...And Poetic Justice For All Civilians of Burma

by David Calleja, Jul 5, 2009 | Destinations: Myanmar
Poetic Justice: Sin Kye (immediate right) reads out a tribute to Cyclone Nargis victims

Poetic Justice: Sin Kye (immediate right) reads out a tribute to Cyclone Nargis victims

Poetic Justice: Sin Kye (immediate right) reads out a tribute to Cyclone Nargis victims


In 1996, Sin Kye, a prize winning author and poet from Burma, fled Rangoon for Australia. The depth of his affection for civilians of all ethnic groups in Burma is matched only by his lifetime passion; finding words that live in the soul of his civilian population. He conjures up images of his beloved and butchered homeland and summarises them in a manner equivalent which can best be described as the tears that follow after sharing a story of hardship.  

"In my time, I have witnessed a lot of suffering. I see and feel deep pain in my heart. What we are enduring is unnecessary, irrelevant and preventable," Sin Kye tells me.

Like so many other people that fled Burma, he has left behind a life of dissidence and once bountiful homeland that over the years has been raped, robbed and left to rot by the country's military junta.

One week before we agreed to met in a neutral friend's home and discuss about his life's work and the current situation in Burma, Sin Kye accepted an invitation to read a tribute poem on the first anniversary for the victims of Cyclone Nargis. As dusk descends on a brisk evening in Melbourne, a crowd of supporters clutching candles in the forecourt of the State Library of Victoria falls silent.

The mood of the audience is sombre.

If Sin Kye was a writer located in Burma, he, like all other journalists, would have faced censure and risked imprisonment for attempting to cover the first year anniversary. All attempts to cover stories about the one year anniversary were blocked by the junta. Consequently, barely a word was mentioned unless it contained positive progress about the miracles being delivered by the Burmese military regime.

Flanked by a long-time friend who has known him since the days of ‘88 Generation', Sin Kye reads out his poetic tribute in Burmese and the aura that it leaves requires no translation. One only has to feel the sorrow that bites like a chilling breeze in the air. It binds survivors and supporters of a free Burma together.

Sin Kye expresses the sorrow of Australians and all people from Burma, regardless whether they are directly or indirectly affected or not. He has lost contact with 100 people, both relatives and friends. They are either dead or missing.

For Burmans and members of the country's many ethnic minorities, the loss of one innocent civilian triggers unified grief. They know that the junta have prematurely marked graves for so many individuals who were either swept away or whose fate is still unknown. Burma's worst humanitarian crisis has killed more than 140,000 people in the country's Irrawaddy Delta region and left millions destitute.

These days, Sin Kye is a 75 year-old man of Karen background. His ethnic minority group have been waging a five decade long civil war against the Burmese military junta, the longest continuing armed struggle being fought today.

Sin Kye's birth home is Wakema, deep in the Irrawaddy Delta's heartland. This region bore the brunt of the fury delivered by Cyclone Nargis, destroying rice paddy fields and the lifeline of Burma's rice supply.

These elements add more emphasis to the vigil because he is weeping for his land that he was raised in. Sin Kye's delivery of the Burmese language is poignant, reflecting a man who has devoted his lifetime to the field of literature and evoking distraught visual images to non-Burmese speakers.

He frequently met with other Burmese poets and literary scholars at 33rd Street in the former capital of Rangoon, a place also referred to as Wuthering Heights. He describes this venue as somewhere even the SPDC are afraid to trespass. It may be arguably the only democratic enclave within the whole of Burma, an oasis from the ever-present eye of the military. The venue gave birth to a number of dissident writers.

Influenced by the late poet Din Moe, Sin Kye says, "When I was a writer in Burma, I initially concentrated on journals but then expanded to cover poems and short stories that focussed on the lives and feelings of civilians, how they view their own existence and the environment around them. I spoke of how farmers toiled the earth when planting crops and how factory workers struggled to make enough to feed their families."

By his own reckoning, Sin Kye estimates that he has written about 50 poems and 70 short stories on topics that he says ordinary people can relate to, such as the 2004 tsunami and Cyclone Nargis.  All of his works have been banned by the military authorities in Burma, but he is ambitious to have everything released in Australia.

Sin Kye is famous for writing Burmese poetry about life in pre-independence Burma. "The old style of writing poetry is more orderly and rhythmic," Sin Kye explains. "It concentrates on past events in Burma and what the event means in the context of history, whereas new style poetry has language that is free-flowing and expresses the feelings of civilians in Burma. This is a more direct form of communication.  The language and emotions speak to the people in way that I like to write."

Through his poetry, Sin Kye is providing an insight to the thoughts of the cyclone's voiceless victims who otherwise cannot speak out for fear of reprisal.

These days, Sin Kye remains very active in writing and releasing poetry. He is currently working on a tribute to jailed opposition leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi.

"I am preparing to write about a poem about the hardships experienced by this inspirational woman," Sin Kye says. "I am not talking about just the political events, but also the personal experiences that she has endured in the course of her life."

On 14th May 2009, the British newspaper The Guardian reported that the Nobel Peace Prize winner was recently led from her residence to the notorious Insein Prison, following the arrest of an American citizen identified as John William Yettaw, who swam across a lake adjoining Daw Suu Kyi's residential compound.  He is alleged to have spent three days in the guest room of her villa.

