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In response to the disruption of two literary events last week, PEN Myanmar, the newly established Burmese chapter of an international writer’s rights alliance, has publicly condemned the Burmese authorities and religious extremists for harassment and restrictions on literary gatherings.
At two separate events last week, one in Rangoon and one in Mandalay, crowds of Buddhist monks threatened to physically remove speakers from the literature conferences on the basis that they were Muslims. In Mandalay, Buddhist writer Ma Thida, widely admired across Burma for her writing and her work as a surgeon and activist, was also targeted because of her affiliation with Muslims.
PEN said in a statement on Monday that prohibiting certain individuals from making scheduled public appearances was a clear violation of their basic right to freedom speech, granted by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enshrined in Article 354 of Burma’s Constitution.
The statement called the episodes “alarming” and “authoritarian-like behaviour”, denouncing the harassment by ordained religious leaders and the subsequent complacency of authorities.
“We have been seeing local authorities in some townships barring literature events, as well as members of certain communities objecting to and denying the rights of some individuals … this is damaging to the very principle of literary events, and to the freedoms of speech and expression which are among our goals,” said Myo Myint Nyein, director of PEN Myanmar.
A literature talk, organised by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and meant to mark Burma’s 67th Union Day on 12 February in Rangoon, was pressured into last-minute cancellation when several truckloads of Buddhist monks arrived, demanding that two Muslim speakers – NLD lawyer Ko Ni and 88 Generation Peace and Open Society’s Mya Aye – be removed from the event’s roster. Some of the monks reportedly threatened that they would physically drag them off the stage if the event proceeded as planned.
On 15 February, another event in central Burma’s Mandalay, also featuring Mya Aye, was hounded in a similar fashion by a group of local monks who were documented expounding views that the event was an insult to the Buddhist religion.
In January of this year, writer and former political prison Ma Thida, a known Buddhist, was prevented from speaking at an event in Paungde, Pegu Division, on the grounds that she used to volunteer in a Muslim hospital, one widely known among Burma’s democracy activists for its charity and hospitality towards dissidents during the years of oppressive military rule.
“Harassing such events is damaging to the public – it doesn’t stop the writer from doing what they do – writing – but prevents the public from gaining knowledge from the writers they admire,” said Myo Myint Nyein.
Coinciding with PEN’s reproach, the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society has made a similar move. In an open letter dated 19 February, the group declared that the right to speak and write freely is “an essential right for every citizen, which for many years the people had strived for, and thus signifies a strong culture in the country,” chiding the prohibition of literary gatherings as “acts against democracy.”