Thursday, February 14, 2008

Saw Wai's Poetic Valentine Was a Slap in the Face to his Dear Leader

Poetry as news. Read on:

In case you've not yet heard: on January 22, 2008, in the country of Myanmar, a man named Saw Wai was jailed for writing a poem. The eight-line poem, "February 14," had been published the previous day in the popular Burmese weekly A Chit (or The Love Journal), and is about a man who learns the true meaning of love when his heart is broken by a fashion model. Because "February 14" looks the part of a saccharine
Valentine, Burmese government censors missed its hidden message: when read top-to-bottom, the first word of each line forms the phrase, "Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe."

Senior General Than Shwe leads the military junta that has ruled Myanmar for almost twenty years. After seizing control of the Burmese government in 1988, the junta refused to relinquish power in 1990, when a democratic political party led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won a popular election by an enormous margin. Suu Kyi has been in a Burmese prison for twelve of the past eighteen years; Than Shwe has been the country's dictator for the past fifteen.

Saw Wai has been in prison, unable to see his family, for almost three weeks.

Than Shwe's junta has long detained critics and dissidents for indefinite periods of time. But their methods do not stop at imprisonment. There are many accounts, some first-hand, of jailed dissidents being tortured while imprisoned. And in September, 2007, Than Shwe's troops opened fire on a peaceful, pro-democracy demonstration and killed more than thirty people, including several Buddhist monks who were leading the protests. It is unclear what will happen to Saw Wai, but with each day he spends in prison, it becomes clearer that his message is true.

In response to Saw Wai's situation, I have edited a small, twelve-poet anthology of poems that each contain the phrase, "Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe," in a manner that remains faithful to Saw Wai's poem. (The phrase is also the chapbook's title.) The anthology has been published in the online literary journal ANTI-, and may be freely downloaded and distributed. As the editor of ANTI-, Steven D. Schroeder, has written, "[this project] takes advantage of the fast turnaround time and unique presentation possibilities of the online format, and... stands against something that's clearly important and worth fighting."

Participating poets have remarkably different backgrounds, and hail from California, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and elsewhere; one poet has never before been published, while another has won the National Book Award (Phillippines) five times.

What unites these poets is the desire to speak and act against injustice. And sociable web media have allowed this to happen. I first heard about Saw Wai's jailing via another poet's blog, on January 24th; I immediately wrote and posted a poem-response on my blog, and began soliciting other bloggers I knew to do the same; I also contacted the editor of ANTI-, who had previously published my work in another venue, and proposed that I guest edit a small, chapbook-sized collection of such poetry. Via e-mail, listservs, blogs, and the like, the project was developed from conception to completion and publication in sixteen days. The speed of this
realization was essential to the project, for as I write this Saw Wai is sitting in a jail cell in Myanmar. And this project is first and foremost concerned with raising awareness of that fact.

With this in mind, I invite you to read and freely distribute the chapbook. Share it in any way you see fit. The sociable web carries with it the potential to speak across and through boundaries of all kinds, and though it remains to be seen whether our voices can penetrate the walls of Saw Wai's jail cell, we can at least allow Saw
Wai's voice to break through them, by speaking through us.

Thanks very much,
A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz

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