Fighting tyranny with poetry: Myanmar’s silenced voices


People protest in Myanmar against the military coup in 2021. Photo: Htin Linn Aye

The last time a political activist was hanged in Myanmar was in 1976, when the ethnic Chin student Salai Tin Maung Oo, 25, was executed for sedition. I was hoping against hope that the junta was bluffing when it announced in early June 2022 that it would go ahead with the execution of four political prisoners on death row, Phyo Zeyar Thaw, Kyaw Min Yu, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw.

I knew too well what the regime was capable of. Since the February 2021 coup, daily atrocities by security forces, extrajudicial killings and tortures to death of hundreds of civilians are well documented. The lives of two of my poet friends in their prime, K Za Win and Khet Thi, were cut short by the regime in March 2021 and May 2021 respectively for their leading role in the anti-coup protests.

Zeyar Thaw and Min Yu (AKA Jimmy) are big names in Myanmar. Jimmy belonged to the 1988 protest movement. He spent a total of 21 of his 53 years of life behind bars as a prisoner of conscience. Zeyar Thaw belonged to a younger generation, politicised by the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a protest led by the Myanmar monks. Myo Aung and Thura Zaw are likely to be ‘the 2021 generation.’

The original Burmese title of my poem is The Rope. I translated it into English and gratefully accepted an editorial suggestion that The Rope be retitled On the Ropes. Whatever happened to the sacrifice of all the activists since Tin Maung Oo, not to mention many nameless martyrs before and after him?

Wherever we are, we earthlings may be on the ropes against tyranny of all sorts — from dictatorships in the East and blatant lies by elected politicians in the West to ubiquitous corporate greed and hypocrisy. Because of this failure in leadership and our lack of common sense as a common species, we may as well be on the ropes against the biggest blow of our times, the climate crisis.

On the Ropes

In all manners of capital punishment
hanging is
the most hideous.

To ancient Greeks
the rope takes away more than life.
It takes away decency
even in death.

Had the Romans hanged Jesus
—instead of nailing him on a crucifix—
the Christian church wouldn’t
have had much impact.

Would you hang around
your neck an icon of a broken-neck Jesus,
hanging by the neck
on a noose?

Be it short drop, pole method,
standard, or long drop,
the hanged is condemned
to indignity.

Once the neck snaps midair
the body shits and pisses itself,
the eyes bulge,
the tongue sticks out of the mouth,
if not stuck between the lips,
bloodied and bitten.

The Klan loves to lynch their victims.
Only racist hatred justifies the rope.

Hanging cannot be accomplished
without gravity.

This makes the innocent Gaia complicit
in our human crime—

in its ferity and finality.

A version of this poem was circulated in SUSPECT newsletter on 16 June 2022.

Suffering in silence: The poetry of Parwana Fayyaz

Documenting the lives of women in Afghanistan, Forty Names by Afghan poet Parwana Fayyaz is a poignant reminder of lost opportunities, of freedoms given and then taken away, of a new generation living without enlightenment through education.

The collection, the title verse of which won the 2019 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem “focusses on stories and experiences from my childhood” and the ingrained attitude of acceptance that comes with a lack of schooling.

The title itself is reference to one of those very stories, where 40 women throw themselves off a cliff in order to protect their honour, rather than die with dishonour.

As she told Carcanet Press: “I grew up among women who told stories, stories concerning women. As the time passed, the women themselves became the stories. The majority of these women never went to school. They share their philosophy of life down through generations. [They say] “in the face of hardship, be patient, patience is the remedy”.”

Born in 1990, Fayyaz’s education challenges this idea. Now with a PhD in Persian Studies from Cambridge University, how can silence possibly make sense?

“When I left my home and Afghanistan to embark on my journey to become more educated, I began to reflect on the lives of the women I had always admired,” she said. “I began to question my admiration for them. They were suffering and yet they accepted it. To suffer in silence is seen as a token of patience.”

“With more education, patience became more elusive.”

Indeed, the choice now for so many women and girls in Afghanistan, sadly, is only silence and patience, but without the reward the piety is supposed to bring. As the Taliban tightens its stranglehold over the country, it forces out the oxygen required for art and literature to flourish and for women to learn how to express themselves in this sense.

Certainly, more than they previously should have done, everyday people in the west are taking notice of Afghanistan. The stories and images that have shocked so many people are not new, but it quite obviously takes a feeling of personal involvement – Nato troops were caught in a dangerous evacuation process – for people to take notice for long.

Even the process of translation for Fayyaz was important in this regard, “My poetry makes use of the art of translation to enhance the meaning of my story-poems for a Western audience, specifically involving the translation of Persian names into English. In active translation, the Persian names are the sounds and the English translations their echoes.”

Perhaps, to the English-speaking world, the plight of Afghans under the Taliban will remain as far-distant noises that will not reverberate so loudly for long. Forty Names, then, is in its truest sense a reflection of what has been lost for a whole generation of Afghan girls: a reminder that Afghanistan’s brief experience of democracy will never be forgotten.

