The author and local publisher Testing the new era of artistic freedom

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“Have you been to the national library?” asks San Mon Aung. The author and local publisher at WE publishing house and NDSP Books sits opposite me, on the edge of his stool, leaning his elbows on the table supporting his animated hands as he talks. It’s only 10 minutes into the interview and already the tables have turned and he’s the one asking questions.

He continues, “or better still, you should ask youth today on the streets, not even if they have been but where is the national library?”

San Mon Aung has made it his mission to reconnect Burma’s younger generation with books. He plans to open the first book plaza in Rangoon next year. It will include book shops, offices, cafes and a memorial space for famous authors. He hopes the space will be more than just a commercial building, but rather somewhere “the younger generation can hang out”— share ideas, hold poetry events and experiment with ideas.

While other countries have experienced the closing down of bookstore chains like Borders, the publishing industry is yet to take off in Burma. Rangoon might be famous for its open-air second-hand book stands, but new books are still a rare luxury.

Previously writing under censorship, San Mon Aung used the pen name “Myay Hmone Lwin”. He says the former military government “thought writers were a public enemy.” Writers, journalists, and many members of the art community were subject to censorship, intimidation, unwarranted searches, arrest or long spells in jail.

He said it was difficult to know what the censorship board would ban and what they’d allow, as there were no clear rules. He recalls how he was asked to make changes to his work for random reasons. On one occasion, he was asked to change the front cover of a collection of short stories because the authorities said an illustration of a character with a bald head resembled Zarganar, the well-known comedian who was a political prisoner at that time. “There were many ridiculous things,” shrugs San Mon Aung. “I was really surprised and asked why. To be bald is not criticising the government. So I couldn’t understand what they meant.”

On another occasion, he was banned from using the number 54 as it was thought to be a metaphor for Aung San Suu Kyi, whose house is at 54 University Avenue in Rangoon’s Bahan Township.

Since the press scrutiny board was dissolved in 2012, artists and writers have thrived in the new freedom to express their views both critically and creatively.

But when asked if there is total freedom of expression in society today, San Mon Aung hesitates. While he certainly believes the situation is much better than it was in the past, he warns, “we do have to be very careful about religion and the military.” Other topics like erotic fiction are also still taboo.