New York City, April 14, 2010—PEN American Center today named Nay Phone Latt, one of Burma’s leading young poets and bloggers, as the recipient of its 2010 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. This young poet was arrested on January 29, 2008, following the monks’ protests in Rangoon and elsewhere in the country, and is serving a 12-year sentence for distributing news and views via his blog.
The award, which honors international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression, was been presented to Latt in absentia at PEN’s Annual Gala on April 27, 2010, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Writer, historian, and PEN member Barbara Goldsmith underwrites the award.
“Nay Phone Latt represents a younger generation of Burmese who are longing for freedom and willing to pay the cost of speaking out in its defense,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center. “That he is a blogger reflects the global truth that Internet censorship is one of the great threats to free expression today. That Nay Phone Latt is also a poet reminds us that every society speaks with the voice of the imagination as well as through its non-fiction writers. We honor him. We thank him. We ask all who have any influence on the government of Burma to press for his release.”
Nay Phone Latt, 29, is an influential Burmese poet, blogger, and political dissident. He is a youth member of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party in Burma that will soon be dissolved by new election laws, and also a young entrepreneur who owns several Internet cafes in Rangoon. His Burmese language blog was praised by the BBC and other foreign media outlets for providing invaluable news regarding the military crackdown in Myanmar (Burma) in 2007 during a period of particularly strong censorship.
Nay Phone Latt was arrested on January 29, 2008, under section 5 (J) of the 1950 Emergency Provision Act, which criminalizes any attempt to “disrupt morality” or to “disrupt security, stability or the restoration of order.” Initially held at the Interior Ministry, he was transferred in early February 2008 to Insein Prison, famous for its inhumane conditions, where he had restricted contact to his family and legal assistance. After being held for over nine months, Nay Phone Latt was sentenced by a specially-assembled court to a combined 20 years and six months in prison on November 10, 2008. The court, formed to prosecute political dissidents within prison walls, was closed to the public, and Nay Phone Latt’s mother was banned from attending the hearing. Nay Phone Latt was not allowed legal representation after his lawyer was sentenced to prison time for contempt while protesting unfair hearings.
The total sentence imposed upon Nay Phone Latt consisted of two years for violating Article 505 (b) of the Criminal Code, which punishes defamation of the state, three years and six months for violating Article 32 (b) of the Video Act, and 15 years for violating Article 33 (a) of the Electronics Act. The Electronics Act, which contains provisions establishing long prison terms for disseminating news that is considered to tarnish the image of the government, has been used increasingly to silence political voices since the protests in 2007.
On November 16, 2008, Nay Phone Latt was transferred from Insein Prison to Pa-an Prison in Karen state, 135 miles from Rangoon. He joins the ranks of political dissidents who have been transferred to isolated regional prisons with poor or nonexistent medical care and limited food. Many families of these prisoners have reportedly been prevented from visiting. On February 20, 2009, a court in Rangoon reduced Nay Phone Latt’s sentence by eight and a half years, leaving him to serve 12 years in prison. Family members continue to express concern for Nay Phone Latt’s health.
In announcing the award today in New York, Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems praised Nay Phone Latt’s “courageous use of new media to convey critical information and articulate the frustrations and hopes of his generation.” Siems urged the Obama administration to press the ruling junta to release Nay Phone Latt and all political prisoners in advance of Myanmar’s upcoming elections—the first in 22 years. “Nay Phone Latt’s blog called attention not only to the despotism of the ruling junta, but to Myanmar’s vibrant youth and creative culture; in it, we glimpse the promising future that could accompany an easing of restrictions on freedom of expression in his country. The Obama administration should seize this critical moment in Myanmar’s history to advance U.S. promises to defend Internet freedom around the world and to ensure that people like Nay Phone Latt are free to help shape their country’s future.”
The Freedom to Write Award is an extension of PEN’s year-round advocacy on behalf of the more than 900 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Forty-five women and men have received the award since 1987; 31 of the 35 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.
PEN American Center is the largest of the 145 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled. It defends writers and journalists from all over the world who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession. For more information on PEN’s work, please visit www.pen.org
I won't cry, Mother.
On the nights
I closed all the doors
Turned off all the lights
And slept quietly
I sighed asking myself
What mistakes had I made.
The first day
Next to the road enveloped
By the echos of love
Covered by the monks
I put my hands together with tears
My legs still pulled back
By fear, Mother.
The second day
With bare feet in the wind and rain
Where love overflowed
The youth and people
Surrounding the golden-colored stream
A new Irrawaddy
Flowed on the road.
That day, I became the Irrawaddy, Mother.
The next day was very simple, Mother.
Against your worries
Ignoring the aches and pains
For sure I became
A brick and a grain of sand
For the brave monks, Mother.
Being a Buddhist
From a country where Buddhism flourishes
You, I'm sure, will be happy
For the actions I took, Mother.
I won't try to spell out to you
Things about some people
Who are not worth thinking about.
The worst among the craziest people
Is the one crazy for power.
His lips have the power to give orders.
Under him are
For whom hell is too good.
In their hands are weapons to kill.
How can I hand over
This country's future to them, Mother?
Spirits of some of the dead monks
Covered with wounds they took from beating
Came to talk to me, Mother.
(May all the living things in the east
Be free from all kinds of danger, be free from anger
Be free from all kinds of poverty, and be in peace.)
With love light
We lit up peace.
Everything was peaceful
Before the noises from
Shields hit by the batons
Tear gas explosions
Loud swear words
Then .... the sounds of yelling and beating.
The entire country was complete with love and peace
Love of the monks, Mother.
The spirit of a student
Who had to give permission
For a bullet from the heretics
To enter his heart
Came to talk to me, Mother.
(I paid obeisance to the monks.
I donated everything the monks needed.
Along with the monks, I spread my love
To all living things.
I didn't do anything wrong.
With the purest mind
I just did the most appropriate thing.)
I'm not walking on the road
Built by the students, the youth, the people, and the monks
We went onto the road because
We understood our race and our religion
We understood what was right and wrong
We knew we should stand by the truth.
Also, to lessen inappropriate things that keep happening
We came out onto the road
With little strength we had
With little hope uncertain.
The white chest of the youths
Far away from fault
They had the heart to shoot and covered in red blood, Mother.
In that revolution
Even the platforms of the pagodas
Turned into battlefields, Mother.
The heretics enjoyed drinking
The blood of the monks
The blood of the students.
They say that to change something
We need to sacrifice our lives, Mother.
Please ask those with answers
How much more do we have to sacrifice
For peace, for justice, for truth, Mother.
Let's forget about guns that are not to shoot into the air
Bamboo batons not for display, Mother.
One sure thing is
However much they kill
However many people die
The Irrawaddy on the road will
Forever be flowing in our hearts.
Translated by Than Than Win