The return of Myanmar’s lost daughter

A Nge Htwe

Wendy Law-Yone is the daughter of Edward Law-Yone who founded The Nation, Myanmar’s influential English-language newspaper in 1948.  When Ne Win staged a coup d’état in 1962, her life was turned upside down: the newspaper was shut down a year later, her father was detained for five years and she was barred from leaving the country. She was foiled in her first attempt to sneak across the border to Thailand in 1967, which resulted in her imprisonment. Eventually she successfully fled to the United States via Bangkok in 1973, settling in Washington DC. Wendy has published four novels including “Irrawaddy Tango” and “The Golden Parasol”, whose Myanmar translation has just hit the bookstores. 

In Yangon recently to attend the launch of her novel’s translated version, the novelist sat down with Myanmar Eleven to talk about the travails of life under the regime, the bitter experience of seeing her father seized and detained indefinitely by the military and her escape from Myanmar.  

How many times have you visited Myanmar since the day you left?

My first return was in 2001. At that time, I was able to get a visa. I hadn’t been back for 30 years before that trip. I left the country in 1967. The reform started in 2011. Then, I was invited to attend the Irrawaddy Literary Festival last year. This is my third time now. This time, I’ve come here for my book launch.

You can still speak in Myanmar very well.

Thank you. But I don’t feel content. It’s been over 50 years since I last spoke in Myanmar. I’m surprised that I can still remember [the language] because I actually read the translation of my book in the Myanmar language. I have never read Myanmar books before. After reading the book, I was able to recall the words that I learnt when I was a child.

How was life under the regime? 

After they seized power, they arrested the entire cabinet including U Nu. To tell the truth, my father was acquainted with Ne Win back then. Later, they were increasingly growing apart. Ne Win no longer trusted my father. He became scared of him. The relationship went bad. There was also the issue of the demolition of the Student Union building. After the building was demolished with dynamites, my father wrote about the need to conduct an official investigation on this issue. This was his first priority. But when he was arrested, he didn’t know why he was arrested. He didn’t know what he was charged with. No warrant was issued for his arrest. He was just taken like that. Even though he didn’t know the reason, we expected this [issue] to be the reason because people who were arrested after the arrest of U Nu and his cabinet were those who became the government’s enemies. They hadn’t become their enemies yet, but they were regarded to be dangerous. They arrested everyone. As they were establishing a military dictatorship, they were not able to keep a rapport with the media. My father was arrested in 1963. The newspaper was shut down a year later on the pretext of evading tax. They also confiscated the [printing] machines.

Please share your views on journalism and writing.

As I’m a writer, my view is that if you want to do this work, you can’t have any other responsibilities. Another thing is that writing books is not a job restricted to foreigners only. Myanmar is a special case. That’s why I believe we need to write books for the benefit of our country and the development of our society. We have special responsibility to write about Myanmar. People have also told me: ‘You have the responsibility’. I told them back that I can’t have any other responsibilities if I were to create a literary work. Only then can I write well.  Another thing is that we must be objective in our writing. We can’t avoid the dilemma of which side we should take when we are writing about the incidents in Myanmar. When people are faced with the truth and injustice, they have the responsibility to take sides with the truth. My father was a journalist who was interested in politics, but I’m not a politician. I don’t have that kind of political spirit. Some writers show their political spirit since from the start. They also have a political interest in what they do.

When I was reading your book, you seem to have some grievances. When your father gave you his notes for you to write his biography, you didn’t even read them. When you father scolded you, you didn’t speak to him. Did you harbour any personal grievance against Myanmar?

The situation at that time caused me a sense of grievance. I have strong willpower. When I was young, I wanted to learn, read books, and live freely. At the time, I didn’t understand why my father asked me to read his notes. Also, what kind of government did such kind of things without any respect to the law? Living in this country was very bad. I didn’t want to live there. So we left the country. Later, I felt like coming back because it’s my country. I wasn’t pleased with the government, but I couldn’t cut ties with the society. When we left the country, we didn’t have any passports. We didn’t get them. We had to live as stateless people. We weren’t given any registration cards.

Was your grandmother Shan or Kachin?

She was Shan. My other grandmother was a Bamar. My father’s family was of Chinese descent. My mother’s side was of British descent. 

How did you leave the country? Did you take an illegal route?

Yes, I decided to sneak across the border through the Three Pagodas Pass. There wasn’t any other choice. I wanted to leave the country. We didn’t want to stay here anymore. A gem trader told me that he would guide me if I chose this route. I got arrested in Mawlamyaing. I was detained in Mawlamyaing for three days. I was taken from Mawlamyaing to Yangon by train while a hood was put over my head. I didn’t know where they were taking me. I thought I was going to be imprisoned. But, I thought the prison was strange. Later, I found out that I was taken to the MI (Military Intelligence)’s headquarter. I wasn’t tortured. But I was interrogated nonstop since 9 pm. I didn’t have anything including documents.

Later, you mentioned reading the Nation on microfilm while you were living in the UK. How about the archiving of copies of The Nation at the British library?

Well, the British Library is the biggest library in the world. The countries that used to establish colonies have been doing this for a long time now. The most important thing for them is to keep record of reports. China is also like that. The British also keep record of everything that is good for them. So, they have collected all the newspapers from the countries that had been colonised by them. When I went to the library, I had no idea whether or not they had archived the newspaper. I was hoping that they had archived at least one or two copies of The Nation. When I trawled through the computerised database, I found 33 microfilms of the paper. That’s when I had a better understanding [of the newspaper]. I didn’t read the newspaper when I was young.

Myanmar authors have never won a Nobel Prize so far. Is it to do with their English or politics? Are our literary works not qualified [for a Nobel Prize]?

All of them are possible. But it’s not their fault. The ‘vein’ of Myanmar literature has been cut off for a long time. There was also censorship. Some histories have been hidden. When you only write for the local audience, it doesn’t make sense. This is being localised. The local writers themselves won’t know how they and their ideas have become insular. They will think ‘I’m very smart’. They don’t know that such kind of books have already been written many times. It’s difficult to talk about quality because I can’t judge. There must be at least one literary hero in an era. In the previous era, there were writers like Sayar Zawgyi. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t receive any international recognition. But I haven’t seen any talent in this country [in this era]. I believe it’s because [the literary world] has to pass through a dark period.

What would you like to tell local youth about literature or media?

In my father’s time, there was a lot of press freedom. They could write as they wanted. You can say it was like a ‘golden era’. But they also faced many difficulties. They had to struggle hard. They had to fight with the government. So I want to tell [the young] not to lose faith. In any era, each newspaper faces difficulties. Only then will this profession survive. Another thing is that they are more important than our generation. They are the only one left. I want them to read books about their history and the history of our country as much as they can.