Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Ludu Daw Amar: Speaking Truth to Power

Culture, The Irrawaddy Magazine, OCTOBER, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.8

Ludu Daw Amar: Speaking Truth to Power

by Min Zin

A brief look into the life of Ludu Daw Amar, Burma’s best known female journalist and social critic.

The Burmese word amar translates as "the strong" or "the hard". It is an apt description of one of Burma’s most respected female figures, Ludu Daw Amar (she prefers the spelling, Amah), who turned 87 in November. An energetic political dissenter and left-leaning journalist with a faculty for articulating messages to and for the public, Ludu Daw Amar and her family have had more than their fair share of troubles with the authorities. Even now, Daw Amar is under constant surveillance, but she has never been one to bow down to power. As the prefix of her name Ludu or "the people" suggests, Daw Amar’s raison d’etre is to speak truth to power on behalf of the people without compromise.

"I’ll never forget my first impression," recalls Dutch journalist Minka Nijhuis, who has met Daw Amar four times since 1995. "At first she looked so fragile that even her wristwatch seemed too heavy for her arm. But that impression disappeared as soon as she started speaking."

When asked to comment on her unwavering commitment and strength, Daw Amar told The Irrawaddy: "I do not give up easily. Besides, I cannot tolerate injustice. This is my mindset."

An anecdote about her childhood in her autobiography reveals the roots of this strong-mindedness and illustrates her oft-overlooked humble side as well: "When our mother would cane us, she would say, ‘stop crying’, and all the siblings would stop except me. I cried because I felt hurt, but the more I cried the more whippings I received. How can she force me not to feel pain? Actually it was stubbornness; my mother and I were engaged in a conflict of endurance."

This tough personality was first drawn into politics after she enrolled at Rangoon University in 1936. During the independence movement against the British, she was applauded by the daily papers for her courage and beauty, and by 1938 she made her first and lasting mark on Burma’s literary landscape. U Razart, then the headmaster of the National School and later assassinated alongside Burma’s independence hero Aung San in 1947, suggested that Daw Amar translate Maurice Collis’s book, "Trial in Burma", into Burmese. The publisher was U Hla, who ran the monthly youth magazine Kyipwa Yay (Progress for Youth) as well as a publishing house in Rangoon. With the assistance of U Hla, who became Daw Amar’s husband the following year, the translation became an instant success and quickly required multiple printing runs as the first edition of three thousand copies sold out within two months.

After U Hla relocated to Mandalay to be with his wife, Daw Amar’s literary output accelerated. Most of these works were translations of English language novels, but her real passion was journalism. After the conclusion of the Second World War, U Hla launched the fortnightly journal, Ludu ("The People"), with Daw Amar as assistant editor. By 1946, the couple had founded the Ludu Daily News; its political commentaries and analyses became a significant voice for the aspirations and struggles against colonial rule. Thus, Daw Amar earned the name Ludu Daw Amar.

But only a year after Burma gained independence in 1948, the Ludu publication house in Mandalay was reduced to rubble by bombs. "Mandalay was under frequent regime changes at that time," Daw Amar explains. "The army saw the Ludu paper as sympathetic to the Communists so government troops blew up the building." They also surrounded her residence and forced the entire household—including children and two pregnant women—out into the street. Then the soldiers raised their guns. "It was in the morning. They aimed their machine guns at us threatening to kill us all," Daw Amar recalls. Bravely, she stood firm and demanded an explanation from the soldiers. Local monks and others lobbied for their release and the troops left without inflicting any harm.

The civil war that broke out in the wake of independence intensified rapidly and abuse of power became rampant. Ludu re-opened in a new office and Daw Amar resumed her active opposition to injustices. Her articles calling for internal peace and analyses on world affairs were well received, particularly with young progressives. Nyi Se Min, a writer in his fifties, remembers: "Daw Amar’s robust analyses on international politics opened our eyes and ears. Her political views earned our admiration."

