Fighting with Writing, Political Activism and Social Work
Since she was 19-years-old, Khet Mar has been persecuted by the Burmese government. She has been arrested, tortured, incarcerated, and threatened, but she has remained a warrior without guns. She fights with her writing, her political activism, and her social work.
In 2009, she was interrogated by intelligence officers for 20 straight hours and released. Afraid she would be arrested again, she left her country to become the writer-in-residence in City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. Sitting in her living room on Sampsonia Way and sipping a green tea, she told me how the Burmese government has impacted her life, oppressed the Burmese people, and created a reign of terror.
Even while relating these disturbing stories, Khet Mar never raised her voice or lost her calm—except when she mentioned the military government in Burma. “The generals don’t deserve mercy,” she said.
In this interview Khet Mar details the crucial moments in her life and offers a rare glimpse into life under the secretive regime of the Burmese military junta, including how the publishing industry operates under the thumb of government censors.
This is the first time Khet Mar has been able to tell, for print, her life story, openly and without fear of repercussion.
In your essay “Night Flow” you describe the poverty in Maletto, the village you grew up in. You write about how your adolescent friends worked cutting chillies instead of going to school. They were paid with a small amount of chillies, which they then sold as the only way to help their families to survive. How was it that you were able to attend school?
I was able to go to school because my grandparents were the principals of an elementary school in Maletto and then my mother became a teacher there. My family was one of the few for whom education had a great value, even though they were poor too. Another important aspect was that Maletto didn’t have a high school and most of my friends didn’t have the money to travel to another town’s school every day.
The first military junta came to power in 1962, before you were born. You grew up under a dictatorship. Was the country of your childhood different than the country today?
Today, most of the kids don’t have a chance for education and instead they do many jobs to survive, just like my friends in Maletto. However, my friends and I were not as threatened as children are today. Now children are forced to be soldiers. The military sexually harasses, assaults, and even rapes children. Also, children are afraid their parents will be killed or arrested any moment.
One character who often appears in your writing is your grandmother. Once you told me that she was crucial to your writing career. How did your family contribute to your success as an essayist, poet, journalist, and fiction writer?
My father was a big reader, and I read many of his books when we lived together. Unfortunately, my parents got divorced when I was six and I had to move to my grandmother’s house. I was lucky because she loved to read too. I had access to two libraries: my father’s translations of English literature and my grandmother’s collection of classic Burmese authors.
Since my early childhood I was interested in writing. When I was in seventh grade, I wrote a story for school and showed it to my grandmother. Since then she encouraged me to be a writer. After the 1988 uprising, which was started by students at Yangon University, many universities were closed for three years and I had a lot of time to read and write. My grandmother read everything I wrote and said I should submit my short stories to magazines and newspapers. But I was afraid, because I grew up in a village and I was not sure that the editors in a big city like Yangon, the former capital of Burma, would like my work. My grandmother told me: “If you don’t send in those stories, I will.” In August 1989, I took three different stories to three magazines and talked with the editors; all three were accepted for publication and two of them were published.
What happened to the third story?
It was censored. I wrote about a girl who preferred to stay in her room, because her family was different than her. She was always behind the bars of her window. The windows in Burma are open all the time because of the heat, so they all have iron bars. In my story I told in detail how this girl felt lonely. The censorship officers thought I was writing about Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader who has been under house arrest since 1989 and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. But the story was not about her; it was actually a story about loneliness. The censorship officers in my country are paranoid.
Tell me about the process that a magazine or a newspaper needs to follow to get a story published in Burma.
Every editor has to show all articles to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division of the Ministry of Information. They can’t do it by e-mail; they personally have to go to the censorship department and present all the content and photos of each issue. The officers revise the issue and, if they accept it, the editors can print it. After printing the issue, the editor again presents it to the Registration Division. If some articles are further censored at that point, the officers tear out the pages they consider dangerous. My story was censored in its second revision; so it was torn out. It’s important to say that the head of this department is a military captain and a man who has never read literature.
Even though your story didn’t have a particular political message, at that time you were already an activist. How did you get involved in the pro-democracy movement?
