In the past, Burmese writers knew who are our enemies were. Our fear has been transformed. Burmese writers once lived in fear of a single military regime but that fear has shifted to paranoia now that faceless, oppressive groups have begun to persecute people.
A surgeon, writer and political commentator, Ma Thida spent 5 and a half years in prison in the 1990s for her activism. Ever since her release she has monitored and written on events in Burma, and, after the lifting of the military regime, founded PEN International's Myanmar Centre.]
Ma Thida's life has mirrored that of the Burmese democracy movement from its birth in the mid-1980s, through its brutal suppression throughout the 1990s and 2000s, to its ascent to government today.
A surgeon, writer and political commentator, Thida spent 5½ years in prison in the 1990s for her activism. Ever since her release she has monitored and written on events in Burma, and, with the lifting of the military regime, she became a founder member of PEN International's Myanmar Centre, and is now also a member of PEN International's Board.
Thida was a bookish, academic child. She was only 16 when she started medical school, and despite the demanding schedule, found time to write short stories alongside her studies. She made such an impression that she was soon being published in the weekly Yokeshin journal. Her stories centred on tales of poverty, something that she had observed when visiting her grandparents' home in the countryside, and that was a driving force in her becoming engaged in politics in the mid 1980s. Thida later became an aide to Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the newly founded National League for Democracy (NLD). She travelled the country on the campaign trail until Suu Kyi was put under house arrest in 1989, where she was to stay until 2010.
Despite the systematic repression of democracy activists, Thida continued to campaign until, in August 1993, she was herself arrested. She was sentenced to 20 years, convicted of 'endangering public tranquility, having contact with unlawful associations and distributing unlawful literature'. Conditions at Insein Prison were dire. Often held in isolation and denied proper medication, Thida's health declined, contracting pulmonary tuberculosis among other ailments. Following an international campaign headed by PEN International and Amnesty International, she was released early, in February 1999.
Thida returned to medicine, studying in the evenings on-line for a Phd in health management while volunteering in the mornings for the Muslim Free Hospital, which provides free medical care for people of all denominations. In the afternoons she edited a literary magazine. She earned her living working at a private medical practice. In 2008, when a travel ban against her was lifted, she went to the USA to take up university fellowships - first at Brown, and then at Harvard.
Thida returned to Burma where she resumed her work writing and editing literary magazines. As restrictions eased, she was able to publish more freely. Her novel Sunflower, banned when she was arrested, became available. In 2011 her novel, 'The Roadmap', written in English and based on the democracy movement, had to be published under a pseudonym in Thailand. Yet just a year later her prison memoirs were published in Burma.
In the November 2015 General Elections, the NLD won an absolute majority of parliamentary seats in the first open elections since 1990, but is now itself under scrutiny. While the NLD is criticised for not speaking up for minority rights, Thida herself is editor of The Independent, which focuses on ethnic issues. In a June 2013 Committee to Protect Journalists statement, Thida says: "Unless we have that type of paper, we cannot say we have freedom. Otherwise we cannot hear the voices from far, remote areas: What are they suffering? What are their needs? What is happening? We haven't a clue." She is also a frequent commentator on continuing media freedom restraints.
Thida remains an admirer of Aung San Suu Kyi, but is not uncritical, explaining that people in Burma "have too high expectations of her ... it's not fair for anyone to shoulder such a burden. This is how I see her being trapped in a prison of praise." Thida, free from this burden, continues to speak out for all. In 2013, she founded PEN International's Myanmar Centre, working on strengthening freedom of expression and the legal frameworks needed to ensure it. The Centre has found itself under attack by increasingly influential Buddhist hard liners. One PEN event had to be cancelled when 'several truckloads of Buddhist monks' arrived, demanding that two Muslim speakers be removed from a panel, and that Thida not be part either because of her work for the Muslim Free Hospital.
As Thida notes, new freedoms have brought with them new challenges.
We think of the media ownership as a form of censorship. Even before the end of state censorship, media licenses always played an important role in prohibiting freedom of expression. It's much easier for military cronies or family members to get licenses to start a newspaper or magazine or TV station.
Reporters and editors face direct threats from the media owner. The writers can be dismissed or fined within their organization if they don't write what the owner wants.
In the short time that PEN Myanmar has been in existence, it has already made an impact. In June 2017 it was announced that journalists will no longer be imprisoned for 'defamation', and that other areas of press freedom will be strengthened. The same month, PEN Myanmar had published what it plans to be a series of 6-monthly 'score cards' monitoring freedom of expression based on scores from other NGOs, and giving recommendations for changes that need to be made to address the continuing problems of censorship.