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Myanmar's First Literary Festival: Irrawaddy Literary Festival, Showcased Local and International Writers

Travelers Today       By    Lena Vazifdar

Updated: Feb 04, 2013 03:15 PM EST

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Myanmar's first literary festival, Irrawaddy Literary Festival was hosted on Feb. 1-3 in Yangon. The weekend event featured a diverse selection of acclaimed local and international writers.

This is an important turning point for Myanmar as in the recent past this type of festival would never have been allowed due to strict visa restrictions and censorship laws.

Jane Heyn, the festival organiser and wife of the British ambassador to Burma, said she first had the idea for the event two years ago, but her plans could not come to fruition until now because of the visa laws on foreigners.

"The overriding reason for having the festival was to give Burmese people a chance to read modern literature," she said to The BBC. "In many ways that was the inspiration, seeing how difficult it was to find new, modern, affordable literature. Everything was scored through with the censor's pen, it was impossible,"

Festival patron and Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi  said on the festival's website, "I am delighted to lend my support and personal participation to this first Irrawaddy Literary Festival. Literature has always been a big part of my life and I hope this festival, which brings together some of the finest talent from Burma, the UK and elsewhere will encourage more people to explore the world of literature and further their understanding of the English language."

The festival featured a number of notable literary participants including Jung Chang who wrote the books "Wild Swans" Three Daughters of China and "Mao: The Unknown Story." International writers included Fergal Keane, Rory MacLean, William Dalrymple George FitzHerbert, Nick Danziger and many more. Amongst the local writers Thant Myint U, Pascal Khoo-Thwe and U Thaw Kaung participated.

The official ending of censorship in Myanmar occured last August and a budding literary revival is underway. The BBC reported that during its 50 year reign of censorship, the country had some of the strictest controls on speech of anywhere in the world. Writers, photographers and creative in Myanmar faced imprisonment if any of the work they created was seen as offensive by government run censors.

Kho Thwe who is from Myanmar returned for the first time in 23 years to attend the festival after living in the UK and Norway in exile.

"Now the fog has lifted... for me it would have been unimaginable o think 20 years ago that we would have this much freedom, to come and celebrate things that were outlawed in the past," he said to the BBC.

Some writers believe the festival to be a sign that Myanmar's future of freedom of expression is making a bold turning point.

"The happening of this literature festival suggests that writers are going to have more freedom to write and are going to be able to express themselves more than before,"Jung Chang said to the BBC. "Myanmar seems to be going towards that goal of people feeling free to write and to publish and I think that is a wonderful thing and I wish the same process in China, where my books are banned."

Author of the books "The River of Lost Footsteps" and "Where Chian Meets India, Thant Myint-U spoke of Burma's rich literary culture.

"This is an incredibly literary culture," he said to The BBC."People read a lot, I don't know if it's because there is not much electricity and they don't have TV, but I think it's always been the case, it has survived for whatever reason."

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