In 1953, she took her political activism to the international stage, attending the World Democratic Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, the World Peace Conference in Budapest, and the International Youth Festival in Bucharest. In the same year, shortly after the birth of the youngest of her five children, her husband was detained and imprisoned by the government for three and a half years. With Daw Amar’s editorial responsibilities now doubled, she was forced to leave the children with an aunt.Though unable to raise her children personally, Daw Amar still managed to fundamentally influence their lives. "The Autobiography of Charlie Chaplin", "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", and the seminal work that heightened environmental consciousness internationally, "Silent Spring", were among the selections on the recommended reading lists she gave to her children. She also included Burmese classics such as the works of Thakin Kodawhmaing and the innovations of Khitsan (the modernization of Burmese literature in the first half of the 20th century).

"She rarely said, ‘you must do this’, or ‘you must not do that’, but let her actions do the talking," says Daw Amar’s second son Po Than Joung. "None of the three brothers drink or smoke; not because our parents told us not to, but rather because their own deeds convinced us that these things are not good."

By the late 1950s, her eldest son, Soe Win, began to follow his mother’s example by becoming politically active in the students’ union, and by 1963 he went underground to take up armed struggle with the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). And after Po Than Joung was expelled from Mandalay University for his political activities the military regime set their sights on the entire family, each member now deemed a political subversive. Naturally, with her sons’ welfare in jeopardy Daw Amar became worried but not regretful.

"My parents never questioned our beliefs. They only told us to be careful when they learned of the government agents’ plans," says Po Than Joung, who began serving a six-year jail sentence in 1966 for his clandestine political involvement. In 1967, the government closed the Ludu newspaper for good and another year later, while Po Than Joung was imprisoned, Soe Win was killed during the CPB purges in the jungle. These internecine purges were used as the military’s most powerful propaganda offensive against the CPB and its sympathizers. After Po Than Joung was released, he received a letter from a CPB leader for Daw Amar explaining what happened to Soe Win and apologizing for the purge. "When I handed the letter to my mother, tears fell from her eyes," he says. "She said to me, ‘Your father and I have never discussed this matter. We just pretended it never happened.’" A few years later, Po Than Joung followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined the CPB. The military responded by arresting his parents and youngest brother, Ko Nyein Chan, in 1978, but Daw Amar’s defiant spirit remained unshaken.

But even throughout the family’s political turbulence, Daw Amar produced a prolific literary output, devoting most of her time researching the biographies of author Thakin Kodawhmaing, cartoonist Shwe Yo Ba Kalay, performance artist Shwe Mahn Tin Maung and others for "The Artists who People Love", her award-winning book that is now celebrated as a modern classic. She also penned "Burmese Non-dramatic Performance (Anyein)", "Contemporary Dramatic Art (Thabin)", and other books about Burmese classical music and painting that address issues of cultural identity.

But Daw Amar is not merely a nostalgic traditionalist. Although she enjoys cooking and has a fondness for flowers and countryside markets, she also likes Hollywood films and Disney cartoons. And not all of her writings chronicle the achievements of Burma’s historical cultural treasures; she was a forerunner of the innovative spoken style that distinguished modern Burmese literature from its predecessors. She was also a pioneer for advocating sex education and for voicing complaints against the unpaid labor contributions of women in modern Burmese society.

Although Ludu U Hla passed away in 1982, Daw Amar was not left a lonely widow. Her friends and admirers gathered around her unwavering integrity and inspiring writings. Beginning with her 70th birthday in 1985, writers and supporters from all over the country have traveled to Mandalay each year to assemble and pay their respects. Despite, or probably because of, Daw Amar’s popularity, her family endured continual political hardship. Ko Nyein Chan, a famous short story author who wrote under the pen name Nyi Pu Lay, was arrested and given a ten-year jail term by the regime. Though charged for having alleged contact with illegal organizations, many believe his family’s political pedigree and his satirical writings led to his detention.

