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Life & Arts

Myanmar's Rakhine crisis divides literary world

Mandalay writers festival reflects a deepening chill between Naypyitaw and the West

Buddhist monks attending ​an English language panel session at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival listen to live Burmese translation by volunteers. (Photo by Ben Dunant)

The mass exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar has brought reports of killings, arson and rape to a global news audience formerly more acquainted with stoic images of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi facing down army generals. But the crisis is also driving a wedge between Myanmar and the Western countries with which it has sought to re-engage through the limited reforms of recent years.

The success of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in by-elections in 2012, before its landslide win in the 2015 general election, persuaded Western powers that reforms implemented by the former military junta were genuine. Embassies reopened, aid poured in, and scholarships and courses were extended to Myanmar citizens who had been starved of international contact. In Yangon, Myanmar's commercial hub, an expatriate population of aid workers, corporate representatives and journalists grew rapidly.

The Irrawaddy Literary Festival, which wrapped up its fourth iteration on Nov. 5 in Mandalay, was a signature product of this new order. At the three-day event, held at the luxury Mandalay Hill Resort, around 100 Myanmar intellectuals, including former political prisoner Ma Thida, author and translator Shwegu May Hnin, and educationalist Nay Oke, were joined by nearly 30 foreign writers. These included Jung Chang, author of "Wild Swans," Delphine Schrank, who wrote "The Rebel of Rangoon," and Philip Davies, whose latest book "Lost Warriors" tells "the last great untold story of World War II."

Yangon-based poet and essayist San Lin Tun spouts verse in the garden of the Mandalay Hill Resort at the Poets’ Corner set amid book stalls during the Nov. 3-5 Irrawaddy Literary Festival. (Photo by Ben Dunant)

Though stimulating and free of charge, the festival -- run on a voluntary basis, with core funding supplied by two of Myanmar's largest conglomerates, KBZ and Max Myanmar -- is perhaps of little relevance to most of Myanmar's population. But it embodies the hopes that first underpinned the West's re-engagement with Myanmar.

Founded in 2013 by Jane Heyn, the British wife of Andrew Heyn, the then U.K. ambassador to Myanmar, the festival has benefitted hugely from the patronage of Suu Kyi, who first discussed it over tea with the Heyns soon after her release from house arrest in 2010. Suu Kyi spoke of how she wanted to strengthen the links between educational institutions in Myanmar and English-speaking countries, according to Jane Heyn, who suggested an international literary festival. Suu Kyi agreed immediately to be its patron.

Star attraction

Suu Kyi was the star attraction at the first festival, drawing crowds of thousands and generating a media buzz that subsequent events have been unable to match. This was arguably the highwater mark of Western esteem for Suu Kyi, now Myanmar's state counselor and de facto leader of the NLD government elected in November 2015.

This year, Suu Kyi sent a hand-written message, which was read out at the opening ceremony. But the festival's continued association with the Nobel Peace laureate, who has faced heavy censure over her failure to criticize military actions in Rakhine, makes the event reminiscent of a more innocent era in the West's relations with Myanmar.

Giles Fitzherbert, a festival trustee, said that the NLD's landslide election victory had put the event on a surer footing. Before 2015, he said, "We were on tenterhooks," given the festival's "emphasis on free speech." The authorities have been known to shutter events with little pretext. This year, the NLD-appointed chief minister of Mandalay turned up to bless the festival -- an endorsement inconceivable before the election, when the military and its civilian allies held sway over regional government posts.

Yet, this local political backing has come at the expense of some of the international goodwill of earlier years. In October, Australian children's author Gus Gordon told the South China Morning Post newspaper that he was pulling out of the festival because visiting Myanmar to discuss books during the Rohingya crisis was "the wrong thing to do." Gordon and Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler, also on the program, said they were disappointed that the organizers had not publicly acknowledged the crisis.

