One of the hopes of my book, The People Elsewhere, was to shine a light on the misconception that all languages and literature from the ethnic nationality groups in Myanmar had been suppressed by successive juntas over fifty years. The reality is much more complicated of course. The learning of these multitude of languages was discouraged, and on many occasions criminalised unless taught within the specific, narrow boundaries that the government would allow (at home, at after school clubs, in the March and April months of the summer school camps).
Much more damaging to the publication of books by ethnic writers was the lack of technology and knowledge to print the books in the first place. Publishers in Yangon would baulk at printing a book in a script they couldn’t read. Printing presses were expensive and almost impossible to be found outside the urban centres of Yangon and Mandalay; the ability to format a book using different types from a hand-written page to a screen was a rare skill. Even now there are few who know who type on a computer using the fonts of the smaller sub scripts. The official censor board were unable to read ethnic languages and so would automatically disqualify any book that was submitted to them without a Burmese translation, doubling the production costs of any ethnic language books and making it an unviable investment.
Despite this, ethnic writers, if able to physically produce the book, were given freedoms that their Burmese counterparts were not. A book written in ethnic languages could be printed without going through the censor board if it was declared to be only distributed to the community to which the writer belonged. Anybody caught with these books outside of the community would be arrested, as would the author and printer. Though they were unable to sell the books in the bookshops in Yangon, permission would be given to distribute the books through non-official channels such as small book stands set up in the foyers of churches or in out-reach community centres set up by the ethnic culture and literature associations. The authorities would naturally keep an eye on any book published in this way, with local language reading spies employed to trawl the small book stands and distribution points in the ethnic states to ensure the content of the books didn’t stray into territories that would be cause for arrest; politics, anti-military, anything else within the vague and murky terms of the Printers and Publishing law.
This freedom to publish without censorship was strictly controlled by the few organisations that had the technology and talent to publish (mostly church based presses) and an editorial board would self-censor the books before publication to ensure the freedom to print continued. Kachin Culture and Tradition in Myanmar is one such book.
Umta Brang, a pen name for Rev. Dr. N-Gan Tang Gun is one of the leading literary intellectuals among the Kachin, an umbrella term for six ethnic groups in the north of Myanmar that share a similar linguistic and cultural heritage though with variances in folkore and myth.
The author tackles two critical concepts in the fostering of a Kachin identity. That of a people distinct from the majority Burmese through the investigation of their creationary myths, their cultural practices in song and dance, their traditional clan system and connecting these identifiers through the lens of the Christian religion.
Chapters on Kachin oral legends are fascinating, as are the sections on a pre-literature Kachin society and how they communicated through objects, a piece of white thread meant a ‘good friendship’, a black thread the opposite; a piece of charcoal sent to one village was a threat or a warning. At pains to stress the ‘Christianess’ of the Kachin, these chapters are shadowed by attempts to explain their significance and relevance to Christian doctrines. A lengthy retelling of the traditional Kachin creationary myth of their people being born by two brothers who escaped a flood by floating in a drum is paralleled to the biblical flood, re-imagining the Kachin as a tribe of Christians who share a common ancestry which was lost over time and reconnected only with the arrival of Western missionaries in the late 19th Century. The book could have dissolved into absurdity at this point, but the author restrains himself, and, to be as fair as possible, there is a remarkable number of similarities between Kachin oral stories and those to be found in the bible. A common root may not be so far-fetched. The book ends on a more personal note of the cultural landscape in Kachin State, how this culture has been eroded since the author was young with the Burmanisation of the state, the influence of next door China and a slightly prophetic speculation on the effects from the West.
Everything about this book is a small miracle. It was probably printed either in Yangon or Myitkyina using a church owned printing press, though no name is attached to it. On the title page is written ‘Limited Edition’, a required statement that the book will only be given to those within the writer’s community – in this case the Kachin Christian community – and not be given or sold to anyone else. As it hadn’t been cleared by the censor board, it doesn’t contain the mandated 3 National Clauses, nor does it have a price listing. The book is in great condition considering it is nearly ten years old. The pages are still crisp. The ink tends to fade at the mid point of the book as if the cartridge needed to be replaced.
The Book Matter:
Title: Kachin Culture and Tradition in Myanmar
Author: Umhta Brang
Publisher: No Publisher Listed
Pub Date: 2009
Cost: No Price