In 1986, I started studying at the university. In September 1987, the government devalued our currency in a very strange way: They canceled all denominations of our currency except for bills that were divisible by 9, because 9 was ‘the lucky number’ of the top General. However, the government didn’t let you exchange the bills that had been abolished. So, except for those who were closely associated with the government leaders, no one had real money in their hands, only useless cancelled denominations. Young students who came to Yangon from all around the country could barely pay tuition fees or cover living expenses. I was affected too and I didn’t hesitate to join my university friends when they started the protests against the government.
The currency crisis was still affecting the nation in 1988 and was one of the causes of that year’s uprising. Did you participate then?
In 1988, there was a fight between a group of engineering students and some guys who were hanging out on the street. The problem was that the police came to stop the fight and shot a university student to death. The Burmese population was already angry because of the currency crisis, but they became furious after the killing.
I was angry and sad. On March 16, 1988, I joined a march from my university to the main university in Yangon. That day is now known as the Red Bridge Day. When we tried to pass the barriers, the soldiers blocked the road and shot at us. I ran away. It was horrible. Some of my classmates were killed, and some of my girlfriends were raped by soldiers. They government didn’t give us a choice, we had to react. After that, I became deeply involved in the pro-democracy movement and I became a leader in my village.
What was your role as a leader?
I recruited people for the movement. I organized a protest against the government in Maletto with hundreds of people. We went by boat to a town called Meubin and joined protesters from other villages. I participated in many demonstrations starting in 1988 and, in 1991, I joined the protest of university students who were demanding freedom for Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. In 1991, I distributed political poems with my friends from school. The best-known poem was about a dog that bit the hand of its owner, alluding to the soldiers who killed the same people who pay their salaries with their taxes. After that, the intelligence department arrested me.
In “Midnight Callers” you describe your experience in the interrogation center. You write that the lowest point was when you couldn’t finish one of your meals, because your stomach and back hurt so much after the interrogators had kicked you for many hours. The next day they brought in the same unfinished plate of food and you threw up when you tried to eat it again. Despite the pain, you didn’t give your interrogators any names or important information. What happened that day?
I was blindfolded, so I could only hear. One of my friends was in the room with me and was blindfolded too. He didn’t know I was there because I was not speaking, but I recognized his voice. The interrogators asked him to reveal the names of people involved with us and he quickly gave them the names and told them about our secret meetings. At that time only students had access to the university buildings, but some of the movement leaders went there to organize the students. I used to find student IDs for them so they could get into the buildings. My friend also revealed the names of movement leaders who went to the university, how we distributed poems in the movement, and the strategies we had for the future. When I heard him reveal our secrets I was really angry with him. But after many months I understood: he was tortured too much.
But you were tortured for ten days.
Yes, but everybody is different. Everybody reacts differently, depending on the situation. My friend couldn’t think fast and that was the problem. I also gave names to the interrogators, but I only said the names of my friends who had already died.
You were sentenced to ten years in prison, but you were released after only a year as a result of an amnesty. What was your biggest fear after you were released?
I had many fears. I was afraid of being a HIV-positive. In the winter we slept on a concrete floor, and most of the prisoners got sick. A nurse came every day to inject us with medicine, but she used the same needle for all the prisoners. I was in the same cell with prostitutes, drug addicts, and homeless who already were HIV-positive. I didn’t catch the disease, but I know many women who were infected with AIDS after being in jail for a while.
I was very afraid of a future without work too. As a former political prisoner, it was impossible to get a job at the government offices. Also, the owners of businesses didn’t want us as their employees. I wrote a short story about a friend of mine who died because she couldn’t work after she was released from prison. I was also afraid of being persecuted and arrested again.
Read more about Khet Mar’s experiences in jail.
However, you continued your work as a writer and journalist. What kind of work were you able to do?
I’m really grateful to the editors of the magazines I worked with, because they published my writing even though they knew I was a former political prisoner. I started writing short stories and essays for the magazines. Then, I became a journalist in order to have money to survive. I wrote many social, educational, environmental, and business articles for different media outlets. I got more and different readers when I started to write these journalistic articles. Before my readers were mostly people who loved literature, but after I started writing journalism I attracted new readers who were interested in news and information. I like being a journalist, but I prefer being a literary writer. I especially like writing short stories and essays. I have written about two hundred short stories and essays and over one hundred journalistic pieces.
