But where they come together is in their literary mastery of communication, providing a voice for their respective country and generation.
Nay Phone Latt regards the late Hemingway and Aung San, Myanmar’s independence fighter, as heroes. He relished the opportunity to visit Hemingway’s home on a recent visit to the United States.
A reluctant hero might well be a good way to describe Nay Phone Latt, a writer-turned-blogger, turned Facebook user, born Nay Myo Kyaw, who is known by his pen name.
Passion and a desire to write about wrongs plunged him into the spotlight. Almost by accident he became a hero himself through pioneering blogging in Myanmar in the mid-2000s when putting words to paper and publication faced the hurdles of an editor and the military government’s censors. Publishing an online blog for everybody to see – at least those with internet access – offered freedom.
That freedom, however, came at a steep price.
A Time magazine ‘hero’
Blogs, websites and Facebook are enormously popular in Myanmar, especially among the younger, middle-class and above population. An indication of the sector’s potential for growth has been the success of Myanmar’s first social network start-up, Squar, the cover story in Mizzima Business Weekly’s January 30 issue. The popularity of blogs, websites and social networks as a medium for expression and messaging is set to soar in the next five to 10 years as internet and mobile phone coverage expands.
A rush of bloggers have jumped in, including Nay Phone Latt, Htike Htike Aung and Nyi Lynn Seck, covering everything from deadly serious issues to the entertainment business to cookery.
But as some have found out, it can be a dangerous world if you blog.
Just ask Nay Phone Latt.
In a profile for the 2010 Time magazine 100, the renowned writer Salman Rushdie paid tribute to Nay Phone Latt – a recipient of the 2010 PEN-Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award – as a voice of a generation of Myanmar who were daring to find ways of breaching the firewall of censorship erected by a totalitarian regime as part of its war on freedom of expression. “When the junta there cracked down on Buddhist-monk-led demonstrations in 2007 and restricted press coverage, Nay Phone Latt’s blog was a go-to source for international journalists. For this, he was arrested and is serving 12 years,” said Rushdie, in 2010.
From 2008 to 2012, Nay Phone Latt was held in prison at Hpa-an, the Kayin State capital.
Falling foul of the junta
The authorities pounced on Nay Phone Latt not long after the monks uprising, known as the Saffron Revolution, was crushed by the junta. He was arrested in January 2008 over his blog coverage of the uprising and was subsequently sentenced to a total of 20 years and 6 months in prison, which included 15 years for offences under the Electronics Act, three-and-a-half years for offences under the Video Act and two years for “creating public alarm”.
Nay Phone Latt was released under amnesty in 2012.
In Myanmar, some blogs started in 2005. The earlier blogs were written in English, as there was no Unicode font at that time so they could not post in their mother language. After the Zawgyi font was released (created by Alpha Mandalay) in 2006, Mandalay blogger Maung Hla shared it with other bloggers. By late 2006, the blogosphere in Myanmar had begun to bloom.
Freedom of expression
Nay Phone Latt, 34, who has an Engineering degree from Yangon Technological University, took up blogging because of his love for literature.
“The reason why I started writing in my own blog is that I’m so passionate about creating Myanmar literature, such as poems, essays, and fiction, and in at atmosphere of freedom,” he told Mizzima Business Weekly. Another factor behind his decision to seek expression through blogging was the stifling pre-publication censorship of the print media under military rule.
Then came the breakthrough with the Zawgyi font, which allowed him and other bloggers to publish online in the Myanmar language.
“In my point of view, a blog is just one of the platforms to write what I want to say,” Nay Phone Latt said.
“One of the influential social network platforms, Facebook, which is widely used by young IT users in the country and has a friendly users’ interface, has tremendous penetration in society [compared to blog pages],” he said.
Changing blogging scene
Nay Phone Latt’s blogging has proved a useful way to reach out to the masses, build a following, and indirectly help him sell the five books he has written. It also helps him to have a full-time job running the Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO), which he established with blogger and IT expert Htike Htike Aung and other colleagues as a non-profit organisation.
The blogging scene is changing in Myanmar and around the world. Blogging began in the 1990s, evolving out of the idea of putting up an online diary, with people writing “blog posts” about their lives, their passion or their work. There are now more than 200 million blogs in the world, most run on easy to use blogging platforms, mainly Wordpress and Tumblr, with the breadth of subjects covered widening considerably.
