It’s good to be back. I was last here thirteen years ago, at the turn of the century. I spoke about transitions to democracy at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), with Aung San Suu Kyi in the chair. I wrote about the trip for The New York Review, in a piece of analytical reportage entitled “Beauty and the Beast in Burma.”1 Then the military regime put me on its visa blacklist. I can say this with unusual certainty because last summer the office of Burma’s reformist president, Thein Sein, rather unexpectedly published a list of some two thousand people who were no longer banned from entering the country. It contained some gloriously unspecific entries such as “239. David” and “859. Mr Nick,” but there I recognizably was: “285. Gartonish, Timothy John.”
So now I can meet again, and write about, some of the brave writers, editors, and journalists whom I could then only call Daw-1 or U-2. There is, for example, Ma Thida, a medical doctor and writer who was then only just out of prison, where she had spent, as she told me, “five years, six months, and six days.” In a deeply moving conversation back in 2000, she described how she had survived the harsh conditions of a Burmese prison with the help of intensive Buddhist meditation. She told me that on February 26, 1996, at about 10:00 PM, “I found enlightenment.” At her next interrogation she thanked her jailers, saying: “You have helped me to nirvana!”
Ma Thida subsequently published an account of her experiences, The Roadmap, though only under a pseudonym, Suragamika (Brave Traveler), and labeled as “documentary fiction.” Now she sits beside me on a platform at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival—the first literary festival ever to be held in this country—and talks about the duty of writers and journalists as “witnesses to violence.” She is elegantly dressed, busy, pausing only to check messages on a smartphone plucked from a large handbag. If you did not know her story, you would never guess that here is a woman who has come through hell to nirvana—and beyond. Later, she invites me downtown, to the busy offices of her new magazine, The Myanmar Independent, one of tens if not hundreds of publications that are now jostling for position in the unaccustomed light of press freedom—and in the monsoon of commercial competition.
There are others who were not so strong or fortunate. The festival organizers have gone to great lengths to attract not just international stars, such as Vikram Seth and Jung Chang, but also some eighty local writers. An older writer, imprisoned for twelve years, tells how his long incarceration wrecked his marriage and his relationship with his…
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