Khin Maung Win/AP Images

Aung San Suu Kyi standing in front of a painting of her father, General Aung San, Rangoon, October 2011


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 children. As we move on to celebrate this emerging new Burma, we must remember the pain that cannot be undone, wrongs that can never be righted, lives ruined.

Thirteen years ago, editors of tiny magazines in dim, cramped offices showed me examples of the crudest precensorship by the authorities: individual phrases or whole pages had to be blanked out, or hastily replaced with advertisements. This was the age of the hidden message, of the Aesopian, with even an article on the proliferation of mosquitoes in Rangoon banned by the censors as suspected allegory. Sometimes, editors got away with little triumphs, like the November 2010 First Eleven magazine headline, in this soccer-mad country: “SUNDERLAND FREEZE CHELSEA UNITED STUNNED BY VILLA & ARSENAL ADVANCE TO GRAB THEIR HOPE.” First Eleven submitted this to the censors in black and white, but published it in multiple colors. The letters in bright red spelled out “SU…FREE…UNITE…&…ADVANCE TO GRAB THE HOPE….” Su—that is Aung San Suu Kyi—had just been released from house arrest. The captain was back.

Then, on August 20 last year, censorship was abolished. To be strictly accurate, precensorship was abolished, since copies still had to be submitted after publication. Shortly before I arrived, a notice in the New Light of Myanmar, once the military junta’s very own Pravda, announced that the Press Security and Registration Division, “which censored the publications in Myanmar,” has been dissolved but—hang on a minute—a Copyright and Registration Division will be formed under the Information and Public Relations Department. From censorship to PR.

There are now at least three large questions facing the writers, journalists, publishers, artists, and politicians of Burma—as well as the thousands of more or less well-intentioned outsiders who are now pouring into the country to offer assistance or make money. The first is: Have censorship and military-political control of the public sphere, including covert control through media ownership, really gone? If so, and to secure that change, what new structures of law and regulation should replace them? Ma Thida explained to me the practical difficulties of getting a license to run a magazine, and the way in which cronies of the military may dominate the market.


Pe Myint, a veteran writer and magazine editor, is working on a draft media code of ethics. His visiting card says: Member, Interim Myanmar Press Council, Yangon, Myanmar. (Burma or Myanmar? Rangoon or Yangon? There is now total confusion about which term the friendly foreigner should use.) Many of the important decisions will have to be made within the existing, still far-from-democratic power structures. The NLD will not have the chance of forming a government until after a general election scheduled for 2015.

For the online world, the country’s Electronic Transactions Law—which, for example, makes distributing or receiving information relating to “national culture” punishable by seven to fifteen years in prison—needs to be drastically overhauled. Reformist ministers in the post-military government in the new capital of Naypyidaw (aka Nay Pyi Taw) seem anxious to do the right thing, learning from the experience of free countries. But behind them, in the wings, are hard men and interests who don’t want free speech if they can possibly avoid it. The Ministry of Information recently released a retrograde draft bill to license and control publications, prompting an outcry in the newly free press.

Moreover, the country’s Asian neighborhood offers a plethora of different models: from Thailand to Singapore and from China to India.2 Numerous official and nongovernmental advisers may arrive from the West, but it is by no means self-evident that the United States’ First Amendment tradition, or European-style regulation of free speech, adjudicated for forty-seven countries by the European Court of Human Rights, will immediately spring to Burmese minds. There is, needless to say, no Asian Court of Human Rights to set the minimum standards of freedom of expression for half of humankind.

The second question is familiar wherever writers emerge from decades of censorship and oppression: “Help! What am I going to write about now?” Now you have to do more than just smuggle your subversive message past the censors. Reading Bones Will Crow, an excellent anthology of modern Burmese poetry, I can see—or perhaps more accurately, sense, because the “lost in translation” problem is especially acute with a wholly unfamiliar language and literary tradition—that there was some good writing there, in what the poet Tin Moe called “The Years We Didn’t See the Dawn.” But clearly much of the electricity came from the confrontation with an oppressive regime.

Thirdly, there is the challenge for Burmese (of all ethnicities) to work out what they think should be the proper limits of free speech, not just in laws and regulation from above, but also in editorial and social practice. As everywhere, the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge is the Internet. While Internet penetration in Burma has been low—an estimated 1 percent in 2011—it is soaring. Nine Nine Sanay, apparently the most-followed Burmese writer on Facebook, had 106,000 Likes when I last looked.

One of the poets represented in Bones Will Crow delights in the name of Pandora. When I met her at the festival—a spirited, decisive young woman, smartphone always in hand—she gave me her card. It has no postal address or landline, but lists her blog on blogspot .com, her Facebook page (where she comes up as “Pandora blogpoet”), her Twitter account, her cell phone number, and her Gmail address. She started blogging in 2007, and found real artistic and personal freedom online. “Facebook for me is another country,” she told me. “I have another life in another country.” Anyone who doubts the liberating potential of the online world should listen to Pandora.