After establishing yourself as a journalist, you started volunteering in schools.
In 2005 I began working as a volunteer teacher in an orphanage school where the kids had lost their parents to AIDS and were themselves HIV-positive. In 2006 I started organizing for other schools, such as Monastic Education School and Charity School. I collected money, hired teachers, and looked for food for the children, among other things.
In 2007, you were one of the leaders of a book club that began meeting in the American Center. Where did this idea come from?
I made many friends while I was in jail; they were political prisoners too. Some of them had the idea of starting a book club. When I was studying English at the American Center in 2007, they asked me to be one of the leaders. Each leader had to bring two students in their twenties and suggest books to read and discuss. We tried to teach the students how to analyze the texts that they read, based on the political context. But we didn’t know if we had infiltrators in the group, so we never were explicit. We just hoped they got the message of democracy, and they did: Some of them were active leaders in the Saffron Revolution.
In September 2007, you came to the United States to participate in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. There you wrote the essay “Night Flow,” which tells how you spent your nights crying, but you don’t say why. The only clue you give your readers to the cause of your distress is the date; it was the time of the Saffron Revolution in Burma. Most of your writing doesn’t give a context for people who don’t know what is happening in Burma. How difficult is to write a piece in that way?
It’s very difficult and it’s especially trying. First, I wrote this story and included all the detail. I explained how frustrating it was to watch all the images of the Saffron Revolution on TV, but of course the censorship wouldn’t allow that version to be printed. And yes, that is a problem, if you read Burmese texts and you are not familiar with the situation in Burma, you can’t understand. That is one of the biggest crimes of the military government: They make us talk and write in code. We can’t express ourselves as in a normal society.
The Cyclone Nargis devastated your country in May 2008 and killed more than 100,000 people. The government denied that the cyclone caused any damage and persecuted anyone who tried to help the survivors. Despite that, you began doing relief work for victims. What made you want to become involved?
Nargis affected me in a direct way: I lost my books and important documents, because the roof of my house was destroyed. However, that was just material damage and every human being can deal with that. The experience that made me want to help people was that one my friends came to my house to tell me that he lost eight nieces and nephews in Nargis. Until then I didn’t have such information because the power was off. When I saw all the suffering and how the government wasn’t helping, I was really moved to act.
What kind of help did you provide to the victims? How difficult was it to help?
There were many soldiers at the entrances of the villages. We told them that we were going to see our parents, even though that was untrue. We saw all the poverty, all the suffering. At that time I was running a magazine and had the money to publish the next issue. I thought, “What is more important, a magazine or people?” I answered myself, “People.” I used the money to buy medicine, food, and clean water. Some of my friends were interested in going to the villages, but we needed to keep a low profile. If I involved too many people there would have been problems, and all the supporters and I would have ended up in jail. So I contacted my friends living abroad in Singapore, Korea, Japan, the United States and other countries. I asked them for help and they started to send money.
Living in Pittsburgh, are you able to maintain connections to your Burmese readers?
Yes. I send my short stories to different magazines in Burma, so I still have to deal with the censorship even though I’m living here. I have to write in the same code if I want to be published in my country. But the good thing is that here I have other choices to say and write what I want.
Which are those choices?
I can talk freely at seminars, conferences, and events that I’m invited to. I also have been interviewed for American magazines and now I write for Sampsonia Way magazine.
How do you continue to contribute to improving the situation in Burma while living here?
One of my responsibilities as a writer is to let readers inside Burma know about the era in which we are living. My way to do that is writing how ordinary people are trying to survive, how they work, and how they think. I also think it is important that people here have a sense of life in Burma. In order to foster that understanding, I have written in Sampsonia Way about my childhood, my education, and the differences between my country and the United States.
How has City of Asylum/Pittsburgh contributed to your writing and diminished your fear?
In Burma, I didn’t have as much time to dedicate to my writing because there was such a great need for social work. Also after I was taken to an interrogation center twice between 2006 and 2009, the possibility that I would be arrested again was very high. Here I have more time to write, and I don’t live with the fear of persecution.
Read our issue about Burma.
Read Silvia’s bio.