The wishing stones, poetry in Mandalay, May 2002

Published in P.E.N. News 2003

From Mandalay Hill at dusk, the largest lit-up building you see below you is Mandalay Correction Facility. Then the legendary Lion Palace of Burma's nineteenth-century kings, destroyed in World War II and brutally restored, with forced labour, by the current régime. Mandalay has no parks: people come up here to escape the sweltering town.

"When the junta first took power, they cut down all the trees around, for surveillance," said my friends, "and the climate changed. Now they're growing them back; you get a jail sentence for cutting down a tree."

I was in Myanmar (the name imposed by the anti-colonial, back-to-roots ideology of General Ne Win's 1962 dictatorship) to do poetry readings and workshops, and meet Burmese poets. The few tourists I saw were mostly French. What tourists see is a beautiful, obscenely poor country. There are a thousand kyats to the dollar, which is also a teacher's weekly wage. Everyone smiles, everyone is slender, men dandle babies lovingly, women walk safely alone.

"Should I tell people to come here?" I asked. I was there in May, just before the monsoon. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Democracy party, had just been released from house arrest, the country was warily hoping for "good times" round the corner. But good times have a long way to come.

"No way," I was told. "Let the junta know tourism is waiting to happen, the moment they change their policy on human rights. As it is, tourists wouldn't see the truth."

I had with me the names of ten imprisoned poets. One, aged fifty-seven, has been sentenced until 2021 on a charge of "distributing information regarding repression to international press agencies and Western diplomats". Two others are reportedly in solitary confinement, tortured; one vomiting blood. Their crimes are "spreading information injurious to the state", "spreading false news knowing it to be untrue", "collaborating with terrorists". I learned nothing of them, but did hear two others had been freed.

Incessant power cuts are another illustration of the truth the tourists wouldn't see. People I talked to used to get eight hours of electricity in seventy two hours. Now they get eight in twenty four. You have to memorize the rota in advance. If there's any international news the state wants to stifle, there's a power cut at TV News time, terminated for the football. (Not that many people have TVs.) In tourist hotels the air conditioning just registers a blib as the hotel switches to generator.

What tourists do see are "The People's Desires". These things are everywhere: walls, newspapers, and books: "Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views; oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the Nation; oppose foreign nations intefering in internal affairs of the State; crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy". Writers have to pay to print this stuff on the front paper of their own books.

The Burmese love laughing, but the reality behind the 1984-type rhetoric is no joke. In 1989 a comedian spent six months in prison for a light joke about a hat; in 1996 he was back again with a seven year sentence for another - described as "using words liable to threaten public order and State security". This wooden paranoia is a stark contrast to the impassioned intelligence of Suu Kyi's father Aung San, the man who freed Burma from the British. While studying History, Politics and English in Rangoon University, he organized the first student strikes in 1920. There is a monument to him and his colleagues at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Thanks to him, Burma was the first country to get Independence from Britain, in 1948. But he was assassinated before it happened: in 1947, along with other statesmen and leaders of ethnic minorities: who happen - this is one of the state's problems - to inhabit the areas where most of the country's legendary mineral (and drug) resources lie. Relations with them still vex the "Union of Myanmar". Aung San foresaw this. "We must work", he said in 1947, "for rehabilitation. Comprehensive co-ordinated plans may take weeks: those of you planning holidays should postpone them. It is a matter of extreme emergency to restore the national economy without delay."

Fifty-five years on, the urgency is far more extreme, in education most of all. The beautiful University campus in Rangoon - red-arcaded brick, green tropical fronds and the odd cobra (Burma has some of the most poisonous snakes in the world) - is abandoned except by a few professors, because the junta has shunted undergraduates to campusses outside the cities, whose main purpose is to control students rather than teach them. In the Forties, Burma had widespread literacy, Rangoon was the place in S. E. Asia (Bangkok was nowhere), and everyone spoke beautiful English. After the 1962 coup, Ne Win banned English as a medium of instruction. He reinstated it when his daughter failed entrance to a British medical school in 1979, but by then the damage was done. The population had lost this linguistic open sesame, theirs by birthright (at least the British Empire gave them that, in return for the teak forests it gobbled up): the key to global communication. Now the young are desperate to get it back.

