Memory is not a dependable thing. Milan Kundera might as well tell you that the memory of an exile about home can be even more unfaithful. It is usually muddied with conflictual fragments, what used to be there against what ought to be there. Don Quixote complex to sociologists, the tension between experience and expectation. For him the return to Myanmar in early August 2012 for the first time in almost sixteen years was rather like sleepwalking into the documentary They Call it Myanmar. He expected to see appalling poverty but he never meant to be that appalled.
Monywa, a regional trade center, 85 miles northwest of Mandalay, has been in the news recently as it has been hit hard by a severe drought due to deforestation and land grabbing epidemics that come with Myanmar’s neoliberal reforms. The region is in urgent need of a downpour and distributive justice. The number of scooters on Monywa streets has multiplied since he was last there on a visit in 1994. On an average day, he was told, there are five motorbike accidents ending up in the emergency ward of Monywa hospital. The city has not changed much otherwise. With the city’s dusty roads morphing into the streams of Chinese underbones, Monywa might soon look like Mandalay, or even Ho Chi Minh City.
On the morning of August 9, an old friend whom he hadn’t seen for almost sixteen years showed up with an old chapbook at his lodging house. The old friend was Ko Naung. The book was Funeral of the Rugged Gold (Funeral hereafter), a collection he had published at his alma mater, Yangon Institute of Technology (YIT) in November 1996. He had no idea Ko Naung was Thet Naung Soe, who was sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment for his solo protest against the Burmese junta in front of Yangon City Hall in 2002. He was released in November 2007, following the countrywide monk protest, better known as the Saffron Revolution. Ko Naung’s other treat was his line, ‘You guys have shot me up into dissent.’
Like many of its cyclostyled forbearers, and its peer New Century Defile from Yangon University main campus, Rugged Gold is the name of a series of chapbooks by poetically and politically inclined students who wanted to stretch their language beyond the bounds of military censorship. If the authorities get irate, the floor price for such an underground publication would be seven years behind bars under ‘laws’ such as ‘Law Protecting the Peaceful and Systematic Transfer of State Responsibility and the Successful Performance of the Functions of the National Convention against Disturbances and Oppositions.’ Ko Naung, a law major himself, took conscious and considerable risk in distributing the subversive collection on his campus. What’s more, he had been keeping two remaining copies of Funeral with him all these years.
Rugged gold, or old gold, is the colour of the neoclassical portico of YIT. Gold is Myanmar’s holy metal. When the living national treasure Dagon Taryar (born 1919) rendered old gold into Burmese as shwe-o-yaung decades ago, his word quickly became a sensation. Funeral therefore is about burying the tyranny of clichés. The front cover features a reproduced photo of a mass grave of young men from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Ten poets contributed an average of two poems each to Funeral. Choon was the only female poet, as the YIT sex ratio in 1996 was an awful 7 to 1. A student famously laments ‘Not enough textbooks, not enough teachers, not enough computers, not enough pocket money, not enough sexy girls.’
Technique and language experimentalisms and conceptualism, that were not permitted in the formal press, are hallmarks of Rugged Gold series. The opening piece of Funeral, titled ‘………………….’ is a collective work by key contributors and there is no mention of the authors. The idea was solidarity in anonymity as most contributors used noms de plume. Some traces of Burmese poetry’s earliest flirtations with eco-poetry and feminist poetry are there. There is a blank page in the middle of the book, mocking the censor authorities who whiteout the paragraphs they deem sensitive in any publication with silver ink. There is a translation of Max’s Verses by John Whitworth who urges that dogs be shot on sight for their bootlicking. A found object in his poem ‘declaration,’ ‘He was a murderer from/the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because/there is no truth in him./(John 8:44)’ speaks for itself. All in all, Funeral is an exposition of students’ frustration with illiberal life, as well as their love life, under the regime.
Ominous perhaps, less than a month after the launch of Funeral, the YIT would be buried for good. A student protest that emerged at the YIT portico in early December 1996 quickly spread to other campuses. The regime was caught by surprise in the early hours of the demonstration but it soon hit back by rounding up student leaders and shutting down the universities. To disperse the student concentration in urban centres, most campuses, the YIT first and foremost, were closed down and split and moved to satellite towns. The universities countrywide would be reopened only in 1999.
He also had to bury his Burmese poetics and started writing in English seriously as early as in 1998 after he left the country in the summer of 1997 following a four-month detention for his role in the protest. He now wonders what his Burmese poems would be like today if he remained in the country. For instance, his ‘sugar cubes in the present tense’ in Funeral remain sweet to him.
the flip-flap of a lady’s sarong
what about that for alternative music
condensed f-words from a cuppa
artificially coloured baozis replicate like reproduction art
art reproduction formaldehyde
a roadside teashop, ants on the jackboots
with our mouths agape, the longish
hand of a rickety old lady droops
as she bends over backward
to pick up a patinated shilling
the last remain of the great war
the street lamp limps in light rose red
the flap-flap of a hand fan
insects swarm in swarm behaviour
a six-door black cadillac swooshes past
fume shoots up and deflowers the sky
fliers, handouts and fliers
fliers, fliers and more fliers
–– ko ko thett (translated from the Burmese by the author)
Funeral was probably the first ever book to be published in Burma with a barcode on its back cover. Just like words, numbers can convey certain meanings when they are arranged in certain order. ‘The whole history of Burmese student movement is embedded in that barcode, uh?’, poet Way Khuang quipped when the code 133 88 189 2010 was unravelled to him at a restaurant in Yangon.
Spot-on he was. The last four digits 2010, for instance, means October 20, 1996, the day some YIT students were bullied and brutally beaten up by local police at a restaurant at a highway bus terminal not far from the campus. The event led to the December 1996 student protest. The rest 133 for March 13, 88 for August 8, and 189 for September 18 are much better known dates in Myanmar’s recent history. Hope you look them up for yourself.