Nyein Thit: A Poet Who Does Political and Social Works
Can a Burmese artist-activist finally move away from politics?
When I travel, I often worry about my sons, even though I know they are with their father. When I think of the many things that can happen, I can’t help but worry. However, when I get too worried I remind myself of my friend Nyein Thit and his children.
- In Burma if you want to hear about issues the newspapers can’t talk about, you should go to a tea shop. Tea houses were where I used to meet with other activists, writers and artists, as well as where I built friendships. Within tea houses we talked about Burmese writers, literary trends we noticed, and, of course, politics. This online space attempts to emulate the conversations I enjoyed in Rangoon’s tea houses.
- Khet Mar is a journalist, novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist from Burma. She is the author of one novel, Wild Snowy Night, as well as several collections of short stories, essays and poems. Her work has been translated into English and Japanese, been broadcast on radio, and made into a film. She is a former writer-in-residence at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.
Nyein Thit is a poet, but living in this era has made him a politician. When he was a university student in 1976 he was jailed for two years for participating in the Hmaing Centennial Strike commemorating the Burmese nationalist Thakin Kodaw Hmaing. He also participated in the notorious 1988 uprising. After 1988 he made his living as a poet and editor, although under Burma’s censorship policies he could not be openly credited for his editorial work.
In the 1990s Nyein Thit worked for the MV Media Group. He made documentaries about forced labor in Burma and political prisoners who were sent to dangerous labor camps. Because he sent his films to foreign news agencies he was sentenced to eight more years in prison in 1999. In 2004, while in prison, Nyein Thit was granted an International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists for his documentary work.
As Nyein Thit’s family was in Mandalay, almost 500 miles from Mawlamying, where he was in prison, they could not visit him regularly. His wife, Khin Marlar, struggled to support her husband and take care of their three children. When she could get financial support from friends, she would bring the children to see their father.
Due to Burma’s poor transportation the trip from Mandalay to Mawlamying took five days, but the allotted visiting time at the prison was only fifteen minutes. Since the children could only see their father three times a year, they wanted the visit to last longer than that. So after the official visit, they would go up to a pagoda on a hill that was close to the jail and bellow, “Dad! Dad!” Nyein Thit said he could hear his children’s voices from the hill. I feel that he heard their voices not with his ears, but with his heart. Those voices gave him the strength to wait to see his children again, though he never knew when that might be. He was eventually released in January 2007.
Despite those hardships, Nyein Thit was not scared of being imprisoned again. He participated in the Saffron Revolution, led by Buddhist monks in September 2007. At the time, the police were looking for him. When they could not find Nyein Thit, who was in hiding, they arrested his wife, leaving their four children in grave danger.
Because of policy changes made by Burma’s new government, Nyein Thit came out of hiding and took a position in the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party lead by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. He is an editor for De-hlaing (The Wave), a journal run by the NLD, and the co-founder of a group called Poem+Song+Painting which helps unhealthy writers, poets, and artists. Nyein Thit is also secretary of the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association.
When I spoke to him on the phone I asked, “You have been active in political and social issues since 1976. What else do you want to do in the future?”
“I am aging now, from going in and out of jail and living in hiding. I am thinking about forgoing my political and social activities. I would like to spend time writing about my experiences and writing poetry, but I can’t say if I will be able to do what I want.”
I want this poet who has done so much political and social work to write what he wants to write without worry, but I feel uneasy because I only pray that he can do what he wants.
Translation: Courtney Wittekind