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  • Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Literary Life in Myanmar under Censorship and in Transition by Ellen Wiles
  • Kenneth Wong
Ellen Wiles. 2015. Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts:
Literary Life in Myanmar under Censorship and in Transition
New York: Columbia University Press. 288 pages. ISBN 9780231173285

The Ghosts of Censor in the Land of Saffron Robes

Five years after Ellen Wiles' Saffron Shadows and Salvage Scripts, the specters in her book continue to haunt Myanmar's literary scene

Arriving in Myanmar (Burma) to work for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in 2013, Ellen Wiles, a human rights lawyer, got the rare chance to witness a shuttered literary community in its moment of rebirth. What was unfolding around her at a public performance—a poet burning a keyboard and a man recounting the brutal conditions of the government-run Coco Island prison—seemed unthinkable two or three years ago.

Throughout much of the 1970s and the 1980s, Burmese artists, writers, and poets were in the chokehold of the [End Page 154] military regime's censor board, notorious for its paranoiac overreaction to anything that seemed antigovernment. Materials destined for printing and broadcasting had to be submitted in advance to the Say Pay See Zit Yay (literally translates to Press Scrutiny) authorities. As outlined by Wiles, the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law defined the scope with a long list of dos and don'ts (mostly don'ts). Types of content deemed unfit for print include

  • • anything detrimental to the Burmese socialist program;

  • • anything detrimental to the ideology of the state;

  • • anything detrimental to the socialist economy;

  • • anything that might be harmful to national solidity and unity . . . (Wiles, 24)

The doctrine was eleven items long, each item casting the net of ambiguity wider than the last, to catch virtually anything anyone might conceivably write, thus giving the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) the justification to reject any material.

Soon after Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party defeated the former military man Thein Sein's Union Solidarity and Development Party in the 2012 election, the country's literary community experienced a disorienting shift. Seemingly overnight, the PSB was no more.

"Burmese writers marveled at the announcement in August 2012 that the most onerous publishing rules would be lifted and that prepublication scrutiny would no longer be required," recorded Wiles (Wiles, 27). Used to having every single line in their manuscripts scrutinized, accustomed to having whole manuscripts rejected for frivolous reasons, Burmese writers welcomed the new openness with a mix of hope and doubt, much in the same way a long-time political prisoner might find his sudden and unexplained release difficult to believe.

In this rare moment, Wiles conceived her book project: "an ethnographic investigation of literary culture in Myanmar (Burma) under censorship, and the new directions it is taking now" (Wiles, 1). This was the genesis of Saffron Shadows and Salvage Scripts. [End Page 155]

Written in Captivity

Wiles gives a brief sociopolitical history of Myanmar, highlighting the swift erosion of the freedom of expression during former strongman General Ne Win's Socialist Era (socialist in name but authoritarian in character).

Under the PSB's tight ironclad reign, the country's literary figures, ranging from timid to defiant, employed ingenuity to get their points across without getting arrested; to slip their words of conscience through the censorship loopholes; and, in some cases, to physically smuggle their heartfelt words out of prison at considerable risk to themselves and their collaborators. Inevitably, the exchanges between the authors striving to express their discontent and the authorities charged with silencing their dissident voices evolved into a sophisticated cat-and-mouse game.

"In prison, I wasn't allowed pen and paper, but I wanted to write, so I would grind bricks on the floor and make a paste with water, and then I would use that to make chalk, and then I would write poems on the wall to memorize them," recounted the late U Win Tin (1930-2004), a former political prisoner and respected NLD elder (Wiles, 57).

Along with the authors' backgrounds, Wiles has also included a robust selection of short stories, excerpts, and poems that were once banned or illegal...