A springtime of witness and courage
By Jonathan Chan
Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring: Witness poems and essays from Myanmar (1988–2021)
Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring: Witness poems and essays from Myanmar (1988–2021) is a crucial and urgent anthology. Edited by poet Ko Ko Thett and academic and critic Brian Haman, the volume was published under the auspices and editorial leadership of Ethos Books, while simultaneously published by ally publishers, Gaudy Boy in the United States and Balestier Press in the United Kingdom. The anthology begins from the notion that its poems, essays and articles bear forms of witness. As an act of moral and ethical import, though not explicitly addressed in the book, bearing witness to atrocity finds antecedents in ancient Greek tragedy, where the viewing or listening to descriptions of brutality would act as a mechanism for cathartic release. In this sense, witness finds a distinction from sheer reportage, though the recording and dissemination of information bears a separate, vital function in revealing the totalitarianism of oppressive regimes. To bear witness to violence is to share in a sense of trauma vicariously; involving a reader through writings of witness is to attempt to rouse sympathy and solidarity with victims of atrocity.
To these ends, Thett and Haman introduce various first-hand accounts of the brutal killings and acts of injustice committed by the Tatmadaw, the military of Myanmar, against its own people in the aftermath of their coup on the 1st of February, 2021. It is no understatement to assert that the composition of each piece in this anthology is an act of courage, whether in conveying the widespread suffering faced by ordinary citizens or in articulating resistance to brutality. Each contributor has either faced the violence of shootings and beatings themselves by participating in protests, or they have known loved ones who have suffered similarly. Poets have been at the forefront of the struggle against the junta, with many imprisoned, killed or butchered for their acts of resistance. At least 32 writers are in detention, while others have suffered brutal deaths such as U Sein Win, who was doused in petrol and burned to death.
Any presumption of the severance of aesthetics and politics in literature is shattered in this volume; it can almost feel facile to conceive of these works primarily through the lens of some ideal of literary merit when their political urgency almost strips away these considerations. As Rebecca Ratcliffe writes for The Guardian:
To the presumed majority of the book's readers based outside of Myanmar, there remains the call to continue placing pressure on the Tatmadaw to cease its killings, reinstate the National League for Democracy, and to sanction and censure those who benefit from the regime. Yet, as Thett and Haman write in the anthology's introduction:
In this formulation, a sober presentation of the Tatmadaw's cruelty should stand as sufficient to galvanise action in the international community against its rule.
Picking off new shoots is organised as a reverse chronology: its first section covers writing from 2021, the second examines 2010 to 2020, and the third addresses 1988 to 2010, which this review will map. A conventional, chronological approach to arranging the book's contributions might have allowed for a progressive movement to a climactic present. Yet, in arranging the poems in the opposite manner, the effect achieved is a precise kind of distancing from the present to illustrate a history of creative resistance in Myanmar. The poems address misconceptions that certain forms of writing could not be produced and circulated under state censorship, steadily building towards a sense of honouring Myanmar's older writers and thinkers. Space is accorded not just for writing against military regimes, but also to Rohingya writers addressing discriminatory violence and squalid conditions in refugee camps.
Tragically, such an approach also illustrates the continuities between the 8888 Uprising of 1988 against the Burma Socialist Programme Party, which governed Myanmar as a totalitarian single-party state, and the present Civil Disobedience Movement against the junta. Vitally, 1988 was also the year that the junta first came into power under the pretence of the State Law and Order Restoration Council; contemporary Myanmar has only experienced seven years under a civilian government in the intervening time. With the backward movement of the book, it explores generational contrasts between those who have only experienced living under military rule and Myanmar's youth, who have lived in relative freedom especially with the liberalisation of the Internet. As Nyi Pu Lay writes in his essay 'The dharma will prevail':
Much of the writing in the book's opening section yields the sharpest sense of grief. K Za Win's poems are particularly distinctive because of their unsparing quality. Take, for example, his poem 'Skulls':
K Za Win was shot and killed by security forces in March 2021 during a protest, a painful realisation of the warning he offered in this poem. His rhetorical questions are confrontational, an affront to any pretence of accepting the Tatmadaw's violence. His questioning of the relevance of statements alludes to the ways in which, as legal scholar Nick Cheesman has argued in his book Opposing the Rule of Law (2015), the legal processes and sentencings of Myanmar's courts are subordinated to the aims of the military regime. Invoking the Buddhist concept of dharma, he contends against reciprocity as the basis of inaction against injustice, serving as a call to arms. Bearing in mind he was a Buddhist monk for much of his young adult life, 'Skulls' also reflects the disillusionment that led him away from the order – the futility of being recognised by the military state as a learned monk.
