Irrawaddy Literary Festival – Day 3

And so it ends. Day three started pretty much the same as day two, sorting out equipment for the morning workshop. The C.S.I volunteers in the room were great as usual. In fact, the volunteers, all 70 of them, from Moe Moe Soe’s Civic Society Group have been fantastic all weekend. Without them, this festival would have crumbled around Jane’s ears. Lets see if there is any appreciation for these people in the forthcoming interviews with the organisers …

Rupert Arrowsmith kindly invited me for breakfast with his wife in the hotel restaurant where he proposed a collaboration on a short Buddhist art history course for Burmese students.  A great idea, and probably one a lot of Burmese might be interested in.

Yesterday, i had forgot to bring money with me, so after breakfast I wandered off to the Monument Book store, where to my surprise, and my apologies to Monument, i did find two translated copies of Burmese authors, Selected Myanmar Short Stories, translated by Ma Thanegi and Stories and and Sketches of Myanmar by Khin Myo Chit; both published by Unity Publishing in Sanchaung township.  Both books are attractively printed and professionally bound and less than 5000 kyat each.

In the Myanmar Book Centre stall out back, I bought a copy of Myanmar Wonderland by U thaw Kaung, published by the Today Media Group, Dr Maung Maung’ second edition of A Trial in Burma – The Assassination of Aung San, published once again by Unity.  Clearly a publishing house to look for in Burma.  The last work I bought, and by a quick look at it, one of the best available in English at the festival, The Road Map, by Suragamika (a pen name) published by Silkworm Books in Thailand.

I spent the next hour and half going around the festival and crossing out the workshop session on the schedule posters as somebody had placed it in the wrong room and the wrong time.  There was nothing i could about the handout schedules everybody was holding.  I wasn’t the only one with scheduling omissions; Burmese director Kyi Soe Tun’s movie screening on Friday Night went ahead without even the title of his film on the schedule.  I suppose he should be grateful his name was at least on it.  A courtesy not extended to our workshops.

Due to this, there was no time for Mu Mu and her Writers and their Creations session, which would have been good.  I did have time, however, for Ending Armed Conflicts with Jonathon Powell.  I’ll be honest, i had to Google his name, but a Tin Maung Thann was on the panel with him, and i thought, great, a Burmese contributor, in English, on a theme that is at the centre of Burma’s future.  Wow, was I wrong.  For starters, Tin Maung wasn’t present, so it was left to Jonathon Powell to voice an opinion on the critical issue that could potentially derail all of the late reforms.  Which he singularly, heroically, failed at.  I am not quite sure why, but for fifty minutes he managed to talk about mediation between governments and armed rebel groups and never once mention Burma, in any context.  He spoke at length about his involvement in the Good Friday Accord in Northern Ireland, he found time to mention the GAM in Aceh, the Abu Sayyaf Briagde in the Philippines, FARC in Columbia, East Timor, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, El Savador and pretty much any nation that at some point in the last twenty years has encountered armed separatist groups and yet the KIA, the KNU, the Wa State Army?  Nothing.  Was he told not to raise the issue?  Did he not think it was relevant to the session theme?  It took the last question of the session, from a foreigner, before Jonathon Powell was cornered into responding on the full on military exercises being conducted in Kachin State, and all he could muster was a vague notion of success possible being achieved through representation of all the parties involved in a peace deal but only with a sufficient consensus of agreement, not from the parties in their entirety.

Thanks for your contribution Jonathon.

I poked my head through the door of the Jade Room for the Ethnic Literature session.  With Pascal Khoo Thwe on the panel, and with a more prominent location (did anybody even know the Jade Room was hidden behind the Marionette puppet stage?) this could have been one of the great sessions of the festival.  As it was, quite a few people made the trek around the puppet stage, but not a single foreigner among them.. And why would there be, without an interpreter?  A great chance to showcase not only works from the literary community here but from those writing outside the literary bubble of Yangon.

I dropped off the flyers for my speakers corners fringe event and asked them to inform the audience where and what it was and then headed back inside the hotel for the afternoon workshop.

Now I know that in collaboration with Justin Watkins for the facilitation of this fringe event i am hardly unbiased, but it was one of the most successful sessions at the festival this year.  With over 60 participants and never less than 40, with an even 50/50 split between foreigners and Burmese, Justin skilfully led a bi-lingual discussion on the use of Burmese and ethnic minority languages in Burma.  With the sun setting behind the pavilion (featured image), the floor was open to both Burmese and foreigners to discuss and debate the future of languages in Burma and what kind of policy is needed or wanted for the preservation of these languages in the face of a globalised English.  It started off with only a few of us, resting in the shadows and shade, but with the realisation that Vikram Seth would not be in conversation with Thant Myint U in the Ballroom the crowd grew until they spilled out of the boat house and onto the grass.  Aung Soe Min from the Pansodan Art Gallery contributed, as did George FitzHerbet, Timothy Garton-Ash attended and quite a few members of the press.  An ad-hoc session conceived, planned and delivered in less than 48 hours, away form the regimented and controlled environments of inside the hotel and a place where Burmese and foreigners could talk freely and honestly and just simply to be heard.  What more could you want?

I finished the day next to an impromptu poetry recital with some friends next to the beer tent where Soe Wai oversaw a number of volunteer poets reading aloud to a small, but engaged audience.  It seems that while the government has allowed the festival to go ahead it is also keeping a tabs on the random outbursts of expression that such a festival inevitably fosters.  One young Burmese lad next to me was convinced that Soe Wai had been followed all day by three members of the SP.  While it is impossible to tell, and it may seem to be the consequence of a natural paranoia after years of such things happening, but can it be discounted entirely>  Can the small reforms Thein Sein introduced over the last year really claim to be concrete and everlasting just because such an event has this is given the green-light? And have such reforms and the action required to uphold them filtered down to those policing them?

Consequently, a period of reflection is need after such an event like this, not only to digest the numerous articles that are sure to be published this week in the various media outlets but also to assess the legacy of this festival, what it means for the future growth of Burmese literature, how they fit alongside current free speech and censorship amendments and, ultimately, possible repercussions of 2016 general elections.

The Burmese writers and the West have been given a three year window in which to understand and collaborate together.

And that simply mustn’t be wasted.