The British Council might be a strange place to put on a list of prominent literary landmarks in Myanmar, but its library has played an influential role in the fight against decades of literary censorship in Yangon.
The British Council’s original location was in Rander House on Pansodan Street, lower block, in the 1950’s. There, the Council kept their library and offices until the 1960’s when General Ne Win nationalised all the private libraries in the country and closed down any libraries that were under foreign control. The British Council and others were given 24 hours to shut operations. Many, such as the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Francaise left the country. The British Council decided to remove their library to the British Embassy building a couple of blocks away in the same township, thinking, rightly, that it would be protected by diplomatic immunity,
Over a single, 24 hours period, the entirety of the British Council’s library’s stock, thousands of volumes, was shifted, mostly by rickshaw, to the British Embassy. The books remained in a small room at the top of the Embassy building, accessible only to Embassy staff until 1974, when Ne Win softened his earlier his command. The library was then moved to the ground floor of the Embassy where it still remains.
During the 80’s and 90’s, using the privilege of the diplomatic bag, the Library was able to build a unique and unparalleled collection of banned and censored books, on Burma and by Burmese writers. In many of these cases, the Library was the only place in the country where these books could be accessed under the military regimes. These books were kept in locked, glass cabinets and could only be accessed via permission from the library manager, the readers name would be recorded and the book, under no circumstances could be loaned or taken out of the embassy building. Many of these books included any works by or about Aung San Suu Kyi and translated works by imprisoned or exiled writers and poets such as Ma Thida and Tin Moe. The library over the years saw a succession of junior members who went on to prominent positions in literary and political circles including novelists such as Ma Ju and politicians such as U Htin Kyaw, the first non-military aligned President of Myanmar since 1962.
The dangerous books these days, though no longer banned (and in some cases are easily available to buy on 37th street) are still kept by the library (though no longer under lock and key). The collection stands as both a physical reminder of a time when the power of literature to shape and influence was so feared by the government and of the Burmese writers enduring response to such fear by refusing to write anything less than what they saw as the truth.
Address: 80, Strand Road, Kyauktada Township, Yangon Myanmar