Witnessing is political: Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring

A new collection of poems and essays bears witness to the bravery of ordinary citizens since the brutal military coupe of Feb 2021 in Myanmar.

 

Witness (noun)
1 : attestation of a fact or event : testimony
2 : one that gives evidence specifically : one who testifies in a cause or before a judicial tribunal
3 : one asked to be present at a transaction so as to be able to testify to its having taken place
4 : one who has personal knowledge of something
5 : something serving as evidence or proof
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When I think about the word “witness” in English, I feel a sense of passivity: one being interpellated into seeing or being in the presence of an event unfolding in proximity of their own body (or mind). Witnessing, especially an atrocious act or event, can potentially etch into the witness’ psyche forever. Witnessing becomes an act when the witness is summoned to testify to what happened during the witnessed event in a court of law. But I also wonder if witnessing extends beyond the notion of this passive and subjective act of “being there.” When is an act of witnessing mobilised into an action? Can a witness be an agent of impact? If so, when?

Burma-born exiled poet Ko Ko Thett and Brian Haman, a lecturer in the Department of English and American Literature at the University of Vienna, call their new edited publication Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring, a collection of witness writings. The title is borrowed from a highly popular Burmese protest statement “နွေဦးပန်းတွေကို ဖဲ့ခြွေလို့ပဲရမယ် နွေဦးရောက်လာမှာကို တားလို့ မရဘူး” (lit: One can only crush the spring flowers, but one can’t interrupt the arrival of the spring) that has been circulating on Myanmar social media and among Myanmar publics in the aftermath of the coup. This sentiment is associated with the name of Myanmar’s anti-coup revolution that began in the spring of 2021, known as “Spring Revolution”. Threaded together with new and formerly published prose writings and poetry by Myanmar and diaspora writers and activists, the two editors put forth an idea of “witness writing” as something distinctive from “protest writings.” These witness writings, some of which are written in English, and some translated from Burmese, testify to what has been happening in Myanmar beyond the 1 February 2021 coup. 

The book opens with the writings from 2021, the year in which Myanmar has fallen back into the shadow of authoritarianism once again. Reading the opening section on 2021 feels raw and fresh as the writers recount recent events in the aftermath of the coup. In the essay “My Story”, Ningja Khon traces her experience running away from the military’s hands, leaving her job and family behind to settle in the US. Khon inevitably asks the difficult question of what it means to survive and thrive when you are far away from home. Her story is uniquely relatable to those in the diaspora and those who recently left Myanmar due to safety concerns, and reveals the stories of everyday life in the aftermath of the coup, which might not be considered newsworthy in the eyes of the media. 

In the same section, it is heart-wrenching to re-read Dr. Thiha Tin Tun’s “My will” in English, which had originally circulated in Burmese on social media. Dr. Thiha Tin Tun was only 27 years old when the military fatally shot him in the head as he was helping the protestors set up the blockades in Mandalay on 27 March 2021. Towards the end of his will, Dr. Thiha Tin Tun writes to his lover that “I believe you will understand why I am leaving you like this”. Seen in light of the coup, it is reframed as a question to us, the reader – can we really justify the loss of our loved ones to the hands of power-mongering Myanmar military? 

As the book progresses, the latter sections on 2020-2010 and 2010-1988 take the readers through Myanmar’s solemn past of authoritarianism. The section on the period between 2020 and 2010 celebrates the writings of the fallen poets like K Za Win and Khet Thi, in addition to other writings. An essay titled “Poet K Za Win” by the poet’s sister Ohnmar Myint contextualises the poet beyond his revolutionary writings and activism. Through lines such as “My brother, as a child, was also very good at making clay figurines out of red mud from the Chindwin bank at the village”, the reader has a chance to get to know K Za Win (or Maung Chantha, as per his birth name) as a person beyond his revolutionary poetry, although this acquaintance is perhaps too late as he was also forcefully tortured and killed by the military in early March 2021. 

