How literature helps build freedom and democracy in ASEAN
By Ma Thida
Good evening everyone, first of all I would like to say thanks organizers for giving me this opportunity to talk at this ASEAN literary festival here in Jakarta. Indeed ASEAN itself is still struggling to build Democracy and freedom in its region, and my country, and my people of Myanmar are far more behind than country like Indonesia and its people in terms of building Democracy and freedom. That is why I think we need to explore how we could use our work, literature to build freedom and democracy.
Literature is one of the cultural legacies in ASEAN region and most South East Asian countries have their own different cultures. We share influence of ancient civilizations and history of imperialized kingdom, migration inside the continent and western colonization. We are also currently struggling to build democracy and have socioeconomic development. Therefore we should indeed share the vision of a one ASEAN Community.
However compared to EU, ASEAN community is hard to be integrated. Throughout history, we never share one common identity, i.e. Asian or ASEAN though all races and ethnic groups in EU do not mind to be identified themselves as just European. This might be because of more diverse identities we usually imply than they do. Europeans usually share not only geography but also Proto-Indo-European language tree, and Christian religion. But we, ASEAN, do share geography alone, and we have more than one language trees and more than one religious believes. ASEAN people have many ways to identify ourselves and so we do not easily identify ourselves as just Asian or ASEAN or not share the vision of a one ASEAN community or of one common identity.
One of the other reasons why we cannot share a sense of one identity group might be lack of literature exchange in our region for ages. We have read English, Irish, American, and Soviet literature pretty well in English language but we rarely read enough each other’s literature because of language barrier and not enough translation. Without learning each other’s literature and culture, we cannot have a sense of feeling as one common identified group. In this sense, literature could help us to set freedom from being isolated and separated each other. Indeed literature always an echoing of people’s thought. To understand feeling of a group of people, we need to read their literature. We need literature to free ourselves from knowing nothing about each other.
Once a Spanish writer and philosopher Miguelde Unamuno said that fascism is cured by reading and racism is cured by travelling. Thi is so true and I have one experience. In my country, because of censorship and treating ethnic minority badly by both socialist and military regime, some ethnic people thought they were the only victims of military government of ethnic majority Bama. They could not easily travel inside the country and there is no ethnic minority literature throughout these authoritative regime days. Once one ethnic minority friend of mine told me that how he was amazed to learn majority Bama people are also treated badly and suffering a lot in some remote regions where they are still majority. He said he finally learned military regime has no discrimination in violating Human Rights for all citizens only after he travelled to these isolated places of country. If he could travel and see what is happening in other part of the country, he could easily feel not too bad and sad about how their lives are desperate since other majority Bama civilians are also having same treatment. This is how travelling or seeing the truth by our own eyes could help curing racism or accepting pluralism. However if we could have uncensored literature, we could easily learn about this and we who live in urban areas could also empathy easily about their situation.
But in this very day, literature can help you travelling by eyes and thoughts to every corner of the world easily. So literature and reading can cure either fascism or racism. Both fascism and racism cannot be accepted in Democracy since Democracy is a way for society to reach out the truth by having conflict and compromise of ideas, individuals and institutions. So literature can help build Democracy in this sense too. Reading about new different ideas will help one to easily and peacefully compromise oneself with one’s own preconceived ideas. This is how Democracy works. Different ideas of solution for problems should be reviewed, argued over and finally at least one rational solution would be accepted in democratic society. Easiest and peaceful way to learn as many different ideas of solution as possible is just by reading literature. So we need literature to build Democracy in this sense too.
Unfortunately most ASEAN countries suffered a lot under dictatorship and writers from this region tried with their own creativity to expand the boundary of freedom permitted by the dictators. For us, creativity usually does not come from the freedom we have but from the freedom we want to have. In other words, for example, for Myanmar writers, creativity rests not in freedom but in hunting for freedom. Censorship, indeed, could prohibit only the publishing of literature, not its freedom. The free nature of the creation of literature and its appreciation remains, even in censored works. That’s why we fight not only for freedom, but also to keep it in our literature. Then it is clear that literature could help builds freedom in our society too.