Beyond those already active in the struggle against the state, Picking shoots also features narratives of ordinary citizens compelled to protest against the coup. Moe Oo Swe Nyein's poem 'A revolutionary family' describes a "whole family" that "will cuss at the dictator – / in one voice." Mi Thawda Aye Lei's essay 'Whose Footfall is Loudest?' lends the book its cover image: a pair of flipflops left behind during a protest by a 50-year-old school teacher who would later succumb to a bullet wound. Dr Thiha Tin Tun's will reads to his mother, "My hands, that are used to holding a surgeon's scalpel, are used to blood stains." In Nhkum Lu's tribute to Rosa Nu Tawng, a Kachin Catholic nun, the piece features Sister Nu Tawng's reflections on how after a protestor succumbed to his wounds in a clinic:
These examples serve not only as profiles in courage, but also as indications of the overwhelming unity expressed by Myanmar's citizens across social and ethnic groups against the regime's tyranny. This is epitomised in the essay from which the anthology takes its name, 'Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring', written by Ma Thida. In her essay, she illustrates a litany of examples displaying this "rare moment of unity, discipline, determination and cooperation". She describes teenagers "confidently [holding] a placard that reads, 'Picking off leaves won't stop the spring'", middle-aged and young men packing and distributing lunch boxes to protestors, and young doctors and nurses providing free medical care. Reflecting on those involved in the arts who have endorsed the protests, she writes, "They are now in hiding. Most of us cannot think of any near or distant future." This underscores the all-encompassing, all-consuming nature of resistance to a suffocating regime and how oppression ruptures a sense of linear temporality. In spite of the resolution and hope described by many of these writers, the overriding goal of ousting the junta is the necessary precondition before a concrete path forward can be envisioned.
This section also includes accounts of those who elected to leave Myanmar. Ningja Khon's 'My story', in particular, is laden with ambivalence and a sense of survivor's guilt for her successful escape from Myanmar. Educated in Australia and having previously worked at a human rights organisation, her account stands as a contrasting response to the coup, bearing witness to the harrowing circumstances under which many have escaped Myanmar. Owing to the sensitivity of her work, she deletes sensitive data from her devices, burns documents and chews up old SIM cards to evade state surveillance. Eventually, she crosses the border to Thailand; in one gripping passage, she writes:
The physical and emotional intensity of Ningja Khon's narrative of escape intuitively brought to my mind similar accounts of North Korean defectors crossing the Yalu River to China, such as in Kang Chol-hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang (2001). Her eventual resettlement in the United States triggers a sense of anxiety and guilt as she describes:
The variety of responses to the coup could easily be mapped onto an easy bifurcation of fight or flight. However, Thett and Haman's objective in presenting such responses is not jingoistic. Rather, they underscore the myriad impossible decisions that Myanmar's citizens have had to make after the coup.
Picking off new shoots devotes half of its length to 2021. Subsequent sections serve to contextualise and deepen a sense of civic resistance to state oppression. Much of the opening of section II (2010–2020) honours the lives of poets K Za Win and Khet Thi, the latter having been arrested by security forces in 2021 with his body returned with its internal organs missing the next day. Khet Thi's words quickly became a refrain for those resisting the regime: "They shoot in the head, but they don't know revolution dwells in the heart." His poems express resistance to the powers at large in Myanmar, not just its military. In 'The grand gorges of Yangon', he writes:
Khet Thi's scepticism is reserved for the loosening of market forces and the encroachment of capitalism in Myanmar. His protest is related to invitations for foreign investment to the detriment of their supposed beneficiaries, demonstrating that subjects of poetic attention cannot be categorised merely as against the hegemonic military. U Myint Thant has stated that after the failures of Burmese socialism, Myanmar transformed from a fairly equal and poor society into a "kind of extremely predatory market-based economy" linked "to the Chinese border", a "determinant dynamic" that has remained in place through the coup.
