Novel approach saves Burmese literary festival

Authorities rule out use of pagoda for festival, forcing change of venue

The Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay is home to the biggest book in the world. Built during the reign of King Mindon, it houses 729 stupas, or stone-inscription caves, containing  entire canon of Theravada Buddhism.  Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

The Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay is home to the biggest book in the world. Built during the reign of King Mindon, it houses 729 stupas, or stone-inscription caves, containing entire canon of Theravada Buddhism. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, Mar 1, 2014, 01:00

The Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay is home to the biggest book in the world. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it contains the entire canon of Buddhist scripture – 729 marble slabs – in sacred white mounds that reflect a blinding glare in the midday sun.

Built by King Mingdon in 1853 the Kuthodaw dominates the lower slope of Mandalay Hill, in the city which was the last royal capital of pre-colonial Burma. Where better than the site of the world’s biggest book to host a historic literary gathering?

The Irrawaddy Literary Festival – the first after three decades of military rule – was held last year in Yangon (Rangoon), without political interference, and Mandalay was scheduled to repeat its success this year.

With pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as its patron, and international authors such as Jung Chang and Louis de Bernières also attending, along with 90 Burmese literary figures, the city was poised for an exciting few days.

But, in a sign of unpredictable political times, the Burmese authorities changed their minds about the festival at the last minute. A letter from the ministry of culture informed festival organiser Jane Heyn, who comes from Co Antrim, the pagoda could no longer be used as the main venue. This is a country where the struggle between hardliners and moderates within the government has been escalating in recent months.


Infighting
The Irrawaddy festival seems to have been a victim of this infighting. A moderate minister had given permission, only to have been overruled by somebody with less affection for free speech.

As shocked authors and organisers absorbed the news an exiled Burmese writer whispered to me: “It’s a masterstroke worthy of the old Burmese court. You will never know what you did. It could be a move against Aung San Suu Kyi or it could be that somebody felt upset higher up the chain.”

But, in Jane Heyn’s words, it was a moment “when the tough got going”. With the support of an army of young volunteers, the tents, banners, stalls and electrical equipment were relocated from the pagoda compound several hundred yards to the Mandalay Resort Hotel and placed around the gardens.

Among the relieved authors were exiles who had not visited their homeland in years but whose stories of life under oppression have found an audience on the international stage. Now they had a chance to connect with locals hearing them speak for the first time.

Wendy Law-Yone was born in Mandalay but fled the regime and now lives in London. Her book Golden Parasol is a memoir of her father, Edward Michael Law-Yone, founder of the English-language newspaper The Nation , who spent five years in prison under the late dictator Ne Win.

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