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.