Since 1994, Daw Amar’s writings turned to the disintegration of community cohesion, social responsibilities, and the negative impact of cultural decadence in Burma—something she attributes to the distorted economy and massive Chinese migration to the cities after the military coup in 1988. Her series of articles, Amay Shay Sagaa ("Mother’s Old Sayings"), criticized the changing lifestyles of young people who discarded their traditional attire, adopted heavy drinking habits and a taste for gambling, and chased the latest trends promoted by advertising.

"We proudly publish Daw Amar’s pieces regularly in our magazine since her well-intended writings represent the essence of Burmese culture," says Daw Kalaya, publisher of Kalaya magazine. Daw Amar also tried to stimulate progressive public debate on sensitive issues such as HIV/AIDS, but Daw Kalaya laments, "The censorship board didn’t allow her AIDS articles to appear in print." Nonetheless, her later writings, which mourn the loosening of traditional social and cultural values, are tinged with a conservative slant, particularly when reiterating Victorian moral teachings for Burmese women.

"We admire her as a great woman of Burma," says Ma Sue Pwint, leader of the exile-based Women’s League of Burma. "But as a woman activist working for the women’s rights movement, sometimes we have a few complaints about her strict dictums."

Daw Amar’s responses to the repressive regime and ruthless market iniquities are generally framed in a nationalistic, ethno- and religious-centric perspective. In her calls for the restoration of traditional cultural identities, she often fails to acknowledge the citizen-based politics and civic responsibilities that are essential for fostering a democratic polity in multi-ethnic Burma.

To interpret Daw Amar’s recent writings only in a context of progressive politics and contemporary liberal trends, however, can be misleading. Since she first put pen to paper more than 60 years ago, she has worked tirelessly in an environment of steadily declining socio-economic conditions and constant political repression. She is a defender of the history and culture of the former royal capital and symbol of Burmese independence, Mandalay. In broader terms, according to the veteran journalist in his sixties, Ludu U Sein Win, Daw Amar is a staunch defender of traditional Burmese cultural identity and sovereignty. Above all, Daw Amar’s lifetime commitment to fighting injustice and her refusal to be cowed into silence have made her a living symbol of resistance.

"Don’t Dance to the Tune of the Authorities"
An Interview with Ludu Daw Amar

The Irrawaddy's Assistant Editor Min Zin recently spoke to Ludu Daw Amar, 87, about her life experiences and her perspective on the current situation of the Burmese press. She also discussed social and political issues such as Chinese migration, women’s rights and the entitlements of ethnic nationalities. Below are some excerpts:

QUESTION: You have said that you prefer life as a journalist, but since you have been disallowed from working in that capacity your focus has turned to biographical works and other articles. Young people today see you as a social critic or a moral leader. How do you prefer to identify yourself?

ANSWER: When I was writing for the newspaper I could focus my proper attention on socio-political matters. Then the ban on newspapers was imposed [1967] and I had to stop after working in the business for 20 years. Though I can no longer write for newspapers, when particular social ills and news stories catch my eye I still write about them. My news instincts have influenced my work elsewhere. But I was much more contented as a newspaper journalist because we were able to write freely then.

Q: As an experienced newspaper editor, what is your evaluation of the current situation of the Burmese press?

A: The situation is like this: we cannot write anything the way we did before, there is no press freedom, and the Press Scrutiny Board is very restrictive. This means we cannot write what we want. That’s why I have begun writing about national culture—something that will not incriminate me.

Q: As journal publications are mushrooming in Burma right now, what do you think of the prospects for encouraging good journalism in the long run?

A: The prospects are not good. Journalism’s edge in Burma has become blunted. I believe that a new corps of good journalists will emerge only when we can publish newspapers freely. Right now, I don’t think any of the journalists are genuine newspaper journalists.

Q: You have translated several Thai and African short stories with the intention of fostering friendship between nations. The recent war of words between Thailand and Burma was attributed by many to the anti-Thai monarchy articles from irresponsible writers in the state-run Burmese newspapers. As a writer who has worked to facilitate goodwill among nations, what are your thoughts?

