If there was to be a single place that embodies the turbulent rise and fall of literature in Myanmar from Independence to the present day, it is the Sarpay Beikmann and its eponymous building in downtown Kyauktada township.
In 1947, General Aung San, in his last public speech before his assassination, encouraged the creation of a national translation society. Originally named the Burma Translation Society and inaugurated on 26th August 1947, the governing body comprised many of the leading writers, academics and politicians of the time, including the Prime Minister U Nu (himself a playwright), future UN General Secretary U Thant (and grandfather of historian and writer Thant Myint U), the and famous poet Zawgyi. Its motto, Ahmaung Khwin-ywe Alin Hsaung-ant’ – Light, Where Darkness Was’, was written by the influential poet and writer Saya Min Thu Wun, the father of Myanmar’s first post-military president U Htin Kyaw.
The society was first housed at the former compound of the Judson College, before moving to the Sorrento Villa on Pyay Road in May 1948. The BTS was then renamed into the Sarpay Beikmann (House or Palace of Literature) either in 1949, 1952 or after 1962 depending on who you read, (even the current descendant the Myanmar Translation Society disagrees with itself in its official publications) and relocated to its current location on Merchant Street either in 1954 or 1957.
Initially, the Society was tasked with the translation of world classics into Burmese literature and the construction of a Burmese encyclopedia. During the socialist era, the role of the Sarpay Beikmann dwindled, as it came under control of both the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Information. Funding was pulled, the number and types of books to be translated reduced. The Sarpay Beikmann manuscript awards continued, and are still one of the large literary awards in Myanmar.
Its home on Merchant street, next door to the more famous Sofaer building, still carries the BTS logo built into the masonry high above the street: an open book topped by a horizontal fountain pen emitting rays of light.
The building itself, as befitting the name House of Literature, is made up of several departments each with their own dedicated room.
On the ground floor, and most visible from the main road is the bookshop. Allegedly the most profitable bookshop in Myanmar, though this is probably due to not paying any rent as the building (and the bookshop) is owned by the Ministry of Information. The shop is popular, and carries a good stock of literature, though most seem to be non-fiction, especially education and law, and with almost no books in English.
Also on the ground floor, but in a side entrance from 37th street, is the children’s library. This is an excellent little library, with children’s books both in Burmese and English. It can get busy in the weekends, with up to 35 visitors at a time.
The main entrance to upper floors is also from 37th street. The lift is broken so take the stairs up. The reference library is on the second floor. Mostly used by researchers and university students, the 8000 odd books cover history, medicine and geography. A Japanese funded digitalization project is under way in the same room.
The public library can’t be missed. It takes up one half of the building on the first floor with 50,000 books. The old 1950’s card cataloguing is still in use, kept in a series of teak drawers.
Somewhere inside this building there is also the Sarpay Beikmann Press. It’s an in-house operation, but they only publish the manuscripts that win their annual awards.
Seeing itself as the direct heir of the original Burma Translation Society, the Myanmar Translation Society have an office on the top floor with grand ambitions to rival the projects of earlier days, though without the state funding of its predecessor.
Finally, also on the top floor, is the former home of the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association. For many decades the only literary organisation allowed by the military administrations and fully under control of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Information, the MWJA has a controversial place in contemporary Burmese literature. The Ne Win government understood the power of literature to influence and shape peoples’ opinion and co-opted them, by force if necessary, as ‘literary workers’. Writers were automatically inducted into the association, whether they wanted to be or not. After 1989, entry was optional and came with a price. To do so was, in the eyes of some, to align yourself with the government.
The MWJA was disbanded in 2012 and sometime in 2015, its successor, the Myanmar Writers Association was asked to remove itself to other lodgings. The long room is now rented out as a workshop and exhibition space.
For a few years (1947 to 1962), the Sarpay Beikmann was the embodiment of a political culture that valued literature in the construction of a new republic. The military years that followed made a mockery of this ideal and has tainted the memory of the House to this day with many writers still refusing to be associated with it. Though it’s remarkable the House and the building are still standing and functioning more or less to its original design, it risks being replaced by 21st century projects that seek to replicate it.
Perhaps now, with the transition, there should be an effort to return it to its golden age as a House of Literature and not the House of Censorship it has become.
Address: No.529 Merchant Street, Kyauktada Township, Yangon, Myanmar