Reflecting on the Saffron Revolution, In Poetry and Prose

Courtney Wittekind talks with poet Khet Mar about her poem, “The Wound.”

This week’s posts on Tea Circle represent the start of our forum on the “Saffron Revolution,” during which we will feature submissions by those analyzing, debating, and reflecting upon the impact of Myanmar’s 2007 demonstrations, 10 years on. We will continue to accept submissions through the start of the forum, so if you would like to add your voice, whether in your own post or in the form of a response to another, please see our Call for Submissions or write to our editors at: editor@teacircleoxford.com.

We begin with a poem by celebrated Burmese journalist, activist, writer, and poet Khet Mar, “The Wound.” It was written in 2012 following the release of 651 political prisoners, many of whom were members of the 88 Generation Students’ Group and sentenced following their participation in the 2007 demonstrations. In it, Khet Mar reflects on the struggle for political change in Burma/Myanmar, the country’s resultant legacies of activism, and the experience of witnessing upheaval from afar— an experience all too common for those in exile.

Courtney Wittekind and Khet Mar connected earlier this week to discuss the poem’s representation of the Saffron Revolution’s leaders, its relation to political change writ large, and how its words relate to the present moment, as we now look back upon past events. Their conversation follows the poem in English and in Burmese.

 

The Wound

What a surprise!
The most cheerful tiding hit me
In the most cheerless hour of life.

I should have been there on the shoulder of the road.
I should have been waving them my welcome.
They haven’t heeded the void of my existence.
They have returned.

With the zeal of a possessed clairvoyant,
A lane into the future has been rebuilt.
Their strength glitters into gold.
They harden into diamonds,
As my chaotic heart is being clamped.
Now I will douse my clay laughter in my tears.
I will turn it into fragile earthenware.
I will color it with hope. What else could I do?
Why do I bother?

What they do every day,
I don’t do it once in a lifetime.
I call it ‘the gap…’ between us.
So, they are the saints, who have
Walked through multilayered walls.
I am the sinner imprisoned in the outer space,
Burning in my own ignoramus fire.

Here is my tour de force;
The anxious wait I’ve been waiting
After I dialed that number,
The sum of the math figures I despise.

From the other side of the universe
Like lint that floats in the air
A charm flows into the tiny steel wire
The knife that has cut a chunk out of my chest commands,
‘Come back home.’

Blood oozes out of my wound.
I sponge it up.
I don’t want to be left bleeding to die.

Whatever form I may take
I need to keep my blood flowing
So I can keep making attempts…

Everyone heads for the last line
Before I get there,
I wish I could dash into the home one more time
To fill their lane with my little pebbles.
To plant cobra’s saffrons in my earthenware.

 Khet Mar
February 3, 2012, 3:49 am

အနာ

တိုက်တိုက်ဆိုင်ဆိုင်
ဘဝကိုအညည်းငွေ့ဆုံးကာလမှာ
ဘဝအတွက်
အားတက်ဖွယ်အကောင်းဆုံးသတင်းကိုကြားရတယ်။

ကျမကြိုနေရမယ့်လမ်းမပေါ်ကနေ
ကျမရှိမနေခြင်းကွက်လပ်ကို အမှုမဲ့အမှတ်မဲ့ဖြတ်သန်းကာ
သူတို့ပြန်လာကြပြီ။

နတ်ဝင်သည်ရဲ့ထက်သန်ပုံမျိုးနဲ့
အနာဂါတ်ဆီသွားရာလမ်းကလေးကို
ဖောက်သူကဖောက်၊ ပြင်သူကပြင်လို့
သူတို့ အင်အားတွေရွှေရောင်တောက်
သူတို့ဖြစ်တည်မှုတွေကစိန််လိုမာကြောလာချိန်မှာ
ကျမကတော့
ပရမ်းပတာခုန်နေတဲ့နှလုံးသားကိုထိမ်းချုပ်ရင်း
ရယ်မောခြင်းရွွှံ့စေးတွေကို မျက်ရည်နဲ့မံပြီး
မျှော်လင့်ချက်အရောင်ချယ်ထားတဲ့
ကွဲလွယ်ပဲ့လွယ်အိုးလေးတလုံးသွန်းခဲ့မိတာကလွဲလို့ု့
ဘာမှမလုပ်တတ်၊ မလုပ်နိုင်ခဲ့ပါ။

သူတို့ရဲ့နေ့တဓူဝကိစ္စတွေက
ကျမအတွက်တော့ ဒုလ္လဘဖြစ်နေခြင်းဟာ
သူတို့နဲ့ကျမကြားက ‘အဟ’…
ဒါကြောင့်လည်း သူတို့ကသူတော်စင်တွေအဖြစ်
နံရံတွေအထပ်ထပ်ကြားမှာလွတ်မြောက်ခဲ့ပြီး
ကျမကပုထုဇဉ်အဖြစ်
လေဟာနယ်ထဲမှာအကျဉ်းကျ
မောဟတွေနဲ့လောင်မြိုက်နေခဲ့တာ။

ကျမမုန်းတဲ့ ကိန်းဂဏန်းတွေပေါင်းလိုက်လို့
ဖြစ်သွားတဲ့နံပါတ်စဉ်တွေကိုနှိပ်
ရင်တထိတ်ထိတ်နဲ့စောင့်ရတာကပဲ
ကြီးကျယ်သောကြိုးပမ်းမှုဖြစ်ခဲ့။

စင်္ကြဝဠာရဲ့အစိတ်အပိုင်းတခုဆီ
အငွေ့အမျှင်လိုလူးလွန့်ရွေ့လျား
ပြီးတော့..သံမဏိနန်းကြိုးလေးတွေထဲ
ဓါတ်တခုအဖြစ်စီးဝင်သွားပြီးမှ
ကျမနှလုံးသားတဖဲ့ကို လှီးထုတ်သွားတဲ့ဒါးက
“ပြန်လာခဲ့” တဲ့။