A: This is a breach of obligation for a journalist. Not only that, this group of journalists is at the beck and call of the generals; however, this is only one breed of journalists in Burma today. There is also another group who writes freely and expresses original ideas and opinions. But nowadays, journalists cannot write their opinions freely. For those of us who don’t dance to the tune of the authorities we must be creative in what we write to get the message across. It is very difficult.

Q: In one of your articles, you termed the present the Lawpang [wealthy Chinese businessmen] era. What do you think about the extensive Chinese migration in recent years in Mandalay?

A: I feel as if we are an undeclared colony of Yunnan [Province], not the People’s Republic of China. Yunnan is right on our doorstep and as soon as we opened that door, people from Yunnan started pouring in as if Mandalay was their own country.

Q: Women’s rights movements are gaining strength around the world. In some countries, governments implement Affirmative Action policies to redress the imbalances of unjust social systems and to support and empower women. Is such a model relevant for Burma?

A: We, the women of Burma have not gotten that far. We cannot even aim that far. There is no such thing as human rights in our country let alone women’s rights. That is the real situation.

Q: You have previously written some articles about Burma’s ethnic nationalities, so what are your concerns about their current situation.

A: They should enjoy equality with us.

Q: You think that the ethnic nationalities have not enjoyed equal status since Burma gained independence?

A: No. There has never been any equality [between ethnic nationalities and Burmans].

Q: All of your sons have been involved in politics, have made great sacrifices, and continue to pay a heavy price for expressing what they believe. Have you ever discouraged them from taking part in politics, or felt any regrets for not doing so?

A: I have no regrets. People get involved in politics as the situation of the country demands. My children got involved during their time because they thought they should. We had to fight for our independence and have endured civil war for more than half a century. Under these circumstances, it is the response to the government that produces politicians and political activists. Humans are humans and when they see injustice, they react by speaking out against it. So when they are beaten or arrested for speaking out they become politicians or political activists. This is how I see it. The government has forced you to become a political activist in your time as well—I saw it happen. Therefore, I neither feel remorse nor happiness for my children, but have accepted it as something that was bound to happen.

Q: On a personal note, I have heard that Gen Khin Nyunt once sent you a ballpoint pen for as a birthday present and that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also paid her respects to you. Are these rumors true?

A: Yes. Khin Nyunt has given me presents such as money and ballpoint pens to pay respect. I think he has done it a few times. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also sends her emissaries.

Q: How do you feel about the admiration shown to you from all corners of the country?

A: I don’t feel anything out of the ordinary. This interview was conducted in Burmese and translated into English.



Friday, February 1, 2002

Democracy Now!

Democracy Now!

Margarita Rossi finds out why Burmese activist Min Zin has been wanted for arrest since age 15.

By Margarita Rossi

Before I met Min Zin, I was totally unaware of the horrific political situation that the people of Burma (now called Myanmar) are living in today. I had never heard about it on the news, never read about it in a newspaper and never discussed it with anyone. Oh sure, I was somewhat aware that there were unjust and criminal governments in power around the globe, and that millions of people still have to fight for basic human rights. But it's completely different to hear someone's personal experience of fighting an inhumane dictatorship at the risk of losing their own life.

Min Zin is a Burmese pro-democracy activist who has been on the run from his government since he was 15 years old. In 1988, at age 14, he joined the pro-democracy movement that was trying to bring about change in the Burmese government. For over 40 years, Burma has been under a military dictatorship whose control includes the government, economy, education, and media. Because of the corrupt and unethical manner in which the country is run, the living situation for the vast majority of Burmese citizens is abysmal.

Hearing Min Zin's story changed me. I don't think that I can ignore the political problems of another country just because they don't affect me directly. Min Zin is a remarkable example of what a young person can accomplish.

Youth Radio: How would you describe the situation in Burma to a young person living in the US?

Min Zin: Burma has been under military dictatorship for more than 40 years… the military took total control not only over the politics, but also economic and cultural issues. In terms of political rights, freedom of expression, religious rights, educational rights — all these things end up being low ranking. The Burmese military government spends more than 50 percent of their government budget on military expenditures.