The last section includes writings and poetry by some of Myanmar’s well-recognised literary and public figures like Hanthawaddy U Win Tin, Min Ko Naing, Min Lu, Aung Cheimt, Maung Chaw Nwe, whose literary legacies are deeply embedded in their political activism since the previous era of authoritarianism in Myanmar. The late Hanthawaddy U Win Tin was a well-renowned journalist, activist, and a co-founder of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy (NLD) Party. After his release from prison in 2008, serving 19 years as a political prisoner, U Win Tin wore only a blue shirt—the colour of Myanmar’s standard-issued prison garment—as a sign of his resistance against the previous military regime. In current times, this practice has been revived as the “Blue Shirt Campaign”, a public activist campaign in which Myanmar people share photos of themselves on social media wearing a blue shirt with their palms emblazoned with the names of political prisoners. Min Ko Naing (or as per his birth name Paw Oo Htun) is a prominent dissident who was a pro-democracy student activist during Myanmar’s 1988 revolution. Now, he reprises his role as a poet-activist in Myanmar’s Spring Revolution. His alias Min Ko Naing, a pen name for both his revolutionary poetry and activism, literally means “conqueror of the king”. 

The last line in Maung Chaw Nwe’s poem “To wilt is to bloom” included in this last section, “You may crush us, we may fall, / But when we die we rise again” reminds the reader not to despair after being reminded of and confronted with the detailed testimonials of the military’s recent atrocious killings in Myanmar in the previous sections. 

In the context of Myanmar’s freedom struggles, the pen is often mightier than the sword. In retracing the reverse chronological order of the book, it is energising, although saddening, to see increasing diversity in voices and openness to challenge not just authoritarianism but also other social issues that have been kept out of sight in Myanmar society such as LGBTQ+ issues (see “Who is that guy?” by Maung Saung Kha in Section II) and anti-Rohingya sentiments (see “An ox for a wad of paan” by Thida Shania in Section II), compared to the earlier revolutionary writings in Section III. 

I find English as the primary language of this book particularly intriguing. As a reader and writer primarily in Burmese, I wish I could read some of the writings in their original Burmese (although most original Burmese versions seem to have been republished from Moe Ma Ka, an online Burmese-language magazine based in the US and founded in 2003). I wonder if this editorial choice to leave out the Burmese versions is made due to the reasons of linguistic inclusivity (i.e. to offer writers of all ethnolinguistic backgrounds in Myanmar the same linguistic medium) or to present these testimonials to the world’s audience, hence English as a lingua franca. I wonder if a multilingual collection could have been possible if the editors’ reason is the latter. Considering this question of language choice, I wonder for whom these writings serve as witness. 

Witnessing is inherently political. Borrowed from the Sanskrit word sākṣa, the morphology for the word witness in Burmese, သက်သေ or thet-thay, can be broken down into meaning “losing one’s life” (thet: life; thay: die). In the context of Myanmar, being a witness is not merely being a subjective bystander; by being (suspected of being) a witness, people have been arrested, tortured, and killed. Once one decides to take on the role of witness, and once one decides to testify to what happened, in this case #whatshappeninginMyanmar, an act of witnessing already engages the witness beyond a mere passive act of being in the physical and emotional presence of an unfolding event. 

In introducing the writings, the editors state that “witness writing, in our opinion, is more subjective and does not usually have an explicit political agenda–however politicised it might become.” Yet, borrowing a highly popularised protest statement associated with Myanmar’s Spring Revolution as the title of the book, the writings already serve more than being subjective witnesses. They take a stance on the militarised violence against civilians. They comment on how we should feel and what we should do after reading them. And they together hope to create new pathways for reimagining what the future(s) could look like for Myanmar, and for those who are in similar political turmoil today and for years to come. So, I invite you to read this collection only if you are brave enough to be witnessing or losing your own life over the knowledge of what has been happening in Myanmar.


Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring: Witness poems and essays from Burma/Myanmar (1988-2021) is published simultaneously by Ethos Books, Gaudy Boy and Balestier Press. It is a not-for-profit collaboration that aims to amplify the voices of the Burmese people alongside the ongoing Civil Disobedience Movement. Limited physical copies are for sale, and the e-book is free to download.

Born and raised in Yangon, Myanmar, Chu May Paing is an anthropologist, writer, and community organiser currently based in the US. She is researching for her doctoral dissertation on the intersections of Myanmar social media activism and the neoliberalisation of activist-influencer industry. Her short stories and poetry in Burmese under the pen name of မခြင်္သေ့ (Ma Chinthe) have appeared in Aruna Global South Blog and Jakarta Biennale. Her intellectual writings in Burmese can be found at www.machinthe.com.

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