We also believe our creativity could go beyond the hands of censorship. And our readers also ever try to read between the lines, beyond the text. Creative power of writers and imaginative power of readers always form a world of freedom in literature under censorship. ASEAN people experience diversity all the time without noticing that we all could easily appreciate this diversity as our strength. Instead we fight each other and we feel diversity as weakness. Censorship always play crucial role in prohibiting people from thinking diversity as strength but promoting it as weakness. Therefore we need creativity but not censorship in literature for bringing freedom back to us.
Literature is a medium which conveys, maintains and appreciates freedom between writers’ and readers. The way it connects people – writers and readers or readers and readers – is though freedom. Different readers could feel or response differently to the same literature or same book. Writer also uses his or her own freedom or creativity to reach out different audience. Both writers and readers could expand the boundary of time and space via literature. IT-aged readers could reach out ancient civilization via literature like Mahabarata or Tale of Ganji easily. This is how literature could build freedom to its readers. The more we know, the more we can be free from prejudice. The more we learn about our society, the more we are able to do better and differently. So literature helps us know deeply about our past and present. This is the freedom literature provides us. And this is how literature could also build democracy in our ASEAN society.
Literature could be independently of either government or country since it is an artistic expression. A good literature always acts in this sense. I think Mahabarata or Ramayana is a good example. Though it is Indian or South Asian epic long poem, we, ASEAN community were happy to adopt it into our artistic culture. We have our own version of Ramayana and Indonesia and other ASEAN countries have their own version of it. This is how a good literature could bring freedom into society. Since literature should be independently of government but is about human mind and spirit, it can go across country’s boundaries and freely reach out to wider audiences in other different societies. Again, compared to political statement, literature could also last far longer in the society. That is how literature helps build freedom in our ASEAN society. That is the freedom, which allows readers to reach beyond their legitimate place and period. This chance is also very much of democratic rights too.
Literature also helps readers to do self-analysis of their belief and perspective on everyday life. Reading about different culture and society through writer’s perspective is indeed generating the capacity of readers on tolerance and respect on other viewpoints. Compared to journalism, literature goes beyond current affairs and hard news. In my country, in socialist and military eras, since there was no independent private news media allowed by these regimes, fiction writers tired to create their works to convey messages and to inform situation on the ground. Literature is not about facts and events but about feelings and thoughts. Reading literature helps readers to open up their way of thinking beyond usual ways of they think. Readers could either promote or reduce their situation as portrayed in literature and this helps them in real life respecting others in similar situation or judging others accordingly and not from their own situation. That is why literature provides not just result but ways to solve. That is how literature helps build freedom and democracy.
Indeed most writers usually act also as social critic in different countries. Literature normally engages in current circumstances of the time and place by interrogating different ideas. Therefore people look writers as conscience of the society. Indeed allowing people for the debate to identify problems, solutions, mistakes and lessons is a key opportunity in Democracy. And literature can offer this opportunity easily.
For this reason, ASEAN community should promote role and space of literature in order to help freedom and democracy in its society. So we need not only governments, but also writers, readers, publishing houses, distribution networks and libraries. We do need legislation to prohibit censorship, protect freedom of expression and promote vital literary culture in our ASEAN society. In this sense, we also need to consider seriously about translation of literature from each other’s country into different languages of our ASEAN society. Since we do not know each other, who else from other part of the world could know writers of our society? Then we can start building sense of oneness among our people of ASEAN via our literature.
Therefore, for having sense of oneness among ASEAN society, we need more translation work on ASEAN literature and we need more literary exchange events like this. Let’s learn each other through our works, our literature. And let’s build freedom and democracy in our ASEAN community through our literature. Thank you all. *
Posted : 2015-06-26