Aye Lwin, right, chief convener of the Islamic Center of Myanmar and member of the government-appointed Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, discusses conflict resolution and peaceful coexistence with other panelists. (Photo by Ben Dunant)

American political activist Mary Scully, an independent socialist candidate for the U.S. presidency in 2016, issued a call online for protests against the festival, which, she claimed, was being "organized by the Burmese junta & Suu Kyi to whitewash the genocide of the Rohingya people." Several participating authors said they had received messages on email and social media, often from anonymous sources, entreating them to boycott the event.

The Manchester Writing School, part of the U.K.'s Manchester Metropolitan University, had intended to send a batch of academics, led by British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy -- promoted as a headline author -- as part of the university's sponsorship of the festival. But Duffy and the academics decided to stay at home. The university said they chose not to attend for "personal reasons," which it would not disclose.

Writers who turned up were unapologetic. Alice Pung, an Australian author who has written about her Chinese-Cambodian family's experience of the Khmer Rouge genocide, said, "I came here to support my Burmese writer friends. Pung added: "It's a dream to come here and to meet these authors who really understand what freedom of speech means. I think it's quite ignorant to decide to take a stand and not learn from the Burmese people, and just stay home where you are and operate in the realm of ideas."

Wheeler, who decided to attend despite his misgivings, said he had responded to criticism of his participation -- as well as of Lonely Planet's "promotion" of travel in Myanmar -- by saying that his aim was to "try and talk to lots of people, and come back with, perhaps not an understanding, but certainly more knowledge about what's happening at the moment."

Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler describes how he was regularly sent lurid postcards attacking his guide books’ “promotion” of tourism in military-controlled Myanmar​. (Photo by Ben Dunant)

However, Adam Roberts -- a Paris-based correspondent for The Economist magazine and the author of a book about contemporary India -- said he empathized with those authors who had decided to stay away, noting that they had reputations to consider, as well as their consciences. "It's something that crosses your mind, as someone who doesn't live here, that the one thing the rest of the world knows about Myanmar is what's going on with the Rohingya," said Roberts.

He added: "I'd have been very concerned if there'd been no discussion of the Rohingya issue here." But this was far from the case. Despite the organizers' decision not to comment publicly on the crisis, there were sessions on interfaith dialogue, conflict resolution, and Buddhism and politics. Those who took part included senior Myanmar Muslim leader Aye Lwin -- who sat on a Rakhine advisory commission headed by Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general -- and U Nayaka, a Mandalay-based Buddhist monk and educationalist.

Liberal echo chamber

Aye Lwin, who began his sessions with a Muslim blessing, claimed that, "the spirit of tolerance is embedded in our society." Saying that too few people in Myanmar were properly educated in their own faiths, he advocated a response to conflict rooted in religions' own traditions of peace and inclusion, rather than secular human rights discourses. Matthew Walton, director of the Asian Studies Centre at Oxford University, concurred, referring in a session on Buddhist nationalism to a "need to encourage an alternative internal discourse about defending Buddhism."

Questions from the audience punctured the creeping sense of a liberal echo chamber. One elderly Burmese man rejected the idea that interreligious conflict had historical roots, citing the harmony he experienced as a youth in Mandalay. A young local Muslim countered by describing how his mother, a school teacher, had been told by a pupil, "I want to be an army general, so I can kill kalaa," a common epithet for Muslims or people of South Asian descent. Another attendee talked of how, as a young man of mixed Buddhist-Muslim heritage, he found it difficult to acquire basic citizenship documents.

Such conversations cannot be taken for granted in Myanmar, where a virulent nationalism -- inflamed by condemnation from abroad over the plight of the Rohingya -- is eating up the space for reasoned debate. Against this backdrop, the Irrawaddy Literary Festival is an awkward outlier, committed to promoting a culture of free speech and international exchange -- albeit under the patronage of a fallen global democracy icon.

The fate of a literary festival ranks low among Myanmar's many challenges, but the project to which the festival is yoked -- achieving an ever-closer cultural union between Myanmar and the West -- is increasingly imperiled. It may not survive the Rohingya crisis.

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