Forty Names

by Parwana Fayyaz


Zib was young.
Her youth was all she cared for.
These mountains were her cots
the wind her wings, and those pebbles were her friends.
Their clay hut, a hut for all the eight women,
and her Father, a shepherd.

He knew every cave and all possible ponds.
He took her to herd with him,
as the youngest daughter
Zib marched with her father.
She learnt the ways to the caves and the ponds.

Young women gathered there for water, the young
girls with the bright dresses, their green
eyes were the muses.

Behind those mountains
she dug a deep hole,
storing a pile of pebbles.

The daffodils
never grew here before,
but what is this yellow sea up high on the hills?

A line of some blue wildflowers.
In a lane toward the pile of tumbleweeds
all the houses for the cicadas,
all your neighbors.
And the eagle roars in the distance,
have you met them yet?

The sky above, through the opaque skin of
your dust, carries whims from the mountains,
it brings me a story.
The story of forty young bodies.

A knock,
father opened the door.
There stood the fathers,
the mothers’ faces startled.
All the daughters standing behind them.
In the pit of dark night,
their yellow and turquoise colors
lining the sky.

‘Zibon, my daughter,
take them to the cave.’
She was handed a lantern;
she took the way.
Behind her a herd of colors flowing.
The night was slow,
the sound of their footsteps a solo music of a mystic.

Sediqa, Hakima, Roqia,
Firoza, Lilia, Soghra.
Shah Bakhat, Shah Dokht, Zamaroot,
Naznin, Gul Badan, Fatima, Fariba.
Sharifa, Marifa, Zinab, Fakhria, Shahparak, MahGol,
Latifa, Shukria, Khadija, Taj Begum, Kubra, Yaqoot,
Nadia, Zahra, Shima, Khadija, Farkhunda, Halima, Mahrokh, Nigina,
Maryam, Zarin, Zara, Zari, Zamin,

at last Zibon.

No news. Neither drums nor flutes of
shepherds reached them, they
remained in the cave. Were
people gone?

Once in every night, an exhausting
tear dropped – heard from someone’s mouth,
a whim. A total silence again.

Zib calmed them.
Each daughter
crawled under her veil,
slowly the last throbs from the mill-house
also died.
No throbbing. No pond. No nights.
Silence became an exhausting noise.

Zib led the daughters to the mountains.

The view of the thrashing horses, the brown uniforms
all puzzled them. Imagined
the men snatching their skirts, they feared.

We will all meet in paradise,
with our honored faces
angels will greet us.

A wave of colors dived behind the mountains,
freedom was sought in their veils, their colors
flew with wind. Their bodies freed and slowly hit

the mountains. One by one, they rested. Women
figures covered the other side of the mountains.
Hairs tugged. Heads stilled. Their arms curved
beside their twisted legs.

These mountains became their cots.
The wind their wings, and those pebbles their friends.
Their rocky cave, a cave for all the forty women.
And their fathers and mothers disappeared.

Three Dolls

During the wars,
my mother made our clothes
and our toys.

For her three daughters,
she made dresses, and once
she made us each a doll.

Their figures were made with sticks
gathered from our neighbor’s garden.
She rolled white cotton fabric
around the stick frames
to create a skin for each doll.

Then she fattened the skin
with cotton extracted from an old pillow.
With black and red yarns bought from
uncle Farid’s store, my mother created faces.
A unique face for each doll.

Large black eyes, thick eyelashes and eyebrows.
Long black hair, a smudge of black for each nose.
And lips in red.
Our dolls came alive,
with each stitch of my mother’s sewing needle.

We dyed their cheeks with red rose-petals,
and fashioned skirts from bits of fabric,
from my mother’s sewing basket.
And finally, we named our dolls.

Mine with a skirt of royal green was the oldest and tallest,
and I called her Duur. Pearl.
Shabnam chose a skirt of bright yellow
and called her doll, Pari. Angel.
And our youngest sister, Gohar, chose deep blue fabric,
and named her doll, Raang. Color.

They lived longer than our childhoods.

Her Name is Flower Sap

Somewhere – in the no-man’s land,
there are high mountains, and there is a woman.

The mountains are seemingly unreachable.
The woman in her anonymity is untraceable.

The mountains are called the Tora Bora.
The woman is known as Sharbet Gula, Flower Sap.

In her faded-ruby-red Chador, she appeared
a young girl with a frown, with her green eyes.

Not knowing where to look.
When the world looked back at her.

As young kids, refugees of wartime in Pakistan
we were equally intrigued with her photograph.

‘Her eyes have the magic of good and bad.’
‘The light of her eyes can destroy fighter jets.’

So went Afghan children’s conversation
in the aftermath of 9/11. ‘But could she take down

The Taliban jets,’ we wondered,
as the jets crossed the skies in one song.

But Flower Sap could never answer us.
For she had disappeared like our childhood.


As the borders became damper lands,
Afghans like soft worms crawled toward their homeland.

In the in-between mountains,
Flower Sap re-appeared, without any answers.

Now she was a grown-up woman.
A mother of four girls. A widow.

There were some questions in her eyes.
The ones I had seen in my parents’ eyes.

Where do we go next? Now that our country is free.
She still did not have any answers.

