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In Myanmar, a famed poet fights on, one verse at a time

June 12, 2021
by 
May Yu
The road of revolution is paved with the blood of patriots.
Once more
Our brothers and sisters lay down their lives.
“FOR OUR REVOLUTION” we bellow in agony.
But this time
Fascism must be eradicated from our country once and for all.
We’ve got the revolution in our fists and we are ready to win
By any means.

Zaw, “For the Revolution”

For Zaw, the past—like his poetry—is divided into a Before and After.

Zaw, an insta-poet, has been writing poems since high school about nature and human relationships. With the coup on Feb. 1, his verses turned political.

Before, he wrote of romance and nature; of the tribulations of everyday people leading their everyday lives. He studied Haikus, and read the work of Maung Yu Paing and other Myanmar poets whose verses enquired as to what it means to love another human being.

Maung Yu Paing, a poet, was abducted during a protest rally in Myeik since March 9, and was sentenced by a Myeik court to 2 years in prison under Section 505 (A) on June 8, according to family members.

After, Zaw wrote of friends and contemporaries gunned down in the streets by soldiers. He reflected on his privileged upbringing, in a middle-class family where, for periods of his life, he had felt no need to “be political”. After, there was a current of anger running through his work; a feeling of resentment that harkened back to a time long before, when he was a child. After, he knew that his poetry was in the service of a new cause.

On the morning of February 1, the news of the coup brought despair to millions of people across Myanmar. For Zaw, imagining life under a dictatorship brought pain.

“That morning, I cried,” he remembers. “I felt lost. Some memories of my childhood came back vividly to me. I remember having to pay respect to the generals who came to our school without knowing why I had to. I remember my childhood spent in darkness and fear. Then I immediately thought of my niece and nephew. Will they have a childhood similar to mine? Will they now have to live under the same darkness and fear under the dictatorship? I don’t want that for them.”

The next thing he did was to put his feelings into verses.

A morning
got robbed,
and they think
our tomorrows
are already theirs.
Oh dear,
you may block
the roads,
but you can’t shake
our belief and desire.

“I wrote a poem because I could not do anything else,” he says. Many were posted to Instagram, where, under 4oems, he has developed a wide following. “That was all I could do to show that I am against the coup and the injustice done to the country by the military.”

More than 30 poets have been imprisoned since the ousting by the military of the democratically-elected National League for Democracy government. Four have been killed, all of them from the town of Monywa in northern Myanmar where anti-military protests have continued in the face of intense violence by security forces.

These young men and women, adept at using social media to publicise their work, have printed poems in support of the resistance and distributed them at demonstrations, handing them directly to protesters or sticking them to lampposts and walls. Their art, which arrives as a battle cry for the movement, continues a long and rich history, from the colonial period through successive military regimes to now, of using poetry to defy authoritarian rule in Myanmar. Thakhin Kodaw Hmaing, a renowned early 20th century poet, was one of the first dissidents deemed an enemy of the state by the British and put behind bars. Today’s Gen-Z poets follow in his wake.  

One of the first poets killed during anti-coup protests in March was K Za Win. Six years ago, while serving time in prison for his part in a previous protest for education reform, he had penned ‘A Letter From A Jail Cell’ that told his father of the manipulative actions of the military. In it, he wrote:

Someday
your son, who is not a thief
nor a thug
will become employable,
good as your dah that clears weed.

That prophesy would not come to pass. K Za Win was gunned down by soldiers in Monywa on the same day, March 3, that his contemporary, Kyi Lin Aye, was also killed.

K Za Win

Kyi Lin Aye

Zaw now feels a growing tension between words and actions. “I doubt this phase of the revolution needs words,” he says. “In the early months, yes—my words, and the words of the poets, encouraged people to carry on with the resistance. Same with other artists who used different mediums. But now, we need action. Words will not get things done.”

But, whether expressed through verse or otherwise, there is something that he and his contemporaries hold that the regime is afraid of.

“When I learned about [K Za Win and Kyi Lin Aye’s] deaths, there were indescribable feelings of sadness, anger and guilt,” Zaw says. “I was also afraid.”

Yet, although fearful for his own safety, he felt that his commitment to dissent overrode all else. That is why the regime is scared of poets, he said—poets fear dictatorship more than they fear death.

Raise Three Fingers is calling for poetry submissions for tribute, and solidarity to the poets who stand strong in their anti-coup resistance. Submit your poem to media@threefingers.org