Burmese Writer-In-Exile Speaks in Pittsburgh

by Guest Contributor    /  July 30, 2010  / No comments


Khet Mar reading at the Shadow Lounge, Photo: © http://www.examiner.com/pittsburgh

Khet Mar does not look like a revolutionary. She is demure, soft-spoken, unassuming. She appears to be as delicate and fragile as a butterfly, but that appearance belies great strength and resolve. She was only 22 years old in 1991 when sentenced to ten years in a Burma prison. Her crime: speaking out publicly for human rights. Her world has changed dramatically since then. Last Tuesday night, she spoke about her life and her country to a packed house at the Shadow Lounge in Pittsburgh’s East End.

Khet Mar is a renowned journalist and writer from Rangoon, Burma. In 1991, when the repressive military junta controlling Burma placed democracy leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi under house arrest and refused to allow her to travel to Norway to receive her Nobel Peace Prize, Khet Mar was one of hundreds of university students arrested for publicly protesting. Sentenced to ten years in prison, she was fortunate to be released after only a year – beneficiary of a national amnesty extended by General Than Shwe upon replacing General Saw Maung as military commander in April 1992. Thereupon, Khet Mar returned to university, her writing and working for human rights.

In 2006, Khet Mar started doing social work as a volunteer teacher and organizer for several orphanage schools. When Cyclone Nargis devastated her country on May 3, 2008 – killing an estimated 130,000 people – she began doing relief work for victims. In March 2009, when her activities threatened to return her to prison, Khet Mar left Burma and relocated to Pittsburgh with her husband, Than Htay Maung, and their two young sons. Since then she has been the Writer-In-Residence at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, located in Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets.

City of Asylum/Pittsburgh provides safe haven for writers-in-exile where they may practice their craft without fear of censorship or political repression. For two-year periods, writers are provided a furnished home, a living stipend, medical coverage and assistance in transitioning to a new life. Similar programs can be found in Las Vegas, Ithaca, Miami and throughout Europe. Originally, asylum cities operated under the auspices of the International Parliament of Writers established in 1994 in Paris by Salman Rushdie and others. Upon the dissolution in 2004 of the IPW, two new organizations were formed. The International Cities of Refuge Network was created to serve as an umbrella organization and information clearinghouse for local asylum programs in Europe. The North American Network of Cities of Asylum was created to serve the same purpose in North America. NANCA was part of the University of Nevada Las Vegas and subsequently became independent and changed its name to Cities of Refuge North America. CORNA dissolved and folded into ICORN in 2009. There is currently no formal affiliation of U.S. Cities of Asylum with any umbrella organization with the exception of Miami, which is a member of ICORN.

In her appearance at the Shadow Lounge last Tuesday, Khet Mar discussed current human rights conditions in Burma and the repression of journalists after Cyclone Nargis. She also read from her writings, in Burmese and English, about being interrogated prior to and during her incarceration. Her moving talk was preceded by clips from two short films: Burma – Land of Fear and Eyes of the Storm. The event was sponsored by Amnesty International with the support of the Pittsburgh Human Rights Network.

Amnesty International is a worldwide organization of people campaigning for human rights. Their members exert influence on governments, political bodies, companies and intergovernmental groups through mass demonstrations, vigils, direct lobbying and both on-line and off-line campaigning. The Pittsburgh chapter hosts frequent events and organizes multiple letter writing campaigns throughout the year. The Pittsburgh Amnesty International Film Group screens films focused on human rights issues, followed by discussions, at the Shadow Lounge on a quarterly basis.

The Pittsburgh Human Rights Network was developed by Global Solutions Pittsburgh in May of 2009 as an on-line interface designed to enable individuals and groups of all types in the Pittsburgh area to easily communicate and coordinate with one another in order to more effectively promote international human rights.

Please visit the Amnesty International and Pittsburgh Human Rights Network web sites frequently to learn of the wide variety of opportunities available for you to make a real difference in the lives of oppressed people around the world.

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