of John Pilger’s speech, adapted for The Guardian, please click here.
More of Aung San Suu Kyi’s own words were then heard, as Maureen Lipman read an extract from Freedom from Fear (1991). In the extract, Suu Kyi explains how “Within a system which denied the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day”.
Zoya Phan, a Burmese political activist and exile who now works for Burma Campaign UK, then gave a striking personal account of her own childhood in the Burmese mountains, stating that the violence and control we have witnessed on the TV over the last month are by no means exceptional. Her poignant description of the situation in Burma allowed the audience a moment of genuine insight into how the ‘freedom from fear’ of which Aung San Suu Kyi wrote is still so relevant to the everyday lives of the Burmese people.
Zoya was followed by Benedict Rogers, a journalist and human rights activist who has visited Burma and its borders eighteen times. Ben further explained the situation in Burma, recounting a number of the things he has witnessed. He spoke of human minesweepers and forcibly conscripted child soldiers, and passed on a message given to him by a young Burmese man, a message that in many ways sums up the evening: “Please tell the world not to forget us.” He spoke of Britain’s historic debt to the Burmese who fought for us during the Second World War – a recurring theme of the evening.
Telling Tales, a short film by Emily Hillman of the Writer’s Network of Burma, followed. Filming with a hand-held camera in Burma, Emily was unable to reveal the identity of the Burmese man she interviewed as he spoke of his own experiences and read aloud two poems written by his imprisoned friend Zeya Aung.
Vicky Bowman, former British Ambassador to Burma, and her husband Htein Lin, an artist and former Burmese political prisoner, then spoke of their friends and colleagues in Burma, including top Burmese comedian, Zargana. Vicky explained how the situation in Burma is constantly changing, how friends of theirs disappear on a daily basis – how the green light indicating that someone is online has become the most reassuring thing in the world. They read from Zargana’s 1988 prison diary, in a new translation, and two of his poems were recited in Burmese and English.
We were then fortunate enough to be able to show Interview with Zargana, unedited extracts from a forthcoming film by Rex Bloomstein. Vicky had likened Zargana to a blend of Danny DeVito and Clive Anderson, and as the screen filled with his bald head, we began to see why. Zargana is a truly enchanting character, so warm and open. The interviewer asked him about his experiences of Burmese prisons, about how his family has been affected, about why he is seen as such a threat, about whether his jokes can change the situation. Zargana, with a perfect blend of modesty and confidence, explained that he is a threat because he speaks out, describing himself as the “loudspeaker” of the Burmese people.
Pascal Khoo Thwe then read a moving extract from his novel, From the Land of Green Ghosts, about the impossibility of thinking and writing or speaking freely within the Burmese education system, but how individuals sustain a commitment to truth in private and in their own minds.
Alison Winter of The Writers’ Network of Burma read a poem entitled ‘For My Daughter‘ written by Daung Pyo May on behalf of her friend who has recently been forced to abandon her four month old daughter and go into hiding to avoid arrest for her pro-democracy activities. This was followed by Alison’s short film, Border to Border: Interview with AFK Jilani and poem by Ko Zaw Gyi.
Justin Wintle, the most recent biographer of Aung San Suu Kyi in his book Perfect Hostage (2007), concluded the evening’s speakers with a few words about how Suu Kyi’s imprisonment has not only obstructed democracy but also stifled her career as a writer.
The evening closed with Maureen Lipman reading aloud an open letter from English PEN to Aung San Suu Kyi, reinforcing the message “We are with you”, for which signatures were collected as everyone enjoyed a glass of wine after the show. To read English PEN’s open letter, please click here.
The evening was both informative and thought provoking for the British audience, and much appreciated as a gesture of solidarity by the Burmese participants and audience members. PEN would like to thank all the writers, speakers, filmmakers and translators who made Freedom Writ Large possible.
We would also like to thank Waitrose for the wine.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/freedomwritlarge/