Nor Iron Bars A Cage is written by the Burmese author Ma Thanegi. She spent the years 1989-1992 as an inmate in Yangon’s infamous Insein prison simply for working as the personal assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the oppositional National League for Democratic Party. The NLD was outlawed by the junta governing Myanmar, which was perhaps the most oppressive and corrupt regime in the world up until 2012. They’d throw writers in jail for one critical word. But in her book Thanegi never talks politics or writes like an investigative journalist; she’s a painter at heart, and through her witty words and artist’s apolitical outlook she doesn’t give the authorities a reason to censor her. Instead, Thanegi writes about the communality of the inmates, their industriousness, humor, and equanimity in the face of injustice. She describes the women she meets and tells their stories—with prostitutes, pickpockets, and political prisoners making up the cast. She also relates how she raised sparrows, grew herbs, and always wore red lipstick while imprisoned. Still, she’s writing in English about things the government in Myanmar has tried to keep hush-hush, and that’s a pretty significant enterprise.
Tweed’s: You refer to your time in prison as “more of an educational experience than a tragic one.” You were able to make good friends while imprisoned in Insein, could smoke all day, and make tasty food. Even the prison guards seem gentle, as long as you followed the rules. What was the most difficult part about your experience in prison?
Ma Thanegi: The most difficult part for all of us prisoners was that we could not get detailed information about what was going on outside regarding the political situation. On family visits they had uniforms standing by and listening.
Everyone—even the girls who were beaten and sent to another prison for political protests—smoked as much as they wanted, made friends (to this day we are like family), made food (which was not really that delicious), and mainly, the guards were gentle to them too. The guards were ordinary women and there were some nice ones, who of course were tougher on the criminals, so life in prison was not made easy through the cowed condition of keeping our heads down and following the rules. I and others broke a lot of non political rules such as smuggling in books, smuggling out letters, stealing pen and paper from the office and we were very good at it.
Tweed’s: It was surprising how everyone seemed to get along.
Ma Thanegi: The interaction among strangers in Myanmar is much friendlier than in the West. There is no concept of privacy, so there is no edgy distance of “give me my space” attitude. Yes, even among strangers—except between men and women. Now THAT is unacceptable. It’s a very different social culture from yours. Westerners who came here several times, even when under tourism boycotts, always said “It’s the people we like.”
Tweed’s: I visited Burma in May of 2007, and was indeed struck by the easy-going, communal spirit of the Burmese people, and their equanimity in the face of life’s difficulties. Could you explain the cause of this friendly, equanimous spirit of the Burmese people? Do you think it’s due to your Buddhist culture, for example, or are there other factors we should be aware of?
Ma Thanegi: I think we are like that because we are very easy going since we’ve had a relatively easy life: the first big natural disaster was the cyclone in 2008 and all along we had very few cases of famine or drought, so life was hard but not starved-to-death-hard, and in spite of insurgencies, not war torn like in Vietnam or Cambodia. Also the biggest reason is the Buddhist act of having goodwill to others (cedana), which is very important in our relationship with others
Easy going also means lack of discipline.
Tweed’s: It’s surprising that you would say Burmese people had a relatively easy life, because up until very recently it was perceived that Burmese people were living under one of the most oppressive, corrupt, and brutal regimes in the world.
Ma Thanegi: I meant that unlike India or China, millions of people had not died from famine or huge natural disasters. Or suffered horrific wars like Vietnam or Cambodia, or had millions of bombs dropped on us like in Laos. You think I don’t know how corrupt or brutal the military regime was?
Tweed’s: Also I should further clarify my curiosity to go deeper into the Burmese spirit, because most Americans have never suffered from famine or natural disasters, and we’ve never experienced devastating war in our own country, yet most of us treat each other quite rudely and aggressively—especially in difficult situations, like in prison or during a catastrophe, but even in every day interactions (or at least in New York). I don’t think most Americans are even familiar with the word equanimity, much less how to be equanimous.
Ma Thanegi: Buddhism is not a religion of faith. Buddha is not a God, nor a savior. He did not want anyone worshipping him, so it’s in no way a competing religion against Christianity. He just left a list of how to live, think, etc. One set for those who want to leave the secular world, and lesser list for those who want a peaceful harmonious life. For both, the main thing is to be truly aware at all times so you don’t let emotions such as anger overcome you. Very hard to do: it’s called Vipassana meditation. No need to pray to him. Just a path you can lead or not, he said, it’s your choice.