Generals' children patronize the International School. In state schools, you pay for entry, text books, uniforms. Many people cannot afford any of this, so many children go unschooled. The really free schools are run by altruistic monks, or informally - I watched one, in the country outside Mandalay - in hedgerows.

Child labour is common. In Mandalay, in pre monsoon heat of a hundred degrees, I watched the goldbeaters: two shifts of three twelve-year-old boys, pounding gold into thin leaf in a non-stop rhythm like oars on a Hollywood slave ship. In an inner room, little girls of eight swelteringly packaged the crumbly leaf into ten-kyat packets, sold to anyone who wants to gain merit by layering a little gold onto a Buddha. In Buddhism, you are your actions. In this deeply religious country, you gain merit in your future life by deeds you do in this one. The traditional way to do it is to build a new pagoda and plaster it with gold leaf. The generals are constantly photographed opening pagodas. The 326 foot high dome of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, too bright to look at except far off or in the rain, is covered with gold renewed every year.

Education is where the British Council matters. In Athens, say, the Council offers one cultural note among many. In Myanmar, it is a lifeline, appreciated by an extraordinary range of people. It teaches the language of global investment and communications, as well as culture, opens windows to everything the Burmese are cut off from. Most people have no access to the internet or email. You can be jailed for owning the wrong sort of modem, though people hope this may change, now. Most people don't have telephones anyway.

In the British Council in Mandalay, everyone was dying for rain. By the time I got to the poetry section of the British Council's library in Rangoon, the rains had arrived and umbrellas were everywhere. The place was a wheel of activity, smiles and books, offering the intellectually starved a place to read the world. People were reading everything from dictionaries to Bridget Jones.

Censorship here is an industry with its own large building. Every printed word is vetted. You cannot write "blood" or "condom" (which makes Health Education difficult); nor "he kissed her on the lips".

"He said I had to put 'chin' instead", said a writer I talked to. "I wanted to ask if that's where he kisses his wife but didn't dare". Poem-shaped black splodges are a common sight in magazines.

Borges said that censorship was "the mother of metaphor". This junta has not read Borges but knows this truth fine. What it doesn't know is where the metaphors lurk. So if you write "Blossom falls to the ground" it is inked out: you may mean students killed in a riot.

My workshops were the most alive and challenging discussions on poetry I've ever had. Argument, mainly through interpreters, raged. Does the power to analyze poetry makes you a better poet? I furiously argued not, and had with me spare proofs of my book, 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, poised to come out the moment I got back. "The poets in here who can't - or any rate don't - analyze poems, are just as good as the ones who can," I said. "They are all part of the same enterprise - but they are all different." Shyly, I left the proofs with them.

Under the thrumming monsoon rain, in a] bar closed to host our discussions, the roomful of poets cheered when either side scored a point. They had never met all together before, to hear each other read and argue. Private societies are suspect. Informers, like the mother of metaphor, are everywhere. These poets had not been able to glean an overview of any other community of poets: books are desperately hard to come by and anyway most people cannot afford them. The catalyst was the British Council and a foreign poet.

My last day I had tea with Suu Kyi in Yangon, and told her the poets of Mandalay were panting to see her. The last time she tried to leave Yamgon the military stopped her by uncoupling the carriage of her train. Now, joke the ever-buoyant citizens of Mandalay, they'll let her come but arrest everyone else, so she'll have nobody to talk to.

"I will come to Mandalay", she said; and I saw in the papers later that she did. When I told the poets I had met The Lady they said instantly, as poets would in any country, "Did you show her our poems?" "No." I said. "Sorry. But I did tell her that when Burma is a democracy it'll have some really wonderful poets."

In Burmese pagodas - around the base of the Shwedagon, for instance, among the sphinxes, leogryphs, elephants, lions, cobras, and demons - are little side-shrines to the nats, indigenous spirits who co-operate with Buddhism. In front of many are large egg-shaped stones, lying free on the marble paving. You pray, "If my wish will be granted, may this stone be light as a feather", and lift the stone.

These stones are a Burmese speciality. They are wishing stones. But Suu Kyi is back in confinement, today.