In the anthology's final segment addressing the period of 1988–2010, its writings are most effective in illustrating a lineage of activism through literature as well as a genealogy of state violence in Myanmar. Maung Yu Py's long poem '88 is like this, my kid brother' leads into this section, standing out as an effective example of this memorialising:
Anaphorically, the speaker seeks to dispel myths about the 8888 Rising. Maung's lines take negations and definitions ("88 isn't") as ways of structuring the poem. The uprising is described not as a romanticised past or a glorified example of mass violence, but an event during which ordinary citizens contending for democracy suffered. Yet, the insistence that "88s were the waves of spirit of the whole of Burma" illustrates how oppression provided a catalyst for national unity. The poem reiterates that "88 isn't an unneeded-outdated idea", an assertion that has grown even more prescient with the return of military rule.
Min Lu's 'What's going on' also warrants attention – as a result of its publication in 1989, Min Lu, the poem's editor Myo Myint Nyein and the poem's distributor Sein Hlaing were all imprisoned between two and seven years. In a foreword written by Yu Ya, Min Lu's son, he writes that the poem "has made a comeback in post-coup Myanmar in 2021". A triptych sharply critical of the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the poem's first section attacks the Tatmadaw. Its stanzas begin with the refrain "What's going on", echoing Marvin Gaye's commentary on the United States' war in Vietnam. Consequently, they levy critiques by way of a seething absurdity – people are shot with rubber bullets in "the Age of Rubber", "Ms Burma is Ms Myanmar" after the death of the "1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma", student protestors are lambasted for their disrespect by those "who wear boots on religious premises" and "we are colonised by ourselves". The promises of anticolonial nationalism give way to contradictions buttressing oppressive rule.
The second section deepens this critique, likening a governmental secretary's logic of "waging war to end wars" to Ronald Reagan's "defence of Star Wars" before saying, "Reagan's bollocks are in his mouth!" Unable to abide by norms and institutions, the military must turn to violence to rule, albeit amidst the hollow rhetoric of "a power transfer" engineered by the military-aligned jurist and former president Maung Maung. The poem's final section continues as a display of rhetorical strength, citing Hebrew and Buddhist scriptures to demand that the military:
Min Lu's lines build with anger and desperation, a clarion call for readers to purse particular political aims in opposition to the junta. Any pretence of aestheticisation, of poetry rendered purely for a sense of pleasure, is dismantled through his rousing rhetoric, one that stands as resonant today as it did in 1989.
Despite this, Myanmar's future remains less certain and less clear; Min Nyein Aye's poem in the anthology's epilogue is fitting:
Picking off new shoots stands as a literary record of Myanmar's present, with grieving recourse to its past and its bleak future. It provides emotional and historical depth and texture in describing the spiritual and emotional suffocation that Myanmar's citizens have faced and continue to face. It involves all its readers in its slated act of witness while also gesturing to ways that those of us outside Myanmar can continue to draw attention to the military junta's brutality in our own contexts.
By way of conclusion, there are several questions I remain curious about. The first is why Thett and Haman chose to publish with Ethos, a Singapore-based publisher, rather than with a British or American press, despite Thett being based in the UK and Haman in Austria. One could see this as a sign of Singapore's rising status as a node for Southeast Asian literature, or one could regard this as a cynical sign that a Singaporean readership would be more inclined to care about the situation in Myanmar than an American or British one. Ethos' decision to take on the project is also reflective of a desire for Singaporean publishers to promote work of pertinence to Southeast Asia at large.
Secondly, one wonders regarding the general absence of the Burmese script or of other literary languages from Myanmar. The privileging of English translation, of course, belies the anthology's intention of maximising its readership. One wonders if the juxtaposition of English translations against Burmese originals may have more effectively created a sense of particularity to Myanmar. Thett does not foreground his having translated most of the poems apart from what is in the book's acknowledgements, while poems translated by Kenneth Wong and Thett Su San are highlighted. The general absence of signposts for which poems are translated into English and which were originally written in English also raises questions regarding the extent that attention to translatedness would have interfered with the anthology's objectives. Nevertheless, it is clear that the book's audience is not primarily Burmese, not least when many of the writers featured have been targeted or killed by the Tatmadaw.
Finally, a companion anthology of critical essays may be a suitable complement, providing further, much needed historical and political context about the situation in Myanmar to an audience unfamiliar with its nuances. Scholars and researchers such as James Scott and Moe Thuzar have produced valuable contributions to understanding Myanmar. An essay anthology aimed at introducing their research to an audience concerned about Myanmar's situation may be a worthwhile undertaking.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 3 Jul 2022