Thida: Imprisonment a temporary death

Thursday night, visiting writer Ma Thida called her imprisonment under the oppressive regime in her homeland of Burma, now known as Myanmar, a process of death and rebirth.

The talk, entitled “Banned Books: an Insider’s Perspective on Writing and Resistance in Burma,” was co-sponsored by Amnesty International and the Brown Campaign for Burma.

Thirty-five students, faculty members and local residents came to hear the physician and human rights activist, nearly filling the Joukowsky Forum at the Watson Institute for International Studies.

Thida, this year’s International Writers Project fellow, was imprisoned by the Burmese government in 1993 for actively supporting Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate and founder of the main opposition party in Burma. Thida was charged with endangering public serenity, contacting illegal organizations and printing and distributing illegal publications. Her prison sentence was for 20 years, but she was released in 1999 due to declining health, increasing political pressure and the efforts of human rights organizations like Amnesty International and PEN.

“I temporarily died,” said Thida of her imprisonment. “I was attending the funeral of me.” She employed this funeral imagery to relate her life to the events of Sept. 11.

Her release from prison, she said, was the beginning of her “reincarnation” – a process that she said continues to this day.

Prior to the lecture, Amy Tan ’09, president of the Brown chapter of Amnesty International, told The Herald she was excited for the talk.

“I think that (this event) is a really important part of our project this year, which is to more effectively utilize resources at Brown University and to build bridges between groups that didn’t previously work together,” she said.

The Brown Campaign for Burma, a chapter of the national U.S. Campaign for Burma, has been working with Amnesty International since its creation last year.

The groups sold “a cho chin,” or Burmese after-dinner snacks, outside of Joukowsky Forum. They also gathered signatures to petition against the imprisonment of Nilar Thein, an activist leader and member of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students group in Myanmar.

“This is part of our plan for the year, to have an event that commemorates the Saffron Revolution,” said Eric Gastfriend ’10, president of the Brown Campaign for Burma.

The Saffron Revolution was a massive but peaceful political protest led by Buddhist monks in Myanmar at this time last year. The military regime responded violently.

“I want people to learn and be more aware of what’s going in Burma, especially the freshmen,” Gastfriend said.

Emily Gogolak ’12, who attended the talk, said “it was really moving to hear someone who has been such a force in trying to bring peace and democracy to Burma.”

Radhika Kumar ’12 agreed. “It sort of gives you insight into Burmese life,” she said. “It must be so suffocating in Burma.”

The talk was delayed for about 10 minutes due to technical difficulties with the projector, and Thida was unable to show the PowerPoint she had prepared.

“I really wanted to show some pictures,” Thida said with some frustration. She had arrived nearly an hour early to prepare for the talk.

In the question-and-answer session following the talk, Thida discussed the teen magazine she publishes in Myanmar.

“Mostly I write the thought-provoking articles,” Thida said. “I just want to tell (teens) we do value independence, but we should value interdependence.”

When asked about her plans in Providence, Thida said she wants to spend her time at Brown writing fiction that portrays the suffering in her homeland. She added that she had little time to write fiction there between her two jobs.

Of human rights struggle, Tan said, “Oftentimes, it seems far away.”

“But Brown and people at Brown – we are close to it. You can reach out and touch someone, basically, that has been through it.”