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A war on words

They came for Zargana after midnight. He cannot have been too surprised - he knew the crackdown had begun, and he had made no secret of his support for the marching monks. A well-known comedian and poet, he had, just the day before, with Kyaw Thu, an actor friend, and Win Naing, a politician, organised a donation ceremony for them. Kyaw Thu wasn't at home when the authorities came knocking, and is still at large; it is thought that Win Naing and Zargana are being held, along with many others, at a former racetrack while the authorities decide what to do with them. A few people have been released, but Zargana (he is in fact called Maung Thura; his stage name means "tweezers tweezers An instrument with pincers used to grasp or extract. See Optical tweezers. " and refers to his initial training in dentistry) has so far been too high-profile a scalp to let go.

Zargana had, in easier times, an ability to pull crowds second only to Aung San Aung San

(born 1914?, Natmauk, Burma—died July 19, 1947, Rangoon) Nationalist leader of Burma (Myanmar). He led a student strike in 1936 and became secretary-general of a nationalist group in 1939.
 Suu Kyi's. His close-to-the-knuckle jokes were spread - are still spread - by word-of-mouth throughout the country. "He's very inventive," says Htein Lin, an artist who himself served six-and-a-half years in prison (on false charges) and who now, having married a former British ambassador to Burma, lives in London. Htein Lin has been a close friend of Zargana's ever since the older man awarded him first prize at a comedy competition, 23 years ago. "Zargana's jokes always reflect current conditions in the country and are new and up to date. Other comedians just repeat old jokes," he adds. Which explains why he is detained now and has been detained before - in the protests of 1988, the last time the people of Burma rose to call for democracy in such numbers, and then in 1990, after he impersonated General Saw Maung Saw Maung (1928 - 1997), born in Mandalay, was a political figure in Myanmar. He was a military general when he staged a coup in 1988 and became the prime minister and effective dictator of the country. , head of the State Law & Order Restoration Council, the then newly formed military junta Noun 1. military junta - a group of military officers who rule a country after seizing power

clique, coterie, ingroup, inner circle, camp, pack - an exclusive circle of people with a common purpose
, at a rally of thousands. That time he got five years, several months of which were spent in solitary confinement solitary confinement n. the placement of a prisoner in a Federal or state prison in a cell away from other prisoners, usually as a form of internal penal discipline, but occasionally to protect the convict from other prisoners or to prevent the prisoner from causing . Reading and writing were banned, so he scratched poems on the floor of his cell with a piece of broken pottery, and committed them to memory.

Poems - words - have power in Burma, and the military authorities realise it. International PEN, the global writer's association, has a Writers in Prison Committee, led by Sara Whyatt, which is currently campaigning for the release of nine writers serving sentences ranging from seven to 21 years. Among them are two young poets, Aung Than and Zeya Aung, who wrote a book of verse called Daung Mann (or The Pride of the Peacock - the fighting peacock being a symbol of the pro-democracy movement). Last June they were convicted of writing "anti-government poems" and received sentences of 19 years apiece. Their printer received 14 years, and their distributor seven.

U Win Tin U Win Tin (born March 12, 1929) is being held prisoner in Burma (Myanmar) because of his senior position in the National League for Democracy (NLD) and for his writings. Arrested in July 1989, he has spent the last 17 years in prison. , a journalist, was for years editor-in-chief of a Mandalay-based newspaper called Hanthawaddy, until it was shut down by General Ne Win for running too many articles critical of his regime. In 1988 he established, briefly, the Burmese Writers' Association; from the beginning he was a leading figure in the National League for Democracy, and an important adviser to Suu Kyi. For these crimes, and ostensibly os·ten·si·ble  
Represented or appearing as such; ostensive: His ostensible purpose was charity, but his real goal was popularity.
 for harbouring a girl who had had an illegal abortion, he was sentenced to 20 years; he has now been imprisoned im·pris·on  
tr.v. im·pris·oned, im·pris·on·ing, im·pris·ons
To put in or as if in prison; confine.

