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As Burma’s censors loosen their grip, one of the country’s most acclaimed authors plans to republish her novel about two gay lovers, restoring sex-laced passages once deemed too risque for readers.
Chunks of paragraphs from Nu Nu Yi’s 1994 novel “Smile as they bow” were purged by the all-powerful censorship office – seen as an Orwellian-style arbiter of all that is fit for publication.
For decades they vetted every article, book manuscript, photograph and illustration before publication, eliminating anything considered inflammatory or damaging to the nation’s military dictators.
But the quasi-civilian government that took office last year has effectively abolished direct censorship, a totemic indicator of the reforms sweeping Burma as it emerges from the shadows of outright military rule.
No one is cheering that more than Nu Nu Yi, who in 2007 became the first living Burmese to be nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize.
Her accomplishment was tempered by the fact that the celebrated novel was heavily censored at home, slammed as culturally insensitive in a society where homosexuality is illegal, although the law is not strictly enforced.
“Smile as they bow” is set against the backdrop of Taung Pyone – a phantasmagoric cultural festival that celebrates mythical “nat” spirits found in Burmese folklore.
Ceremonies at the annual festival, seen as a stomping ground for Burma’s marginalised sexual minorities, are guided by spirit mediums – usually transvestites decked up in glittering outfits and garish makeup.
The novel describes the tumultuous romance between a transvestite spirit medium in his fifties and his 20-something apprentice, with love leading to heartbreak as the young man falls for a beggar girl.
In an interview in her apartment in Rangoon, Nu Nu Yi held out a copy of her original manuscript returned by the censors – with several passages blotted out by silver ink.
Among those erased was a passage containing an intimate, invective-laced conversation which one of the protagonists uses to express reservations that he may never have sex with another woman.
It was a classic sign of how the former military rulers for decades maintained one of the world’s tightest censorship nets in Burma, suppressing a generation of writers and intellectuals.
But censor officials, who occupy the decrepit Press Scrutiny and Registration Department in Rangoon, also invited parody.
In other objections raised, they had a problem with one of the effeminate gay characters adoringly referring to his partner as “husband”. They demanded that it be changed to “son”.“For a vast majority, censorship exists in the head”
“We finally settled for ‘adopted son’ – in a desperate attempt to lend legitimacy to their romance,” she told AFP.
Even more ludicrous, she said while trying to suppress fits of laughter, censor officials complained the main characters were strikingly similar in demeanour to two top generals.
“I really didn’t know if I should get angry or laugh. It’s hard not to laugh at the excesses of propaganda and control.”
“Smile as they bow” just about made it past the censors, but the heavy-handed cuts caused her much anguish.
“I felt helpless,” she said. “Writers have a social contract with readers. We’re meant to shed light on reality… not offer a ‘sanitised’ version of reality.”
But after the government earlier this year abolished pre-publication censorship for novels, Nu Nu Yi plans to self-publish the unabridged, uncensored version of her novel in 2013.
The bold move is symptomatic of changes afoot in Burmese society, where ordinary citizens are increasingly pushing the boundaries of newfound freedoms after the government stunned the world with a series of reforms.
President Thein Sein has won widespread praise for moving to release political prisoners and overseeing the election of democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament.
He has also shown tolerance for candle light vigils to protest power outages, farmer agitations against alleged land grabs, and lively parliament debates led by a newly resurgent opposition – all unthinkable under military rule.
In a sign of liberalising social attitudes paralleling the political reforms, activists held Burma’s first ever gay pride celebrations in May.
Burma is fast “becoming a normal democracy”, said Aung Naing Oo of the Bangkok-based Vahu Development Institute, who believes that the end of harsh media restrictions is among the “top achievements” of the government.
But Nu Nu Yi cautions that self-censorship is a bigger threat than enforced censorship.
“For a vast majority, censorship exists in the head,” she said.
She also cautioned that Burma is still “a reforming state, not a reformed state” and though the steps towards democracy are a welcome change, the threat of backsliding exists.
“The changes are not set in stone,” Nu Nu Yi said.
“So before the censors change their mind… let’s change the ‘adopted son’ back to ‘husband’, she laughed.