But Pandora’s electronic box also releases evils on the world. In the Burmese case, this became manifest in a torrent of online hate speech directed against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the state of Rakhine (aka Arakan). There was, for example, a Facebook page called “Kalar Beheading Gang”—“Kalar” being a derogatory term for South Asian Muslims. Facebook has now deleted it, but how many fluent Burmese-speakers does it have to enforce its worldwide community standards? Facebook depends on users reporting such content, but what if they don’t?

Causal connections between hate speech and actual violence are difficult to establish, and often asserted too loosely. But two things are clear: there was a wave of online hate speech, including some crude incitement to violence, and there was appalling inter-communal violence in Rakhine state. As usual in such cases, there was violence on both sides, but mainly there were forays to kill, beat up, or ethnically cleanse Rohingya Muslims, carried out by the poor and embattled majority Rakhine Buddhists—despite their Buddha’s teaching that they should not hurt a fly. The Economist reported last November that “satellite imagery shows the utter destruction of a Muslim quarter of the coastal town of Kyaukphyu, from where oil-and-gas pipelines are to cross Myanmar to China.”


Choices for an Uncrowned Queen

The same issue of The Economist had an editorial gently chiding Aung San Suu Kyi for not speaking out more clearly to condemn and attempt to stop the violence. Such reluctance is especially striking in someone whose dissident writings from her long period of house arrest contain decided reflections on the political as well as moral imperative of sustaining nonviolence. In two interviews for the BBC, one last November and one recorded last December for the Desert Island Discs program, she tiptoed around the issue as cautiously as any ordinary politician. In the former interview, after saying briefly that “human rights…belong to every individual human being,” she moved on rapidly to highlight the unclarified citizenship status of the Rohingya. And she said, “I won’t speak out because I don’t think it would help the situation.” On Desert Island Discs, she said that “violence has been committed by both sides,” and then explained her position a little more: “If I were to take sides, it would create more animosity.”

Perhaps this is true. I did not get any chance to explore the question with her on this visit. But I am painfully struck by the fact that almost everyone I talk to about it—including some in a good position to know—judge that the underlying reason for her cautiousness is politics, in a more workaday sense. There are no votes to be gained on the issue—indeed, there are only votes to be lost—among the ethnic Burman majority. And she will need all the Burman votes she can get in the 2015 parliamentary elections, as well as forming alliances with ethnic minority parties and at least part of the military—whose parliamentary appointees will still have a reserved 25 percent of seats—if she is to get the more than 75 percent vote in the lower house needed to change the constitution, so that the new parliament can elect her president. “I would like to be president,” she told her interviewer on Desert Island Discs. And she means an American-style executive president, not just a ceremonial head of state: “You should want to get government power in your hands.”

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi; drawing by John Springs

If Thailand has a half-deified king, Burma has in her its uncrowned queen. Indeed, her brief appearance at the literary festival reminded me of a visit by Britain’s queen, with everyone crowding around awestruck, laughing at the slightest quip, and wearing involuntary smiles on their faces. (Me, too.) She is regal, working a room with dignity, professionalism, and charm, but the hard political reality still rests in that adjective “uncrowned.” Her nimbus and charisma derive partly from the hereditary principle—never for a moment does she or anyone else in Burma forget that she is the daughter of this postcolonial country’s founding hero, General Aung San—and partly from her own extraordinary life story, courage, presence, wit, and beauty.

Her popularity, however, is not yet anchored in any constitutional position. Quite the reverse: Article 59(f) of the country’s 2008 constitution—written by the military—bars from the presidency anyone whose “spouse, [or] one of the legitimate children of their spouses…owe allegiance to a foreign power.” Suu Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris, an Oxford colleague and friend of mine, was British, and their children Alexander and Kim—second and third on the country’s former blacklist—therefore have British citizenship. That is an article she needs to change; and to do so, according to that same constitution, you need the votes of more than 75 percent of all members of the lower house, and then those “of more than half of those who are eligible to vote” in a nationwide referendum (i.e., including the ethnic minorities). Guess who the generals were trying to stop.

On the stage of the Inya Lake Hotel where the Irrawaddy festival is held, just across the lake from the family home where she spent all those heroic years under house arrest, Suu Kyi talks easily and charmingly to an adoring audience about the books she likes best: George Eliot, Victor Hugo, and, yes, detective stories. Detective stories are very useful, she quips, in her current work in politics: they help you figure out “what people’s motives are.” And we all laugh, entranced.

I am irresistibly reminded of the halcyon days after Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia in 1990. There is the same mix of fairy-tale charm, public adulation at home and abroad, and a nagging murmur of private unease. The unease, in her case as in his, flows from several different sources—including the unhappiness of local intellectuals who barely get a look in. But mainly it is about the dissonance between the moral-literary-spiritual antipolitician of yesterday and the practical politician of tomorrow.