နှလုံးသားဒါဏ်ရာကတစိမ့်စိမ့်ထွက်နေတဲ့သွေးကို
ဖြည်းဖြည်းချင်းပြန်စုပ်မြိုချနေရတာ
ကျမကိုယ်ထဲသွေးတွေကုန်သွားမှာစိုးလို့ပါ။

ဘယ်ပုံစံနဲ့ပဲဖြစ်စေ
ခန္ဒာကိုယ်ထဲမှာသွေးတွေဆက်လည်ပတ်နေမှ
ကျမကြိုးစားနိုင်မယ်လေ..။
လူတိုင်းဦးတည်နေတဲ့
ပြီးဆုံးခြင်းဆီမရောက်ခင်ခရီးတလျှောက်မှာ
အိမ်ကိုတထောက််ပြန်ဝင််ဖို့…

သူတို့ဖောက်နေတဲ့လမ်းပေါ်မှာ
ကျမနိုင်သလောက်သယ်လာတဲ့
ကျောက်ခဲလေးတွေဖြည့်ဖို့…

ကျမသွန်းထားတဲ့အိုးကလေးထဲ
ကန့်ကော်ပန်းတွေထိုးဖို့..။

ခက်မာ
၂၀၁၂၊ ဖေဖော်ဝါရီ ၃ရက်။ မနက် ၃နာရီ ၄၉ မိနစ်

 

CW: “The Wound” speaks as much to the experience of watching political change from afar— and the experience of being away from home, more generally— as it does to anything else. Could you tell me a bit about what it was like to be abroad when the Saffron Revolution began? You were in the United States, at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program at the time. Do you remember when you first heard the news, and how that affected you?

Khet Mar: Yes, I was in Iowa at that time. I felt sad to see the crackdown on monks and people who were marching peacefully, and I wanted to be there with my friends who were leading and participating in it. I was also worried about my friends and the students who became leaders of Saffron, and leaders of the Student Union formed during the Saffron Revolution.

CW: It was these friends and acquaintances whose significance you reflect on in “The Wound,” and who now exist as so central to how we think about the events of 2007, as well as their continued relevance now. Can you tell me why you chose to write about these individuals and their release? What do you think they represent for Burma/Myanmar?

Khet Mar: I think they are important because they have changed the history of Burma, both in 1988 and because of their efforts in the Saffron Revolution. Through them, the world knew what had happened in Burma, and who had made the country worse. These students and activists had spent most of their lifetime in commitment to the nation. I chose to write about them because they are the ones who got the longest imprisonment terms (65 years each) despite the fact that they had all already spent many years of their lives in prison, for 1988 and for follow-up demonstrations afterward. They lost their youth, that stage of their lives, because they acted in order to better the situation of the country. Without them, Burma would not have gotten to its current situation— for example, having a civilian government. Their release was not only important for me, but for them, and for the country because they have huge voices that speak to the world, and they have chosen to use their voices.

CW: At the time of this national amnesty, reporters and analysts alike portrayed the release of activists— including prominent figures such as Min Ko Naing, Ashin Gambira, Khun Tun Oo, and Ko Ko Gyi— as a moment of hope for Myanmar’s political trajectory. As the Democratic Voice of Burma wrote in a breaking news release: “Unprecedented events today in Burma, and the strongest signal yet of genuine reform? Let’s wait and see.”

We now look back on the events of 2012, and those of 2007, with some distance. It’s been 5 years since you wrote this poem, and 10 since Saffron. Do you feel the same as you described in this poem watching the country from afar now? Have your feelings changed?

Khet Mar: To be honest, I feel a little bit different than I described in the poem. I wrote in the poem:

With the zeal of a possessed clairvoyant,
A lane into the future has been rebuilt.
Their strength glitters into gold.
They harden into diamonds

I now feel they have less the zeal of a possessed clairvoyant, that their strength has become less golden and that some of them are no longer as diamonds. But I still feel the same for the following paragraph:

What they do every day,
I don’t do it once in a lifetime.
I call it ‘the gap…’ between us.
So, they are the saints, who have
Walked through multilayered walls.
I am the sinner imprisoned in the outer space,
Burning in my own ignoramus fire.

My feelings watching Burma from afar haven’t changed. My country has same problems as before, and although some things get better, some get worse. Especially, I feel these days are the worst.

 

The Wound (2012), written by Khet Mar and translated by Ko Ko Thett, is available online at Warscapes Magazine

Khet Mar is a Burmese journalist, activist, writer, poet and essayist. Author of one novel, “Wild Snowy Night,” as well as several collections of short stories, essays and poems, her work has been translated into English and Japanese, broadcast on radio and made into a film. Khet Mar was previously an exiled writer-in-residence in City of Asylum from 2009-2012, and now works as a broadcast journalist for Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C., where she continues her work in writing, community development and environmental activism.

Ko Ko Thett is a Burmese poet and a literary translator. Since his own chapbooks published illegally in Rangoon in 1966, his poems, translations, and commentaries on Burma have appeared in several literary magazines, from World Literature Today and ASIA to Sampsonia Way and Asymptote. With James Byrne, he is the co-editor and translator of Bones Will Crow: Fifteen Contemporary Burmese Poets.

 

 

 

Author: Courtney Wittekind

Courtney T. Wittekind is currently a PhD student in Social Anthropology at Harvard University. She completed a M.Phil at the University of Oxford where she studied as a member of St Antony’s College and Rhodes Scholar. Her current research centers on questions of transition, place, and the unseen in Myanmar’s Shan State.