A lunchtime PEN World Voices panel with global journalist Ian Buruma, Burmese author Thant Myint-U and Words Without Borders editor Dedi Felman today offered a look at the modern history and current politics of Burma, the Southeast Asian nation that all three panelists agreed was little understood around the world. I arrived at this panel discussion knowing almost nothing of this nation’s culture and society (and not for lack of interest), so I believe they’re right.
I didn’t know, for instance, that Burma has been suffering in a state of civil war since 1948 (the longest civil war in the world today), and I didn’t know the nation’s army is one of the 10 largest in the world (Wikipedia here lists them as 12th, but the difference is negligible while the fact remains quite surprising). Dedi Felman, moderating the panel, placed Burma’s endless crisis in context with the more widely known Darfur crisis by pointing out that there are more child soldiers in Burma today than in Sudan.
One of the very few things I knew about Burma before arriving today is that a Burmese statesman named U Thant had been a well-liked Secretary-General of the United Nations during the dynamic years from 1961 to 1971, and I was pleased to discover that Thant Myint-U, author of The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma is his grandson. I’d like to read Thant’s book, and as he spoke today I noted his sincere concern for a troubled nation caught since the 19th Century in the net of worldwide power struggles (between Britain and India during the colonial era, between Japan and the Allies in World War II, between China and Western democracy today) and gripped by internal power-hungry ideologies.
Thant advocates a careful approach to Western intervention (as he wrote in a London Review of Books article last year), though Ian Buruma warned that, in his observation, the USA war in Iraq has significantly harmed our ability to be accepted as credible do-gooders around the world.
This event left me hungry for more, and this is the same hunger (and satisfaction) that many New Yorkers and visitors attending this exciting five-day gathering must be feeling as we float from one international meeting to another. This was my second event so far, and while I can’t tell if this is a trend or just a coincidence, I have noticed that both today’s Burma session and Wednesday’s Darfur session presented stark political discussion with a minimum of purely “literary” sensibility. There was a symbolic empty chair at today’s panel, as there had been at the Darfur event, and both times it was
explained that this empty chair represented authors around the world who could not be present due to oppression in their home countries. I’m starting to wonder if these empty chairs should be filled by poets or fiction writers, just so we don’t forget to keep the “literature” in PEN World Voices.
But I think there will be plenty of literary sensibility at the Three Musketeers event with Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa and Umberto Eco (Michael Orthofer calls it “The Three Tenors”, which is much funnier) tomorrow night. On with the festival!