Most of these millions of blogs receive little traffic. But for some they have proved to be an avenue to stardom or notoriety. For a relative few, blogs have generated income or even made their owners rich, through the selling of creative endeavours, products and services. Marketing guru Seth Godin and self-help guru Tim Ferriss derive a substantial part of their income from using their useful blog posts or advice to lure potential customers to buy their products or services. Darren Rowse of Problogger teaches people how to make money out of blogging, showing how effectively-run blogs can help create a buzz, build a following, and eventually pull in an income.
Bloggers have become stars and some activists – who have used blogs to spread their message – have fallen foul of the authorities, particularly in countries such as Myanmar, China and Iran.
But the blogging scene is evolving – around the world and in Myanmar.
As Nay Phone Latt said in an interview on a visit to the United States last year, it is tough for writers to earn money in Myanmar, even though his blogging has helped to market his ideas and books. “The money is not so much in Myanmar so most of the writers are very poor,” he said, adding that “publishing is not profitable work.”
Many bloggers once put a lot of effort into their blogs but, for some, including Nay Phone Latt, that is changing.
“A very limited numbers of bloggers are continuing writing their blogs,” he said, adding that he had rarely written in his blog since his release from prison.
“I used to be a blogger while I was writing in my blog in the past. So, it doesn’t matter whether I am described as a blogger or not right now,” he said, adding that he continued to strive to defend the right to freedom of expression.
“I’m writing about political and social affairs for news journals and also contributing to Radio Free Asia’s Burmese programme,” Nay Phone Latt said.
“Old generation bloggers, including prominent bloggers, now rarely write their own blogs because most of them are busy with their careers or taking care of personal stuff, and a few bloggers are continuing to write on Facebook,” he said.
Here comes Facebook
The arrival of Facebook has proved an opportunity for some bloggers and also thrown a spanner in the works for others. Myanmar citizens, particularly the young, have rushed to use – and some would say abuse – the opportunity of communicating through text and images on Facebook. It’s an easy to use platform, with possibilities and dangers. One of them is hate speech.
Nay Phone Latt says Facebook users should think twice before posting comments or pressing the “Like” button, because any actions will be recorded as digital history. Slip up and it is hard, if not impossible, to erase.
Facebook has offered people a wider reach than they might have had with a personal blog.
One person who understands this is Htike Htike Aung, 30, a popular blogger with a personal following. She told Mizzima Business Weekly that most internet users don’t yet have an adequate knowledge of the internet and digital literacy. This was one of the reasons why some users post weird comments or inappropriate material, she said.
Htike Htike Aung, works at MIDO, which she helped to establish, and which collaborates with Myanmar and international organisations to help people use ICT as a tool to meet development goals. MIDO is run by a board of directors and has a committed, experienced pool of full-time and part-time staff and volunteers.
Despite the popularity of Facebook, Htike Htike Aung told Mizzima Business Weekly that the future of blogging was bright because the social media site and blogs perform different functions.
“There are still specialised blog pages, especially food blogs, in the country and a few Myanmar bloggers living overseas are sometimes contributing to their own blogs.”
Htike Htike Aung said she rarely had time to blog these days because she is busy teaching ICT awareness and internet security issues at MIDO.
“I used to be a blogger, but now I’m devoted to contributing to ICT education in Myanmar,” she said.
Prison offers an opportunity
Nay Phone Latt appears to be going with the flow. He says he plans to continue writing in various media, whether printed or online, so his messages and literary creations reach a wide audience.
“Let’s say Facebook disappeared among the IT community and another social media became popular. I’ll keep on writing on the new social media,” he said.
In common with his hero Hemingway, writing is his life. In many ways, the printed word helped sustain him during the dark years of incarceration.
“Prison is a good place for concentration,” he said in an interview last year. “It’s very quiet.”
Nay Phone Latt said it also helped him while in prison to keep in mind not where he was but what he was doing. One of his favourite ways of escape was reading. His family was able to deliver up to 30 books a month. And he was able to write letters and therefore creative on a literary level.
Writing, Nay Phone Latt says, is in his heart. And for love or money, it is something he looks forward to continuing.
This Article first appeared in the April 03, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.
Mizzima Business Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com