Tuesday, 06 January 2015 06:46


The first time I looked for it, I was expecting a 5th floor office in a blackened apartment block, or a shuttered ground floor hole in the wall.  I walked up and down Merchant Street between Bo Aung Kyaw and Pansodan several times before accepting defeat and asking in a tea shop.  The old man took the slip of paper in his hands.  Despite holding it upside down, he gave me a queer look and pointed straight up.


How the hell did I miss that? I thought.


The Burma Translation Society is very old and formed four months before Myanmar’s independence in January 1948, with a mission to bring great world literature to a Burmese reading audience through translation. With Prime Minister U Nu at its helm, the society reached a peak in the mid 1950’s when it moved to a striking downtown residence, advertising its presence with a giant sign etched above its corner doorway. The signature still looms over Merchant Street; the building stands strong, but the society it once housed ceased to exist after 1962. The Burma Translation Society building was rebranded as Sarpay Beikman, the Palace of Literature, and within its walls all literary organisations in Myanmar were placed under direct control of the Ministry of Information.


In July 2012, government ‘guidance’ of literary organisations in Myanmar ended. Since then Yangon has seen the formation of several new literary organisations, including the Myanmar Writers Association, Myanmar Publishers and Booksellers Association, the Myanmar Writers Union, Myanmar Poets Union, the Myanmar Storytellers Association, Myanmar Literature Admirers Society and, perhaps most poignantly, the new Pen Myanmar Chapter. Each of these organisations have a new role to play in the future development and evolution of literature in Myanmar. The MPBA, with over 200 members, holds Myanmar’s biggest annual book fair every October and are working towards an international copyright law; the MPU are bridging the divide between traditional and contemporary poetry; Pen Myanmar are influential in their innovative methods of bringing literature to the public, such as their live readings on Yangon’s circular train.


Beyond Yangon the role of literature associations is inextricably bound, not just to literature itself, but also to ethnic identity.  Forbidden to teach, write or publish in their own language, Myanmar’s 135 ethnic minority groups have seen a three generation decline in creative, literary output.  As early as the 1960’s, many groups foresaw this decline and formed their own culture and literature associations.  Technically illegal, as many of them didn’t, and still haven’t, registered themselves with the government, these organisations rely solely on volunteers and community donations to deliver outreach programmes to remote communities.  Most of their work is centred on annual summer camps, held between April and May, where junior and high school students can study their own language and literature, often the only time and place where they can do so.


Some, such as the Kachin Culture and Literature Co-operationin Myiktyina, have started to distribute journals in their own language since the relaxing of publishing laws in 2012.  The Shan Culture and Literature Association, based in Taunggyi and the biggest and best funded of the associations, hold an annual Shan literature development conference every December.  The Palaung Culture and Literature Association, based in Namshan, hold a National Literature Day every August where ethnic Ta-ang take creative writing classes and compete in public poetry readings.

While preservation was a defining priority in the past, many of the associations are looking towards the future and the promotion of their literature beyond their own readers, specifically into Burmese and English.  


The lift was broken, I was told.  Judging by the grey spider webs cloaking the metal frame, the lift had been broken for some time.  The wide marble staircase wound around the lift and to lurid green corridors where the original parquet slabs clacked together when stepped on.  The Burma Translation Society, now, inevitably, reincarnated as the Myanmar Translation Society, occupies a large area on the third floor.  It has ambitions to recover its place as the pre-eminent source of great world literature in translation, but perhaps too much time has passed.  Instead, it could be looking in directions other than the past and to its own borders, where there is another great literature waiting to be read by the world.

Lucas Stewart is the British Council’s Literature Advisor.  He also blogs on literature in Myanmar at www.sadaik.com


The Myanmar Publishers and Booksellers Association
This is Myanmar’s largest literature association with over 300 members, but it has no permanent head office, however there are regional offices in Mandalay and Mawlamyine. The organization started in July, 2012 to promote the publishing industry in Myanmar and try to solve some of the problems that the publishers and book sellers encounter; as well as more generally, providing the local readership with quality books. MPBA organizes seminars, book fairs and talks.


Chairman-    Dr Thar Tun Oo,
Secretary-    Wai Thi Ei (Waing Waing), Nang Ei Ei Zar,


Pen Myanmar
The Myanmar branch of PEN International-an organization that celebrates literature and promotes freedom of expression, opened in 2014. Myanmar is one of the newest branches of PEN and serves as an NGO for writers “and for advocacy and education about literature, helping aspiring writers from all backgrounds in Myanmar.”


President-    Dr Ma Thida

Secretary-    Nay Phone Latt


31 Upper Pazundaung Road, Pazundaung Tsp-01 396 211
Email - [email protected]


Myanmar Storytellers Association
A youth organization that simply goes out and tells traditional Myanmar stories to children (often children in monasteries and orphanages)


Ko Thant Zin Soe- 09 425 01847
Chan Nyein Phyu- 09 731 80047


Read times Last modified on Tuesday, 06 January 2015 07:07
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