For and around such exceptional figures, in such exceptional moments, there are then two questions. The first is how they themselves understand and present their own role; the second is how others write and speak about them. As I pointed out several times in essays for The New York Review in the 1990s, the playwright-turned-president Havel always insisted that he could be both at once: intellectual and politician. Asked very early in his presidency if dissidents-turned-politicians could continue to “live in truth” he replied, “Either yes or no. If it proves not, I certainly won’t go on being one.” But he did—for another thirteen years, until he finally retired from the presidency of the Czech Republic in 2003, having successfully disproved his own original claim.

However, he then went on to demonstrate something else on which he had always insisted—that, even after all those years of being a politician, he could go back to being a playwright. Still dissident in spirit, he wrote one last, sharp, amusing play, Leaving, about the addiction to power and the difficulty of giving it up.

The uncrowned king of Bohemia’s position in 1990 was in so many respects easier than that of the uncrowned queen of Burma today. He was already president. That presidency did not make him responsible for most aspects of governing the country, including the economy. Havel himself had always, even as a professed antipolitician, shown considerable political skills. His country was close to the prosperous, dynamic European Community (soon to be European Union) and, though badly run-down, was in incomparably better shape than Burma today. Yes, Czechoslovakia would soon break apart, but peacefully and only into two quite well-defined parts—today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia.

She, by contrast, is not yet president. It will take some three years of politics, with lots of compromises, before she gets to Naypyidaw’s equivalent of Prague Castle, as she is plainly determined to do. Whether you look at the economy, health care, education, or any other measure of human development, her country is in a dreadful state, after decades of being isolated and exploited by its military rulers. Her own political nous has not been so evident as Havel’s in the opposition years, and the NLD lacks the expertise necessary to govern. Burma is not an Asian Czechoslovakia but more like an Asian Yugoslavia, an ethnic patchwork that can only be kept together by timely and far-reaching devolution of power. (Ironically enough, another of the favorite books she mentioned at the literary festival was Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which explores pre-1939 Yugoslavia.)

On the other hand, she seems clear-sighted about what she has to do. “I’ve never had illusions about politics,” she told one of her BBC interviewers. No Havelesque visions there; and that’s an advantage. In my experience, the ex-dissidents who do best in post-dictatorship politics are those who say in effect, “OK, back then I was an intellectual, now I am a politician. One day I may go back to being an intellectual again, but for now I’ll do my best at playing a reasonably clean game of politics. For these are different games with different rules.”

Yet the perhaps necessary compromises are painful to watch. Since I left Burma, Suu Kyi has chaired a parliamentary commission which decided that a copper mine jointly owned by the Burmese military and the Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco can continue to operate, despite popular protests against evictions of local farmers. While terrible anti-Muslim pogroms have spread to other parts of Burma, she has pursued a rapprochement with the military, sitting in the front row at a march-past on Armed Forces Day, next to the top brass. She did not look comfortable.

This brings us to those, both inside the country and abroad, who write and speak about her. Maybe she is prepared to give up being a saint, but are they—are we—prepared to let her drop the halo? I notice in a weekly newspaper, The Myanmar Times, a piece about Burmese journalists’ reluctance to report critically on Suu Kyi and the NLD, from which some disaffected factions have already broken away. So whereas in Thailand criticism of the king is strangled by draconian lèse-majesté laws, here criticism of the queen is held back by a velvet ribbon of self-censorship—plus the fear of adverse reactions from readers. (“How dare you criticize our queen?”) That is not universal, but there is generally a gap between the critical comments one hears in private and what people will write or say in public.

If I were a Burmese political activist and wanted the best for my country, I would self-censor too. After all, other political forces in Burma, including some from the still-dominant military and ex-military, would like nothing more than to see Suu Kyi’s supporters fall apart, squabbling over the spoils of power that they do not yet even possess. Unity is strength, and the democratic forces in Burma need all the unity they can achieve so as to keep this country together, win that landslide election victory in 2015, prepare for government, and make Suu Kyi president—which she must be. If I were a Western politician or diplomat, I might make that same tactical call. But this cannot be the right choice for a journalist, scholar, or political writer.

To be durably and fully free, a country, be it Burma, Thailand, India, or the United States, also needs writers who see it as their role to dig out the facts, get at the truth as best they can, and then portray that truth as honestly, fairly, clearly, and vividly as possible. And those in power, be they crowned kings, uncrowned queens, or mere presidents and prime ministers, need such fact-grubbers and truth-tellers too. This is not, I hasten to add, necessarily a nobler task than the politician’s, nor always more difficult, but it is a vital complement to the role that Aung San Suu Kyi has now chosen. Our job is to tell it as it is.

—This is the third of three articles on free speech in South and Southeast Asia.