I come from a country that has had strict censorship that not only banned freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of speech — which are basic human rights — but also consequently severely limited the development of literature, particularly poetry.
As a translator, whenever I compare translations of international literature into Burmese and from Burmese to English, I notice that Burmese works of literature tend to be limited in scope, subject matter, methods and techniques.
In August 2012, the head of the censorship Press Registration and Scrutiny Board announced the abolishment of censorship in Myanmar in accordance with the current democratization process and normalization of the country. Censorship existed in Myanmar for 48 years and two weeks.
Although the 1975 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Myanmar (which was in fact a military regime led by the dictator General Ne Win), Article 157, ensured “freedom of speech, expression and publication to the extent that the enjoyment of such freedom is not contrary to the interests of the working people and socialism,” in reality, there was a severe imposition of censorship with the possibility of long-term imprisonment for anyone crossing the line.
In effect, dissent against the government was totally silenced.
These censorship rules prevailed with harsher penalties during the second successive military regime that took over power from 1988 to 2011. A national convention against disturbances to the peace and stability of the country and opposition against the government was forcibly “approved” by the people.
Thus, materials whose contents were deemed injurious to national unity, security, peace and public order — amounting to anything that was critical of the government — were censored and banned from publication or dissemination.
Distribution, transfer or acquisition of information that undermined state security, national solidarity and culture was a criminal offense.
The pre-publication rule made sure that no anti-government content slipped out of the Scrutiny Board. If considered critical against the government even after a text, image, sound or film had been “passed” by the censorship, the material could be confiscated and the person(s) involved in the production would be put on a black list, or, if severe, face prosecution.
Not only internal but also external materials came under censorship. VOA and BBC were banned and branded as “sky-full of liars,” and those caught listening to these two broadcasting stations were duly punished, such as being sacked from his or her job. An editor was arrested for having a copy of the U.N. Human Rights report in his hand. Anyone found in possession of any underground magazine or journal faced imprisonment. For more than a decade, the name of the democracy icon and Nobel laureate Aung San Su Kyi uttered in public was considered an act of treason against the government. The lady — as she was, and still is, fondly called by the people — could not publish her books in the country.
The government also tried to limit the use of electronic equipments for communication, including the Internet. A journalist was arrested for having a fax machine. Owners of TV sets, satellite dishes and videocassette recorders had to register to obtain license. All computer equipment had to be approved by the Ministry of Communications. Operators of Internet cafés were required to save screen shots of user activity every five minutes to deliver, upon request, to the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of Home Affairs for surveillance. Eighty-five percent of email provider sites were banned.
Now that the much hated Scrutiny Board has been abolished, literature and the media have flourished in quantity if not in quality. However, the government now is trying to get a bill to be passed in parliament that will bring into existence new censorship laws to limit the human rights and civil freedoms of citizens of Myanmar.
Zeyar Lynn, a poet and translator from Burma/Myanmar, is a 2013 fellow of the International Writing Program.