From 29 – 31 July 2013, PEN International and leading publishers from our Publishers Circle led a unique international delegation to Yangon which aimed to:
Carry out research into the current state of the publishing industry in the country and investigate ways PEN can support Burmese writers and publishers
Provide training and carry out knowledge-sharing workshops with Burmese and international publishers
Provide support to writers aiming to form a new PEN Myanmar Centre
Recent reports investigating the freedom of expression in Myanmar – for example this report from Index on Censorship – have shown a country in the midst of a difficult and precarious transitionary period.
On the one hand there has been an increased openness in the country over the last year, with publishers allowed greater freedom in what they can print – particularly since the dissolution of the Censorship Board in January 2013.
Currently the latest Case List from the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International shows a dramatic decrease in the number of imprisoned writers and publishers in the country. In downtown Yangon street-vendors openly display copies of writings by Aung San Suu Kyi, autobiographies of her father Bogyoke Aung San, prison memoirs from some of the country’s leading political activists, and bootlegged copies of the previously banned 1984 by George Orwell – a situation unthinkable even three years ago.
However, a number of increasingly worrying factors continue to develop. These include rising ethnic tension, fear over what will happen after the 2015 elections, and the introduction of new legislation such as the Draft Press and Publishing Bill, which is feared to include highly repressive restrictions. These factors have left observers, at best, cautiously optimistic about the current changes in freedom of expression taking place in Myanmar.
Furthermore, the problems undermining the publishing industry in the country extend far beyond the effects of direct censorship and political interference. Reports from a recent International Publishers Association (IPA) research delegation to Myanmar – which provided valuable information for the PEN training sessions – found that deep-rooted infrastructural and training problems create significant challenges for Burmese publishers. These problems were largely linked to the decades of economic decline the country has faced under military rule.
Publisher Training – 29/30 July 2013
On 29 and 30 July 2013 representatives from 15 leading Burmese publishing houses took part in training and knowledge-sharing seminars planned by PEN International’s Publishers Circle, and hosted by the British Council library, in downtown Yangon.
These included some of the country’s most successful publishers from houses such as Union Press, Our Press, and the Eras – whose founder Moe Way (pictured second from the left below) has been largely responsible for maintaining the existence of dedicated poetry publishing in the country over the last two decades.
Lively and in-depth training sessions were led by international publishers including Jo Lusby (Managing Director of Penguin North Asia), Ronald Blunden (Senior Vice-President, Corporate Communications, Hachette Livre), and Ola Wallin (Publisher at Ersatz, a member of the Swedish collective De Oberoende, and board member of the Swedish PEN).
The workshop sessions ranged from needs analysis and mapping of the problems facing publishers in Myanmar, to presentation of best practice business models which had been successful in a range of other countries and markets, to more targeted sessions focused on areas such as:
Access to International Markets
Cooperatives and Publishing Collectives
Overviews of Supply Chain Models
As well as the training from international publishers, the sessions focused on sharing of ideas and resources between publishers – an important feature, as years of repression of the industry have led to difficulties in working collaboratively and a virtual impossibility of working with international colleagues.
Meeting of the Proposed PEN Myanmar Centre – 30 July 2013
On 30 July 2013, PEN’s International Secretary Hori Takeaki, PEN International staff, and delegates from the Publishers Circle, met with 20 leading Burmese writers, editors, and bloggers who have been working to create a PEN Myanmar Centre.
The Centre has been in planning for over 12 months and is hoping to launch soon, with the aims of:
Promoting new Burmese literature and supporting emerging writers
Campaigning for improved Freedom of Expression and legal protections in Myanmar
Providing successful creative writing and educational programmes
The delegation worked with the prospective Centre to help finalise details of their constitution, membership policy, and strategy plans, in order for the Centre to be presented for vote by the PEN membership and the Assembly of Delegates at the 2013 PEN International Congress.
It is hoped that having a strong and active PEN Centre in the country will be a key factor in enabling PEN to make meaningful efforts to promote literature and defend freedom of expression in Myanmar.
Finally, over the course of the delegation, PEN International met with key individuals and organisations involved in promoting literature and defending freedom of expression in Myanmar, who we hope will be valuable partners in our future work in the country. These included leading Burmese writers, representatives of the major Yangon cultural institutions, and human rights advocates. It also included meetings with other international NGOs working the country, and key diplomatic contacts.
Freedom of expression is in a transitional phase in the country. Through continuing to work to support leading publishers, by fostering a strong PEN Centre, and through working with other leading cultural figures in Myanmar, PEN hopes to help ensure that increased openness and freedom is ensured.
To find out more about our ongoing work in Myanmar please contact our Centres and Committees Officer Paul Finegan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To find out more about Freedom of Expression in Myanmar please contact our Writers in Prison Committee Asia Researcher Cathy McCann (email@example.com)
To find out more about PEN International’s Publishers Circle and its work please contact our Literary Manager James Tennant (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PEN International would like to thank all those organisations and individuals who provided insight and support in organising this delegation. In particular we would like to thank all the members of the Publishers Circle, without whose support we could not have undertaken this work.