I think 50 years ago life was not like the present in your country. We are about 50 years behind everyone so we might catch up, one day.
Tweed’s: You mentioned that the Press Scrutiny Board was abolished in 2012, which I assume was part of the surprising democratizing and opening up of the country, with the government ostensibly changing from a military to civilian leadership. Is this change why Nor Iron Bars a Cage was published in 2013, over ten years after your experience in Insein—meaning did you finally feel liberated to write and publish after the change? Or did it simply take you that long to process and write about?
Ma Thanegi: I had been writing it and rewriting it since the late 90s. No one knew. I handed over the manuscript in 2010, the editing and the exchanges with my editor took a year. It was published in September of 2012 because my publisher was too worried about me to do so earlier. I don’t know when he began to distribute it but I got copies to launch at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Oct 2012, but it was a last minute thing, me doing a book reading, so it was announced but was not on the printer program.
Tweed’s: Also, do you think the leaders’ shift toward democracy is sincere, or is it a veiled strategy to maintain control? For example, do you feel worried that in a few years you could be persecuted for your writing, or do you think that time has passed?
Ma Thanegi: If there is some huge uprising—maybe instigated by the military—there will be a coup, no doubt about it. The present president does not have power over the military; it’s still under the guidance’ of Than Shwe. That said, I think things are pretty much under their control, so I don’t think there’s any need for a coup.
My book is about the spirit of the people in our ability to thumb noses at the regime. I was—we all were—doing that even under interrogation or at sentencings, so there’s nothing new the military can know from this book. So yes, I’m pretty safe.
There are those active in politics all along and thus more in danger if there is a coup, but I was never directly involved in politics, as many thought. I was just in the center of it while looking after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. After I left working for her I simply resumed my career as a painter.
Tweed’s: I definitely get that much of the behavior in the book is an act of thumbing the nose at the regime, especially through the little things. Is the importance of wearing red lipstick part of this nose thumbing?
Ma Thanegi: Red lipstick looks good on me, is all. I’m female, after all!
Tweed’s: I’m surprised by your answer about the red lipstick, as it seems to be one of your literary signatures.
Ma Thanegi: Red lipstick IS really a vanity choice not a statement. I don’t believe in making statements, and my fashion choices like wearing black all the time or wearing a man’s hat or shades when I go out are just for convenience: black saves time wondering what to wear, I’m too lazy to open-close-put away umbrellas and I have cataracts so the slightest light hurts my eyes.
Tweed’s: Speaking of literary matters, I was also surprised that after composing three novels in your head while you were imprisoned you lost motivation to write fiction after being released. Can you elaborate on this relationship between the illusions/daydreaming of fiction and your preference for writing about reality?
Ma Thanegi: In 1984, while my then husband was in the US on a scholarship, one of my artist friends who is so interested in crafts/culture suggested I write a book on marionettes, and helped with data, research trips, etc. I got really interested in it and while fantasy was really useful in jail, a place where you want to escape reality as much as possible, once I was free it held no interest for me. I think the puppet book was a one-time thing, but in 1996 I took a pilgrimage bus trip and wrote a book of it, The Native Tourist. I also thought it was the last, but my artist friend and his friends started publishing an in-depth travel magazine and I wrote for it. Other commissions came along and, to my surprise, I found myself a new career. One local publisher, Asia House, also commissioned a series of books and
increasingly I became almost obsessed with our history and culture.
Tweed’s: You’ve published many books on Burmese culture and it seems like you’re free to write about anything you want. As an artist do you feel at all restricted working in Myanmar, or do you have to toe the line and keep your head down?
Ma Thanegi: I do not toe the line nor keep my head down. I do talk to international news media and have done numerous interviews about politics, even under the past regime, but what I say is about analyzing the situation. I am never the type to make rabid ‘hero style’ remarks.
I keep a keen eye on politics and the players, but I am not fond of it to say the least. I love our culture, traditions, and arts, so I write about them. I am disgusted with politics so I don’t write about it. THAT is why I don’t write about it.
In 1998 I wrote in FEER magazine about sanctions being not effective but hurting the people. As we have seen it also gave the monopoly of the economy to the generals who, through their front men ‘cronies’ got filthy rich. Even the front men are now billionaires, they who were unknowns in 2000, until they kept growing wealthier. I am sure the junta is very grateful to western governments for making them SO rich. For criticizing this strategy of useless and harmful (to the people) sanctions, I was accused worldwide as a traitor. Wow. Two cheers for democracy.