YANGON, Myanmar—Myanmar’s first international literary festival opens Friday in Yangon, bringing together dozens of authors from around the world, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Irrawaddy Literary Festival, which runs through Sunday, comes as Myanmar relaxes its censorship rules, bringing new freedom of expression to authors, journalists, bloggers and comedians, many of whom have served time as political prisoners.
Myanmar shut its censorship office in August and a week ago officially rebranded the Press Scrutiny board, which was responsible for censoring publications, as the Copyrights and Registration Division.
Authors must still submit their books to the government for approval before distribution, and some of the old laws used to jail dissident writers remain on the books. But local authors say that for the most part, censors have put down their red pens and they can publish quite freely.
The festival is the latest in a series of “firsts” for this long-closed nation, where sweeping political reform has resulted in a rush of business and cultural engagement with the outside world. In recent weeks, Myanmar has seen its first marathon, its first big foreign rock concert — by Jason Mraz — and its first New Year’s Eve countdown, an event inconceivable under old laws that banned public gatherings.
“Wild Swans” author Jung Chang, India’s Vikram Seth, British historian Timothy Garton-Ash and New Delhi-based writer William Dalrymple — a force behind India’s hugely successful Jaipur literary festival — are scheduled to attend this weekend’s festival, along with more than 80 authors from Myanmar.
Myanmar’s literature is little known abroad, thanks to half a century of isolationist rule and a lack of translation.
Only a handful of books have been translated from Burmese into English. It is difficult if not impossible for foreigners to read the work of leading local authors like Ju, Ma Thida and poet Saw Wai, who have helped shape Myanmar’s tradition of literary dissent.
The few authors known overseas — like Thant Myint-U, now a government adviser, and Pascal Khoo Thwe, the first Padaung tribesman to graduate from Cambridge University — have lived for long periods abroad and wrote in English. They are not seen here as truly local authors.
The old government restrictions on publication have also cut off local readers from global authors. The international literature available here has, by and large, been limited to redacted versions of Russian and Western classics, by writers like Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, George Orwell and John Steinbeck.
The festival director is Jane Heyn, wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar. Sponsors include Yoma Strategic Holdings and Myint & Associates, companies that have been cultivating international business partners as the US, Europe and Australia unwind economic sanctions against Myanmar.