A report by Burmese artist Htein Lin
Today on a dank Sunday Valentine’s afternoon, about fifty of us, British and Burmese, poets and politicos, went to the Burmese Embassy in Mayfair for a poetry protest called ‘Love and Hate in Burma’, organised with English PEN. The protest was held to mark the second anniversary of Burmese poet Saw Wei‘s arrest and imprisonment.
Saw Wei is currently serving a two year prison sentence in Myanmar in violation of his right to free expression. He was arrested on 22 January 2008 for publishing a love poem which cryptically criticised General Than Shwe, the head of Burma’s ruling military junta. Saw Wei was charged under section 505 (b) of the Criminal Code, which refers to ‘intent to cause harm to any section of the public to commit an offence against the State…” He appeared in court three times, without legal representation. On 10 November, almost 10 months after his arrest, Saw Wei was sentenced to two years in prison for “inducing crime against public tranquility.” He was due for release in January 2010 but hasn’t been released yet. I told the protest the following about my friendship and collaboration with Saw Wei.
I first came across Saw Wei in the mid-1990s. I was starting out as an artist. At that time, there was a famous community library in Pyu in central Burma, run by the ‘pyu meikswe-mya sa-kyi-athin’, the Pyu Friends Library Society. They had a Committee which gave an annual prize to the best stories, poems and articles. He was a founding member.
At that time, the only other prize was the military government’s National Literary Prize. It was only awarded to politically correct works. But the Pyu Friends chose the best works. I remember when they gave the prize to a short story by writer Taya Min Wai, a student activist who had only recently been released from prison. He went on to become a successful writer as a result.
I got to know Saw Wei personally when I was introduced to him by my friend and mentor Zargana. At the time, I was working for Zargana as a comic actor. I needed the money. Saw Wei had a teashop in Tamwe called ‘Adipati’ or ‘Chancellor’ which very famous in the movie world. After a day’s shooting, film-makers would often go there for a drink and a bite to eat.
Adipati was famous for its leq-peq-thouq, pickled tea salad. It was a mixture of tomato, boiled duck’s egg, dried prawn, shallots, peanuts and pickled tea of course. It cam on a big plate, and was arranged like an art installation. I discovered the pickled tea artist was Saw Wei when Zargana introduced us. And then I discovered he a poet too. He was the first poet I’d met who also owned a restaurant.
In 1998 I went to prison, and couldn’t visit the restaurant for a while. Sometimes I could bribe the warders to bring me magazines. Around 2003 I remember reading that Saw Wei had held an exhibition. As well as pickled tea installations and poetry, he was also practising painting and performance art. As a pioneer Burmese performance artist myself, I was glad he was joining our ranks.
After my release in 2004, I discovered his empire had expanded. He now had a proper restaurant, not just a teashop, which had spawned a successful range of Burmese recipe books. From then on we met regularly, often for a late night drink to discuss art. We generally met at artist Nay Myo Say’s bar ‘Mr Guitar’, together with my friend writer and producer Zaw Thet Htwe who, like Zargana and Saw Wei, is also now in jail.
In November 2005, Zaw Thet Htwe organised a combined performance art and poetry event called ‘Hnin-ka-gyo’ or ‘Snow Dance’ in a disused garment factory outside Rangoon. It was a very successful event. Artists came. Diplomats came including two Ambassadors. Min Ko Naing and Ko ko Gyi and all the recently released student leaders came.
Saw Wei read a poem and actress Hnin Wutyi Thaung performed with him. Then he participated in a piece of performance art I organised called ‘We have arrived in the World’. It involved 10 performers standing in wooden frames. I told the performers that they could perform any role in ordinary life. For example, I was cooking stirfry. Saw Wei chose to be an astrologer. Half-way through the performance, he started yelling ‘ This guy has just asked me when the petrol price is coming down!’. Then he ran out of the room. I was very surprised. But of course, he was right. Such issues were sensitive. In 2007, Min Ko Naing’s demonstrations about the price of petrol sparked the Saffron Revolution.
After the success of Hnin-ka-gyo, Saw Wei decided to organise another combined art show in Rangoon, called White Rainbow. It was a fundraiser for children with HIV. He organised it at his favourite bar, Mr Guitar. He called on his long list of friends and restaurant customers in the arts world. It included many famous actors and actresses, models and musicians.
After White Rainbow, he wanted to organise more events. He was getting politically bolder. At our wedding reception in June 2006, I noticed he spent a very long time talking to Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi. A lot of people would avoid them because they were worried the government would penalise them, particularly if they had businesses. But afterwards Saw Wei thanked me for giving him the chance he’d been wanting for a long time to talk to them.
When Saw Wei tried to repeat White Rainbow in Mandalay, he was blocked by the government. They wouldn’t let poetry be read. They said there could only be songs and detained the local organiser for a day.
After I came to London, I would occasionally get messages from Saw Wei via friends. I would hear news about the bolder and bolder performance events he was holding. He told me he was interested in getting exposure to the international performance art scene. He said he had ideas for what he would do.
The next thing I heard was it was February 2008 and he was arrested for his Valentine’s Day poem which insulted Senior-General Than Shwe. I was quite surprised by this. Although many poets criticised Saw Wei because they were jealous that he was also a successful businessman, Saw Wei was never rude about other people. Than Shwe was the first person I had heard him say something bad about.
But then I thought a bit more. And I realised that this might be his first step onto the international performance art stage. A performance which has lasted two years already. It’s time for it to finish.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/loveandhateinburma-apoetryprotest/