Namhsan, a town in the hills of north eastern Shan State, has taken on an almost mythical status – at least among foreign writers – a town hidden among mountains, unreachable, a lawless place where anything can happen.
Some of that is partly true I guess.
Namhsan is a bit of a geographical oddity. It lies on the swollen knuckle of a mountain ridge, overlooking a series of sharp valleys coated in small, locally owned, inherited tea-plots. Where most settlements this far in would be smaller villages, Namhsan is actually a large town. Over 10,000 inhabitants, 2 high schools, supermarkets and a large military presence.
It is perhaps this presence which has cultivated the image of Namhsan. The one all-weather road to the valley below passes through two military checkpoints and is often closed when fighting erupts between the Ta-ang National Liberation Army and the Tatmadaw, quarantining the town from the world below.
Namhsan itself is the current centre of Ta-ang literature, and the central headquarters of the Palaung (Ta-ang) Culture and Literature Association but it is a much smaller village just ten minutes to the east which is far more special.
It is rare to be able to pin-point an exact time and place for the birth of a literature. Often that time is tracked back to the first piece of known literature in that language, while staying silent on the experiment and growth of literature that led to the piece of work. No work of literature arrives from a void.
The Ta-ang are able to date and place precisely where their literature comes from.
In 1972, youth and elder representatives of the 13 Ta-ang groups met at Zei An Gyi village, on the edge of Namhsan, to discuss the formation of a single script. Up until then, the 13 dialects spoken were written in several differing scripts based on the Burmese characters. To unite the Ta-ang people in the face of an ever increasing Burmanisation policy from the military regime in the south, a single literature was decided. That day is celebrated as Ta-ang National Literature Day. Once a year thereafter, a village is chosen to hold the day, with literature readings and writing competitions. Whenever the conflict which has plagued this region for decades erupts, the day is held in secret, even if few are able to reach the village.
The building where they met, a long, 2 storey, dark-wood hall still stands. Today, it is a community co-operative, with several metal workshops and stalls. Though most of the residents are aware of the building’s importance, the elders who guided me around discussed the need to promote its significance more visibly. A plaque perhaps, as they have done to buildings in Yangon. Or a museum.
For tourists? I asked.
For us. They answered.
To find out more about life with writers and poets from the nation’s censored borderlands why not buy my award-shortlisted politico-literary travel book ‘The People Elsewhere: Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar’ (Penguin/Viking, 2016)
Address: Zei An Gyi village, Namhsan Township, Northern Shan State, Myanmar