Aung San Suu Kyi's trial has been delayed frequently by the courts, the latest until 10th July. She faces charges of breaching the Law Safeguarding the State from the Dangers of Subversive Elements, a charge she denies.  If convicted and found guilty, Daw Suu Kyi faces a further five years confinement.

Sin Kye regards this incident as very sorrowful, considering everything she has to deal with; the death of her British academic husband Michael Aris in 1999, the international spotlight, relentless pressure and harassment from the SPDC, refusal to go into exile in the United Kingdom, and the mounting toll on her health.

I asked Sin Kye what he believed lay ahead for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

"It is very unlikely that the junta will let her go. They will hold elections in 2010 without her being allowed to participate, which will be a tragedy of major proportions," he says bluntly.

The constitution prohibits any Burmese national who is, or has previously been married to a foreigner, from participating in any elections.

Like so many writers before him, Sin Kye's political activist roots have a strong foundation in the '88 Generation' movement, heading the Burmese Literary and Cultural Organisation (BLCO) and coordinating mass marches.

He delivered speeches to audiences and encouraged other artists and writers to participate in a demonstration on behalf of Daw Suu Kyi at the western gate of Shwedagon Pagoda.

During this time, he worked alongside previous members of the National League for Democracy's Central Committee, including Maung Thaw, U Wen Tin and Win Khed.

He was arrested twice by the military authorities for his role in protesting against the junta; once during the 1988 revolution, and again in a military operation during the 1990 election while in the Irrawaddy Delta while Secretary of the Union of Karen League (UKL).

"I advised the Burmese Army against conducting a raid, saying that their safety would be jeopardised," he says. Sin Kye was detained for criticising the military regime. "As a member of the Karen ethnic minority, I wanted to prevent Karen people from being in any danger (as a result of military incursions)."

Sin Kye intends to publish further writings about the history and plight of his people, with plans to release literature about the first Karen President of Burma, Mahn Nwin Maung, and We Love Yo Ma, a frank description of life before the 1988 People Power revolution.

Using the powerful imagery of literature, Sin Kye released details of his imprisonment in a poem entitled The Traveller in Monerplaw. This, according to the elderly writer, was part of the military junta's attempt to destroy him.

"I want to return to Burma and become a candidate for the 2010 elections, but sources (from within Burma) have advised against doing so because the SPDC will re-arrest me and continue the psychological torment I received while in jail," Sin Kye says.

The author believes that it will take the Irrawaddy Region between three to five years to recover. Sin Kye says that Burma's reclusive leader, General Than Shwe boasts of the government being self-sufficient due to the country's rice surplus able to feed 100 million people.

"I can tell you that civilians are still being forced to eat dead rats that are floating in the floodwaters," he says.

Burma's military rulers have not learnt the lessons from recent natural disasters in the Asian region, according to Sin Kye. He says that the 2004 tsunami in Aceh led to a truce between the Indonesian military and Acehnese rebels after working together to rebuild the devastated province. Similarly, the Sichuan earthquake in China provoked a human element in authorities. Leaders were forced to meet affected people, hand out food and share their sorrows with families of the deceased.  "But the military regime has not offered one word of sympathy to the victims of Cyclone Nargis because they lack humility."

In reflecting up how he felt about reading his poem at Melbourne's Candlelight Vigil, reading, Sin Kye speaks openly of the experience. "I was choked with emotions; tears were flowing from my eyes. The people of Burma, regardless of our ethnicity, are all socially, politically and spiritually connected."

Discussing the root of these problems, Sin Kye declares, "The junta always look to blame the west for their country's problems. It started with the effects of British colonialism, they regard Aung San Suu Kyi as a puppet for the United States and the United Kingdom and their paranoia towards any possible foreign troop invasion will never cease while in power." Sin Kye tells me.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and consequent foreign troop deployments have served to deepen their fear of all outsiders. This is one reason why the junta decided to relocate Burma's administrative capital from Rangoon to the more secretive location of Naypyidaw (Burmese for city of kings) virtually overnight.

General Than Shwe and his advisors reportedly consulted astrologers prior to the move, in attempt to stave off what the regime warned its people would be an immediate attack by the United States military and naval forces.

Sin Kye believes that due to the cyclone, the western world and Burma's military leaders know that they rely on each other to cooperate. The leaders of the developed world need the Burmese military authorities to give them access to the worst affected regions of the cyclone and prevent further loss of life. The junta initially turned all international aid agencies away until after a controversial constitutional referendum to approve of the military's pathway to democracy was approved in 2008.  

As for what Sin Kye regards as a journalist's bigger fear in Burma, he is more frightened of a slow painful death through local and global ignorance as opposed to a violent ending at the hands of the junta.

"We never fear hunger, thirst or physical harm. The most that we writers fear is having our endeavour and efforts ignored by the people that we love. We are afraid that they do not recognise us and what we are attempting to do," These words reflect a fear of non-action by not only his readership but by the community at large.

"As a Karen, time is running out and I am getting old. For the sake of peace, how many young lives must we sacrifice? If we have no other choice than to continue a brutal war, then do it only when we have plenty more to spare. But we are not afforded that luxury."