Saturday, April 30, 2011

Ludu Daw Amar: Speaking Truth to Power

By Min Zin OCTOBER, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.8

A brief look into the life of Ludu Daw Amar, Burma’s best known female journalist and social critic. The Burmese word amar translates as "the strong" or "the hard". It is an apt description of one of Burma’s most respected female figures, Ludu Daw Amar (she prefers the spelling, Amah), who turned 87 in November. An energetic political dissenter and left-leaning journalist with a faculty for articulating messages to and for the public, Ludu Daw Amar and her family have had more than their fair share of troubles with the authorities. Even now, Daw Amar is under constant surveillance, but she has never been one to bow down to power. As the prefix of her name Ludu or "the people" suggests, Daw Amar’s raison d’etre is to speak truth to power on behalf of the people without compromise. "I’ll never forget my first impression," recalls Dutch journalist Minka Nijhuis, who has met Daw Amar four times since 1995. "At first she looked so fragile that even her wristwatch seemed too heavy for her arm. But that impression disappeared as soon as she started speaking." When asked to comment on her unwavering commitment and strength, Daw Amar told The Irrawaddy: "I do not give up easily. Besides, I cannot tolerate injustice. This is my mindset." An anecdote about her childhood in her autobiography reveals the roots of this strong-mindedness and illustrates her oft-overlooked humble side as well: "When our mother would cane us, she would say, ‘stop crying’, and all the siblings would stop except me. I cried because I felt hurt, but the more I cried the more whippings I received. How can she force me not to feel pain? Actually it was stubbornness; my mother and I were engaged in a conflict of endurance." This tough personality was first drawn into politics after she enrolled at Rangoon University in 1936. During the independence movement against the British, she was applauded by the daily papers for her courage and beauty, and by 1938 she made her first and lasting mark on Burma’s literary landscape. U Razart, then the headmaster of the National School and later assassinated alongside Burma’s independence hero Aung San in 1947, suggested that Daw Amar translate Maurice Collis’s book, "Trial in Burma", into Burmese. The publisher was U Hla, who ran the monthly youth magazine Kyipwa Yay (Progress for Youth) as well as a publishing house in Rangoon. With the assistance of U Hla, who became Daw Amar’s husband the following year, the translation became an instant success and quickly required multiple printing runs as the first edition of three thousand copies sold out within two months. After U Hla relocated to Mandalay to be with his wife, Daw Amar’s literary output accelerated. Most of these works were translations of English language novels, but her real passion was journalism. After the conclusion of the Second World War, U Hla launched the fortnightly journal, Ludu ("The People"), with Daw Amar as assistant editor. By 1946, the couple had founded the Ludu Daily News; its political commentaries and analyses became a significant voice for the aspirations and struggles against colonial rule. Thus, Daw Amar earned the name Ludu Daw Amar. But only a year after Burma gained independence in 1948, the Ludu publication house in Mandalay was reduced to rubble by bombs. "Mandalay was under frequent regime changes at that time," Daw Amar explains. "The army saw the Ludu paper as sympathetic to the Communists so government troops blew up the building." They also surrounded her residence and forced the entire household—including children and two pregnant women—out into the street. Then the soldiers raised their guns. "It was in the morning. They aimed their machine guns at us threatening to kill us all," Daw Amar recalls. Bravely, she stood firm and demanded an explanation from the soldiers. Local monks and others lobbied for their release and the troops left without inflicting any harm. The civil war that broke out in the wake of independence intensified rapidly and abuse of power became rampant. Ludu re-opened in a new office and Daw Amar resumed her active opposition to injustices. Her articles calling for internal peace and analyses on world affairs were well received, particularly with young progressives. Nyi Se Min, a writer in his fifties, remembers: "Daw Amar’s robust analyses on international politics opened our eyes and ears. Her political views earned our admiration." In 1953, she took her political activism to the international stage, attending the World Democratic Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, the World Peace Conference in Budapest, and the International Youth Festival in Bucharest. In the same year, shortly after the birth of the youngest of her five children, her husband was detained and imprisoned by the government for three and a half years. With Daw Amar’s editorial responsibilities now doubled, she was forced to leave the children with an aunt.

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