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Will books provide opportunities for myanmar people to think, learn freely?

Mar, 28, 2018. In

Changes are taking place on the ground in Myanmar. In Yangon, the former capital and largest city, signs of change are all around. Development has surged since the country’s democratic reforms.

NHK World’s Special Affairs Commentator Aiko Doden joins Newsroom Tokyo Anchors Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya in the studio. She has covered the country for many years.

Nakayama: the Rohingya issue has been dominating the news, but what are the changes in the country that we should keep our eyes on?

Doden: We have to remember that Myanmar is experiencing rapid change in all sectors of society after decades of military rule. I was in the country last month and saw it on the first hand. It is a country of 52 million people, and according to the latest census, more than half of them are under the age of 30. The younger generation has a thirst for knowledge, and the publishing industry is booming as a result. I went to a bookshop in Yangon to see how much things have changed.

Yangon’s China Town isn’t where you’d expect to find a book shop. But it’s here that Yangon Book Plaza opened its doors just one year ago. With more than 200,000 books spread over 20,000 square feet, it’s the largest bookshop in Myanmar.

Among the best sellers is a memoir by Aung San Suu Kyi that was once considered taboo. Biographies by global business icons like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Ma are also popular.

Browsing through such a wide selection of books would have been inconceivable under military rule, because of censorship. The country cut itself off from the world for decades, while its economy plummeted due to international sanctions. Many publishers went out of business, and roadside stalls were often the only place to find books.

I asked the owner of Yangon Book Plaza why he opened the shop. His answer was simple. “A book store is like the window of the people, without book store our mind is closed, book store is like window and the bridge for the people,” he said.

The shop doesn’t only sell books. It also organizes literary events in cooperation with influential writers like Ma Thida, who is also a leading political activist. Asked why such events are important for people in Myanmar, Ma Thida replied, “Not only in Yangon but also for our country there was only one way talking for ages so we were looking for mutual chance to practice the freedom of expression. This is the platform, we can all practice freedom of expression by talking and listening to each other.”

Doden: You might remember that I interviewed Ma Thida for Newsroom Tokyo in December. She told us then that she was very concerned about freedom of expression in Myanmar. And she said that people need to stand up for their right to knowledge. So these literary events are a way of encouraging people to get engaged.

Nakayama: Progress may be obvious in big cities like Yangon, but what is the situation like in the rest of the country?

Doden: Beyond the major cities, book shortages are a real problem. The owner of Yangon Book Plaza told me that about two thirds of the cities in Myanmar don’t have any bookshops. There is a huge gap between the big cities and the provinces, and bridging it is a major challenge. I followed a Japanese NGO that is helping these efforts with a very unconventional kind of library.

What looks like a motor bike is actually a mobile library. The metal container on its back has space to carry as many as 200 picture books for children.

A Japanese NGO started the project 3 year ago. It currently has 14 mobile libraries covering this region. “The mobile library is much more fun than school, because the books they bring are easy to understand,” says a child.

The average income in rural parts of Myanmar is much lower than in Yangon, and families often can’t afford to buy books for children. The mobile library gives children in these areas an opportunity to read. Once a month, the bike pulls up in a different set of 6 schools in the region.

“Books are important because it can give many knowledge and imaginary skills for the children,” says Thin Myai of the SVA Myanmar Office.

The books the bike carries were donated by supporters in Japan. Many of them are translations of titles that are popular with Japanese children.

“Books help children learn about the wider world. Books will encourage them to think, to laugh and to imagine. I think these are all important qualities for the people who would help develop Myanmar,” says Aki Nakahara, Director at the SVA Myanmar Office.

Shibuya: Are all the books in the mobile library translations of Japanese titles?

Doden: No. There’s still a shortage of picture books written in Burmese. So the NGO also allocates 

part of its funding to publishing new picture books by authors in Myanmar. It has published about 20 books in conjunction with the Myanmar Writers’ Association so far. The organization also holds workshops for professional artists who want to start creating picture books. This is because artists themselves often grew up without the chance to read picture books themselves.

Nakayama: Will more books help to fundamentally change Myanmar?

Doden: We’ll have to see. But I can say that the books are providing opportunities for people to learn and to think freely. I think this is a change because under the military regime, it was often risky to think and speak freely. Freedom of expression was severely challenged and people were scared to speak up. Over the years, people felt it safer to remain silent, and this attitude led to self-censorship.

You might think picture books have little to do with democracy, but the fact that children are now given the chance to think freely is a small but a significant step towards democracy.

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