[Middle English emprisonen, from Old French emprisoner : en-
 for 18, since 1989. He too has gone to great lengths to keep writing, making ink out of brick powder from the walls of his cell, writing with a pen made from a bamboo mat; now 77 years old, he has, according to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 PEN, had two heart attacks, lost most of his teeth, and is suffering from diabetes, spondylitis spondylitis /spon·dy·li·tis/ (spon?di-li´tis) inflammation of vertebrae.

spondylitis ankylopoie´tica , ankylosing spondylitis
, and a hernia.

Ludu Daw Amar Ludu Daw Amar (born 29 November 1915), whose name is also spelt Ludu Daw Ah Mar, is a well known and respected leading dissident writer and journalist in Mandalay, Myanmar (formerly Burma). , 92 next month, has become a figurehead figurehead, carved decoration usually representing a head or figure placed under the bowsprit of a ship. The art is of extreme antiquity. Ancient galleys and triremes carried rostrums, or beaks, on the bow to ram enemy vessels.  and inspiration for writers across Burma: every year her birthday is celebrated by writers and journalists all over the country. She made her name as a journalist, and also as a writer of books about Burmese culture, a translator of books from English, and a memoirist. She is not in prison, but is continually harassed by the authorities, yet "she is fearless," says her friend Anna Allott, a senior research associate in Burmese at the School of Oriental and African Studies The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) is a specialist constituent of the University of London commited to the arts and humanities, languages and cultures, and the law and social sciences concerning Asia, Africa, and the Near and Middle East.  in London. "She is an object of hate and suspicion. The censors read everything she writes with a magnifying glass magnifying glass: see microscope.

magnifying glass

traditional detective equipment; from its use by Sherlock Holmes. [Br. Lit.: Payton, 473]

See : Sleuthing
." One of Ludu Daw Amar's sons was killed in a 1967 communist purge; another, also a communist, is in exile in China; and yet another, Nyi Pu Lay, a writer, has served nine years in prison. The stories he wrote during that time cannot be published in Burma; one of them, translated by Htein Lin's wife Vicky Bowman, appears in a PEN-published book about censorship Allott wrote in 1993, called Inked Over, Ripped Out.

In her extended introduction to that volume, Allott notes that Burma once had the freest and liveliest press in Asia. But things have changed in the last 50 years. General Ne Win took power in a coup d'état in 1962. That August, the government passed a law requiring that copies of all published material - books, magazines - be presented for scrutiny. The censorship office's 11 guidelines for what cannot be printed still include "anything that might be harmful to national solidarity and unity ... any incorrect ideas which do not accord with the times ... [and] any descriptions which, though factually correct, are unsuitable because of the time or the circumstance of their writing". Newspapers were nationalised in 1964. Ever since, official news has had only a glancing relationship to reality, while censorship has had a great impact on the nature and ambition of Burmese letters. Writers are never "able to write freely about what they feel and think", says Allott. It's "a millstone millstone

Either of two flat, round stones used for grinding grain to make flour. The stationary bottom stone is carved with shallow grooved channels that radiate from the centre. The upper stone rotates horizontally, and has a central hole through which grain is poured.
 round their necks".

Yet the regime has not been able to dent the liveliness of Burma's literary culture. Because of a system of education run through the monasteries, literacy levels - unlike in many similarly totalitarian states in the developing world - are high. The educational system, which forces the brightest high-school graduates into medicine, is also gender-blind; there are many women writers, and much is written by doctors, who have greater access than lay people to extremes of experience across the country. Finally, television arrived in Burma rather later than it did in the west, and when it did broadcast nothing but unsurprising political programmes and South Korean soaps, which all means that there is a hungry reading public. There are fewer novels than there might otherwise be - it is too dispiriting dis·pir·it  
tr.v. dis·pir·it·ed, dis·pir·it·ing, dis·pir·its
To lower in or deprive of spirit; dishearten. See Synonyms at discourage.

[di(s)- + spirit.]

 and expensive for everyone involved if a novel is banned - but there is a thriving culture of monthly literary magazines, full of short stories, poems, cartoons, passed hand to hand in tea shops, or borrowed from lending libraries.