Burma is not a homogenous society. It is comprised of several different ethnic minority groups. The Burman dominated military violated not only its Burman majority, but also seriously violated the human rights of ethnic minority people.

YR: And I read on the Internet that Burma prided itself before on its education and it had one of the highest levels of education in Asia.

MZ: Exactly. Burmese education was the best in Southeast Asia... but now the whole thing is degrading mainly because of the Burmese military. The Burmese military government sees the student as a threat. So they closed off the university as a weapon to disperse the student movement… they imprisoned many students, they torture students, they kill thousands and thousands of students.

But while they shut down all civilian schools, they opened the military medical institute, military engineering institute, military computer science institute only for the military children. So the point is not just discrimination against the civilian population, but also they channel all the international assistance and aid to military sponsored schools and institutes.

YR: That's almost exactly like what happens in Argentina which is where my parents came from. They just saw the students and the young people as a threat. What is it like for children and young people living in Burma? What is their daily life like?

MZ: Well recently the WHO [World Health Organization] reported that three out of five children suffer from malnutrition. And also there has been widespread use of child labor and forced labor in Burma for the construction of tourist sites or the constructions of gas pipelines, which have been invested by U.S. and Europe corporations such as Unocal and Total. [The Burmese] government works with the international corporations to build all this construction [and] they conscript young people. Its like forced labor to build all these projects.

YR: And you also said there was a really big drug problem?

MZ: According to latest State Department report, Burma is the largest drug producer in the world. Previously, Afghanistan was the largest producer. Now Burma is the largest heroin producer… in addition Burma produces more than 800 million speed pills.

Since 1988, the universities have been shut down for nine years because the government worries that the students will get together and stage a protest against the government. So to go back to your question, all these young people and children suffer from powerlessness and aimlessness because there is no education but drugs are very available.

Also, in Burma if you are a member of a student union, you can be arrested and sentenced to seven years imprisonment, minimum. This is a law… student unions are illegal. They have been banned by the military government since 1962. They literally demolished the student union building. You are not allowed to gather more than five people for political purposes. That's why many students tend to use drugs.

YR: You became an activist and started risking your life when you were 14. Why did you become an activist?

MZ: I became involved in the [pro democracy] movement because my eldest brother and sister were both university students. And one day they went to school and they didn't come home because both of them were arrested and thrown into jail. And my other brother got dismissed from school because of his involvement. My eldest brother was in prison for four months and he was seriously tortured. He was almost paralyzed. So that kind of experience and bitterness drove me to be involved in the student movement, even though I was in high school at that time.

YR: What kind of activism do you engage in?

MZ: Well, first I tried to organize township level high school student unions. And then I tried to expand the high school student unions to the national and state level. And then I managed to found a nation wide student union and I was elected as chairman.

When I was deeply involved in the student union movement, the military came to my house and tried to arrest me, but I was not there. This was in 1989. So they arrested my father instead of me. And since then I was on the run. So I was away from my family, I was dismissed from school. And during my time on the run, I managed to write many articles, not only for underground journals, but for legally published magazines under different pen names. That's how I got involved with writing.

YR: How old were you when you were on the run and then in exile?

MZ: I was on the run inside Burma for nine years. It was in 1989 and I was 15. And then in late 1997 I could not stay inside Burma anymore because my security was really under threat. Every single member of my family was arrested because of me. And the military intelligence opened a tea shop to monitor my home and my family's movements. So I couldn't do very much inside Burma. So I decided to leave the country in late 1997 after nine years of being underground. So at that time I was 23. And I arrived at the Thai/Burma border. And I was based there for four years before coming here [to the U.S.].

YR: What was it like being underground?

MZ: At first I didn't expect I would have to be underground for nine years. I thought I would be reunited with my family after one or two years. I feel really sad because I could not go to school… I lost my teenage life.