And where was the power of her eyes?
I then saw her smiling. As an immigrant, I smiled too.

For her name saved the day.
She was taken to a hospital for her eyes.

The president of the county met her,
and sent her on a pilgrimage.

Her name educated her daughters,
it gave her a house and a reason to return to her homeland.

What else is there in the names and naming?
If not for reparation.

Forty Names was published in July 2021 by Carcanet Press, 

Banned Books Week 2021: Poetry in Protest

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Marking Banned Books Week 2021, Index on Censorship and the British Library present a conversation with poets at the frontlines of protest movements fighting for the right to speak freely and without fear of persecution. 

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]Poetry is frequently used as a tool in protest movements to inspire, unite, and mobilise support. From Black Lives Matter and women’s liberation to protest movements in Myanmar and Afghanistan, poetry holds the power to gather crowds during a rally, or grab attention online. Poets can offer support and guidance in the most challenging, tragic or dangerous situations. Join Myanmarese-British poet ko ko thett and poet and scholar Dr Choman Hardi for a live poetry reading and conversation about the power of poetry in protest movements. The event will be chaired by Index on Censorship deputy chair Kate Maltby.

Marking Banned Books Week 2021, which has the theme “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us”,  Index on Censorship and the British Library invite you to explore the role of poetry in protest. What role does poetry play in protest movements? And can poetry be a form of protest in its own right?

Kate Maltby is the Deputy Chair of the Index on Censorship Board of Trustees. She is a critic, columnist, and scholar. She is currently working towards the completion of a PhD which examines the intellectual life of Elizabeth I, through the prism of her accomplished translations of Latin poetry, her own poems and recently attributed letters, and her representation as a learned queen by writers such as Shakespeare, Spenser and Sidney.

ko ko thett started publishing poems in samizdat format at Yangon Institute of Technology in the early 1990s. After a brush with the authorities in the December 1996 protests, he left Burma, led an itinerant life in Asia, Europe and North America and moved back to Myanmar in 2017. He has published several collections of poems and translations in Burmese and English. His poems have been translated into a dozen languages and are widely anthologised. He now lives in Norwich, UK.

Dr Choman Hardi is an educator, poet, and scholar known for pioneering work on issues of gender and education in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and beyond. After 26 years of exile, she returned home in 2014 to teach English and initiate gender studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), where she also served as English department chair in 2015-16. She is the author of critically acclaimed books in the fields of poetry, academia, and translation. Since 2010, poems from her first English collection, Life for Us (Bloodaxe, 2004) have been studied by secondary school students in the UK as part of their English curriculum. Her second collection, Considering the Women (Bloodaxe, 2015), was given a Recommendation by the Poetry Book Society and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection. Her translation of Sherko Bekas’ Butterfly Valley (ARC, 2018) won a PEN Translates Award.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]When: Wednesday 29 September 2021, 18.30-19.30
Tickets: Free, advance booking essential

Myanmar keeps it poets locked up despite prisoner release

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117025″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Myanmar’s military authorities this week began to release more than 2,000 people who had been jailed as part of the protests against the country’s military coup in February. Those released included journalists, actors and other celebrities.

Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said earlier this week that around 2,300 people were being released.

“They took part in protests but not in leading roles. They didn’t participate in violent acts,” he told the news website Irrawaddy.

Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said in a statement: “The junta detained innocents. Torture is used as policy by this military, detainees will suffer long-term physical and mental illness. There was no recognition of the injustice and suffering caused today, and no mention of the right to compensation.”

“They are arresting people who should never have been detained in the first place, those released will be threatened and suffer from trauma. They will need rehabilitation and understanding of the injustice they experienced”, said AAPP joint secretary U Bo Kyi. “Any release must aim at real reform, including the release of Aung Sun Suu Kyi. Violence must end, and those who committed torture and murder brought to justice.”

Poets in Myanmar in 2018 before the current horrors. Maung Yu Py is far right, laughing

Not everyone detained following the coup is so lucky and the country’s poets are suffering at the military’s hands more than most.

In the summer issue of Index on Censorship magazine, out later this month, we publish the poems of K Za Win and Khet Thi, who have both died at the hands of Myanmar’s military in recent months.

Other poets’ lives have been spared but they remain in jail despite the prisoner release.

Maung Yu Py, a household name in contemporary Burmese poetry, was arrested at a protest in his hometown of Myeik on 9 March. Two months later, he was sentenced to two years in Myeik prison for “making statements conducing to public mischief” where he remains today.

Fellow poet Ko Ko Thett has translated his work “A poem for real” into English for Index. We call for Maung Yu Py’s release.

A poem for real  

By Maung Yu Py

Only those

backed up by strongboxes

make love after love after love.

As for me,

I am with a token of a girlfriend.

Having to endure life is real.

I don’t know why

I am Charlie Chaplinette over and over again.

Lest someone should thieve,

the plastic cup is chained

to the charity water tap,

exactly the kind of installation art

the age demands.

This year too

Asia’s social-realism trophy

we will win.

Every time I sit down for a poem

I’ve gotta get up for a dog’s yelp.

Translated by ko ko thett