Burma isn’t known for its shining record on freedom of speech. In fact, quite the opposite. But change is afoot in the formerly reclusive Southeast Asian nation. Democracy has taken a fragile hold, Aung San Suu Kyi has led her party to power, and as restrictive legislation is dismantled piece by piece, new attitudes and ideas have begun to blossom. For evidence of this, you need only look to a restaurant called Pansuriya.
Opened in 2015, Pansuriya is the brainchild of Aung Soe Min – a Yangon gallery owner who has made it his mission to make the city a centre of artistic excellence. Serving excellent Burmese cuisine (think Shan noodles, tamarind leaf salads, and Burmese curries), the restaurant also doubles as an art gallery, its walls crammed with old photographs. It is neither its food nor its art, however, for which Pansuriya is currently making waves – but its poetry.
In August, Pansuriya held one of Yangon’s very first poetry slams. A poetry slam is a competitive event where poets perform their own original poetry in front of a crowd – it started in Chicago in the mid-1980s and has since spread all over the world. The subjects treated are often intensely personal and sometimes controversial – and it was no different here.
The participating poets – some of them new, some of them well-established – covered topics ranging from democracy to sex slavery, performing to a packed room. Two poets slammed together about the anti-Muslim sentiment that is so rife in Burma, and which both had experienced first-hand, while another railed against “the world of norms […] where women and homosexuals are feeble and weak. Strong men mock at the second and third sex”.
An event such as this would have been impossible to hold in Yangon until pretty recently. In 2008, the poet Saw Wai was arrested for writing a Valentine’s Day poem with the hidden message “power crazy Senior General Than Shwe”, while Maung Saung Kha was jailed for six months just last year for posting a poem on Facebook about having a tattoo of the president on his penis. Released from prison this May, the famous “Penis Poet” returned to the stage at Pansuriya, clearly undeterred by his stint behind bars.
Even now, as attitudes begin to relax, the poets worry that by speaking out about their values they are putting themselves at risk. Than Toe Aung, a co-organiser of the event who slammed about racism, feared that he would be targeted by anti-Muslim groups – but for him, the consequences of not speaking out were much greater. “Is it right for us to live like nothing is wrong in this society?” he demanded, to cheers from the audience.
Burma has come a long way toward freedom of speech, and there is a long way yet to go – but thanks to events like Slam Express, it feels like progress is finally being made.
Read more: The night Yangon slammed