It was pretty hard to stay in sympathizer's houses because the military intelligence, twice a month, they knock door to door and they ask the whole family to get out of the house and they search the whole house. When they did this, I had to hide in the rafters or I had to sneak out the back door. It was so harsh. Sometimes I had to stay in the rafters from 9 pm to 2 am. I was so worried, not just for me, but for the sympathizer because if I got arrested for seven years, then they would get double — 14 years.

But even under such harsh conditions, I managed to continue my activism. I kept doing publication and circulation of pamphlets and organizing demonstrations. That's what happened in 1996. A huge student demonstration took place in Rangoon to protest against the military.

YR: Why do you continue to fight when there are so many risks? You would be sentenced to the death penalty if you were caught in your homeland of Burma. I have been engaged in activism, but I don't know if I would risk my life to fight.

MZ: Well this is a personal choice. The more you understand that your own people suffer from tremendous misery, how can you neglect such suffering? These are your own people, your own brother and sister. Also, my close colleagues who have been in prison, who have been in solitary confinement for more than 13 years in shackles, their health is deteriorating. When I fled to the Thai/Burma border, I crossed the jungle for five days. Four of my friends accompanied me. Two of those friends went back to Burma. They both got arrested. One got the death penalty, the other got 60 years in prison. They are both the same age as me. How can I be ignorant, how can I be indifferent to such suffering of my fellow colleagues? You have to commit yourself to the cause because it is something that is larger than you.

YR: What do you want to accomplish with your activism?

MZ: We want to restore democracy and human rights in Burma. The whole society has been destroyed under the military dictatorship. We want to build our society. We must recognize and respect ethnic minority rights.

YR: Young people in the USA have no idea that there are such strict fascist regimes in the world now. It's so mind boggling. Here we are so protected from all of that. How can an American understand, but also take another step to get involved?

MZ: The US government, under the Clinton administration, did a good job. They imposed economic sanctions against Burma because of the human rights violations and drug involvement. It's really effective.

Also in the U.S., many students in colleges and universities got involved with local groups like the Free Burma Coalition which is the largest group of Burmese and American students working together to restore democracy in Burma by engaging in the boycott campaign against corporations that have investments in Burma. These companies support Burmese military regimes by purchasing products from Burma.

The other thing Americans can do is to write or call their local representatives to support legislation to ban imports from Burma and tighten sanctions against Burma. In this way they can effectively be involved and help the pro-democracy movement. I will say what Aung San Suu Kyi [1991 Noble Peace Prize recipient and Burmese pro-democracy leader] said, "You can use your liberty to promote ours."

YR: Do you see yourself going back to Burma? Do you hope to go back to Burma?

MZ: Yeah, I'm very hopeful. I'm always wanting to go back to my country, but not under the military dictatorship. I'm definitely going back to my country… also I miss my mom.

YR: What state is the Burmese pro-democracy movement in right now? Are you making progress?

MZ: Sure, we are making progress, but it depends on several factors. Most importantly is international pressure, to what extent the international community can coordinate with each other and put more concerted pressure on the Burmese government. On the part of the Burmese movement, we are trying our best — we've been trying our best for more than 14 years. We need the international community's assistance to move our democracy movement.

YR: Speaking of international commitment, what has the Bush administration done?

MZ: Well the Burmese government recently hired lobbyists from DCI, which is very close to the Bush administration. And they have been lobbying the Bush administration to relax its economic sanctions against Burma… this is something we should monitor.

YR: You'll be going back to Asia soon. What are your future projects and plans?

MZ: I'm going back to Thailand soon and I'll resume my magazine work. I'm also working for a radio station based in Washington DC. I'm also thinking about studying ethnic languages. I'm from the Burman majority group. If we want to envision a future federal union, we need to study the ethnic minority plight and struggle so that we can reach a mutual understanding.

YR: What's the name of your magazine?

MZ: Irrawaddy. You can visit it at http://www.irrawaddy.org/. You can also visit the Free Burma Coalition website at http://www.freeburmacoalition.org/.

— Margarita Rossi is political and proud.