#100PENMembers No. 46: Ma Thida

Burmese activist Ma Thida is a surgeon, writer and human rights activist and President of PEN Myanmar.

A leading and influential intellectual in Myanmar, her background in medicine informs her political action: ‘health is truly political because it’s connected to everything’, she told the Financial Times in 2017.

‘We need to treat not just the patient, but their environment. We need to dig deeper into their symptoms.’

Her book, The Sunflower, was banned in the early 1990s in Myanmar because it was based on her experiences working as an assistant on Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1990 General Election campaign.

In 1993 she was sentenced to 20 years in Insein Prison on charges of ‘endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organisations and distributing unlawful literature’ as a result of her continued work for Suu Kyi’s National League For Democracy in the military-controlled Myanmar.

She was denied medical care during this time, and developed tuberculosis. In 1996 she was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. The award honours writers who have fought courageously in the face of adversity for their right to freedom of expression.

In 1999, she was released on humanitarian grounds, as a result of her declining health and the pressure applied by PEN. Since then she has become a key political campaigner in Myanmar, as well as raising awareness of free expression issues in Myanmar within the worldwide community.

She went on to found PEN Myanmar in 2013, which she describes as ‘a dream’ for her during her days in prison, when PEN not only campaigned for her release and medical care, but were often also her only link to the outside world. During a moving ceremony, Thida reiterated the Centre’s dedication to promoting and protecting freedom of expression, public events and activities revitalising literature in Myanmar following decades of oppression, promoting creative writing in the community and making literature part of the country’s curriculum. The Centre would also address issues around the increasing use of social media in Myanmar and what free expression might mean within this new context.

In that same year, she took this message to the US, heading up a delegation which addressed the international media about the continued issues in Myanmar, notably the death in military custody of Aung Kyaw Naing aka Par Gyi, a freelance reporter. The delegation drew attention to growing incursions into press freedom in the country including the arrests of journalists, the closing of newspapers and new media control laws.

Even ahead of the appalling events involving the Muslim Rohingya people in 2017, Thida warned that the rise of social media and sudden relaxing of censorship laws in Myanmar left a country with ‘low media literacy’ weak and vulnerable to fake news and propaganda.

She said: ‘The goal for writers and journalists should be national reconciliation. We must take the lead now to show what kind of speech toward each other will aid the peace process.’

The incident exemplified in many ways the concerns that Thida had, particularly around the ability of Suu Kyi to tackle the country’s problems when the military retained such a lot of power in the country. She has also been keen to question to god-like status given to her boss in both Myanmar and in the West, and called her a ‘prisoner of applause’. Nonetheless, PEN Myanmar spoke out strongly against the massacre and Suu Kyi’s failure to act and speak out against it.

In 2016 she received the inaugural ‘Disturbing the Peace’ Award from Václav Havel’s Library Foundation when she was elected to the board of PEN International.

Even following this year’s military coup PEN Myanmar continues to speak out, despite the dangerous conditions. In February it released a statement on military leader Tatmadaw’s seizure of power: ‘We condemn the Tatmadaw’s military coup, which would lead to delaying the democratization process in Myanmar and wielding a severe damage on the peace building process, which has for decades been implemented with endeavours of all citizens.’Our thoughts are will all of the pro-democracy protestors and the writers facing persecution and even death following the coup in Myanmar. Keep up to date and find out what you can do to help.

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