Nay Phone Latt: A Blogger and “Youth Hero”
Nobody has profiled as many Burmese artists and writers in English as our Fearless, Ink. columnist Khet Mar.
The blogger and writer Nay Phone Latt witnessed the 1988 Uprising in Burma when he was only eight years old. At that time he couldn’t imagine that 19 years later he would witness the Saffron Revolution and became a political prisoner. The following is his story.
- 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.
Nay Phone Latt grew up with his grandfather’s books and became interested in literature and politics as a teenager. Later he became a youth member of the National League for Democracy.
In wanting to revolt for a better life and to fight against Burma’s censorship, Nay Phone Latt left the country for a place where internet technology wasn’t forbidden. In 2005 he arrived in Singapore to work. This move marked the beginning of his life as a blogger, but that life, which mixes creativity with IT, made him a political prisoner when he came back to Burma.
During the Saffron Revolution Nay Phone Latt’s blog provided important information to foreign media outlets and he was arrested on January 29, 2008. After being held for over nine months, he was sentenced by a specially-assembled court to a combined 20 years and six months in prison, which included 15 years for offenses under the Electronics Act, three and a half years for offenses under the Video Act, and two years for “creating public alarm.” On February 20, 2009 a court in Rangoon reduced Nay Phone Latt’s sentence by eight and a half years, leaving him to serve 12 years in prison.
While he was in jail, Nay Phone Latt was awarded Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom prize in the “Cyber-dissident” category with Burmese comedian and actor Zarganar in December 2008. He also received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 2010, which honors writers who have fought courageously in the face of adversity for the right to freedom of expression. In the same year, TIME magazine recognized him in their annual TIME 100 list in the “Heroes” category for people who most affect our world.
While I was in Burma I never met Nay Phone Latt in person. Of course, I read his name during the Saffron Revolution while I was in Iowa City for the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. But when I returned to my country from the United States, he was already in jail. He was still in jail when I left the country for the second time with my family. In January, 2012 he was released under the new government’s fourth amnesty. I called him soon after and he answered the phone warmly: “I know you…”
Since then we have had many chats on the phone and online.
We finally met in person in November, 2012 when he came to Iowa for the International Writing Program. After the program, he stayed in Maryland, where I live, for a week. We talked pretty much the whole time. Among the many things that he said, I remember one of his sayings very well:
“I passed my time in prison with the feelings that I didn’t do anything wrong and that I was not alone. I didn’t feel guilty or disgusted with myself, and that gave me comfort. There were many people who were in worse conditions than I was and who had been in jail way longer than me. At that time, Ko Min Ko Naing was in jail for the second time, after he had already served a 16 year sentence. Since I was with people like that I didn’t get upset or depressed. I might even have been embarrassed if I felt that way.”
While he was in Maryland, we could not talk as much as we wanted because there were lots of people who wanted to see the youth hero. Nevertheless, during our conversation Nay Phone Latt asked me two or three times: “Won’t you come back home? There is much work we have to do in Burma.”
Each time he posed the question I replied “One day,” with a faint smile. I thank him for not asking “When is this ‘one day’ coming?”