Under such circumstances the temptation for everything to have a defiant message is great. Often the only way to do this is to develop subtle allegories that can fox the censors, but be understood by the readers - a difficult line to tread, and one which can lead to misunderstanding and searching for meanings that aren't there. The most effective methods are often straightforward - a carefully placed reference to a red shirt in a short story, for example, to symbolise a person who has been shot - but in the paranoid world of censorship, anything can happen. And in fact red is a tricky subject because it might also be taken to refer to communism: the word would then have to be scrubbed out, the book cover with too much red in it replaced. According to a 1994 piece in the Independent, the word "sunset" was often banned in books because it could be construed as an attack on Ne Win, whose name means "brilliant as the sun".

Another method to circumvent censorship is to rely on puns and secondary meanings. Burmese words often have similar shapes, so all it takes is a subtle change of consonant, or vowel, or tone, or even one small mark, for a phrase to change its meaning completely. So, the recent bank advertisement "Ma sú naing hmá, hsìn-yèh-meh" (Only if you cannot save, will you be poor), can become, with the removal of one dash above the yèh (in the Burmese alphabet): "Only when Ma Su [an affectionate name for Suu Kyi] wins, will [the army] step down." Zargana, who slotted himself into a Burmese tradition of a'nyeint, a form of cabaret that included the figure of the court jester court jester: see fool.  - the only person, when Burma had a monarchy (before it was a British colony, from 1886 to 1948), allowed to criticise the king - was able to push lese-majeste even further because of his skill with puns.

Increasingly, Allott says, publishers are taking the safer route of reprinting Burmese writers of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Much is also translated from English - everything from Harold Robbins Harold Robbins was an American author.

Robbins claimed to be a Jewish orphan raised in a Catholic boys home who made and lost a fortune by age 20. In fact, Harold Rubin was reared by his pharmacist father and stepmother in Brooklyn.
 to Gorky, detective fiction Detective fiction is a branch of crime fiction that centers upon the investigation of a crime, usually murder, by a detective, either professional or amateur. Detective fiction is the most popular form of both mystery fiction and hardboiled crime fiction.  to Gone with the Wind. Sometimes the sources are acknowledged, sometimes not. "I got caught out once, translating," says Allott, ruefully rue·ful  
1. Inspiring pity or compassion.

2. Causing, feeling, or expressing sorrow or regret.

. The story turned out to be Gimpel the Fool Gimpel the Fool (1956) is a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It tells the story of Gimpel, the simple bread maker who is the butt of many of his town's jokes. It also gives it's name to the collection first published in 1956. , by Isaac Bashevis Singer Noun 1. Isaac Bashevis Singer - United States writer (born in Poland) of Yiddish stories and novels (1904-1991)

And very occasionally, the traffic goes the other way. Some years ago a woman called Nu Nu Yi Inwa, from Inwa, near Mandalay, wrote a novel called Smile As They Bow. She has written over 15 novels, and a hundred short stories, setting her tales among the rural poor. Smile As They Bow takes place in the world of spirits that complements Burmese Bhuddism, a world and set of beliefs that, as Allott puts it, wryly, the "military regime is not very proud of". Nevertheless, there is a yearly festival of spirits held near Mandalay every August; increasingly, it is attended by men in drag, with their boyfriends. Nu Nu Yi Inwa had the obligatory run-ins with the censors - they deleted a scene that portrayed rich people in big cars passing children begging on the roadside (it was assumed the big cars referred to military privilege); a scene in which a monk had an affair with a woman; and references to boyfriends wherever they occurred. It was with the censors for a year, but was eventually published, and has recently been translated. Nu Nu Yi Inwa has just appeared on the long-list for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize, where she is up against 22 writers from all over Asia. The winner will be announced next month.

· On Thursday October 25, English PEN is hosting an evening event, Freedom Writ Large, to pay tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi Aung San Suu Kyi (oung sän s chē), 1945–, Burmese political leader.  and other Burmese writers. Melissa Benn will be chairing a panel of expert speakers and readers including John Pilger, Benedict Rogers, Zoya Phan, Justin Wintle, Maureen Lipman and Pascal Khoo Thwe Pascal Khoo Thwe was born into a small tribe in Southeast Asia known as the Padaung in 1967. He was a leading voice in the fight for Burmese nationalism and is most commonly known for his autobiography, From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey, for which he received the . To book tickets please call English PEN on 020-7713 0023 or visit
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Date:Oct 13, 2007
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