The Irrawaddy Literary Festival was founded in 2013. The inaugural event was held 1st-3rd February at the Inya Lake Hotel in Yangon to immediate critical acclaim.
Most of what the outside world had to offer had been closed to the Burmese for decades, especially the riches of literature and freedom of speech. In the past English had been part of the school curriculum from an early age, but during the fifty years of military dictatorship it was taught sporadically or not at all. During the fifteen years she spent under house arrest, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spent countless hours listening to the radio, much of it in the English language. She has said repeatedly that quite often it was the only thing which kept her going. In 2010, free at last, she was keen to promote a renewed interest in the study and use of the English language in her country. She immediately gave her support to the idea of a literary festival an readily accepted the role of Patron, taking part personally in the first two festivals and continuing to take a close interest even during the busy run-up to Myanmar’s historic elecions.
The Irrawaddy Literary Festival has an unusually wide degree of cross-party support. In addition to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s role as figurehead of the event, the previous government also gave its support. On his visit to the UK in 2013, President Thein Sein explicitly stated the importance he attached to the Festival. In terms of international support, the British, American, South African and Irish governments have all sponsored the attendance of authors from their countries.
To secure the long-term future of the event in the country’s new climate of oppennes, the Festival Board is now seeking to increase levels of participation and sponsorship, especially from international companies and foundations with connections to Myanmar.
2013 Festival, 1st – 3rd February, Inya Lake Hotel, Yangon
The inaugural festival in Yangon drew over 10,000 attendees. The three-day programme was packed with 120 of some of the best of Burma’s literary community including Thant Myint U, Pascal Khoo Thwe, Ma Thida, Pe Myint, Zeyar Lynn, Pandora, Nyein Chan and many more. The international list of (approximately 25) participants included Jung Chang, William Dalrymple, Vikram Seth, Fergal Keane, Timothy Garton-Ash and Akash Kapur. The Festival was described by the British Ambassador, Andrew Patrick, as ‘the most talked-about international cultural event in Burma’. Vikram Seth spoke of a ‘great (and significant) festival.’
Widespread media coverage of the event included reporting by leading journalists from the BBC, CNN, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the UK Guardian. All of the media coverage carried commentary on the ground-breaking nature of this unique initiative.
Bill O’Toole reported for the Myanmar Times: “… the weekend-long affair symbolised the changing face of the Myanmar government’s… relationship with the media, as well as with local and foreign culture. During one discussion, author and historian Thant Myint U marvelled, ‘Two years ago we might not have thought a festival like this was even possible.’
‘Though the themes of the panels were broad, the discussions with audience members often came back to the subject of free speech and free expression, a subject that could not until recently be discussed out in the open, to say nothing of a crowded ballroom.’
‘One of the biggest goals of the Festival was to bring Myanmar literature and poetry to the outside world, where historically it has had very little exposure. Author and activist Maung Maung San bemoaned the fact that not one Myanmar author had even won the Nobel Prize for Literature. “It’s because our books don’t get translated into English and French and German. . . but we hope it will change soon. The Festival is a big part of that.” ‘
2014 Festival, 14th -16th February, Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel, Mandalay
At the suggestion of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the second festival was held in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city. Its ethos and objectives remained the same: the raising of awareness of literature and writing, and the promotion of the English language. Once again the Festival’s program encompassed a wide range of genres, featuring an exciting mix of Myanmar and international authors of the highest calibre. Around 100 Myanmar writers and approximately 30 international authors took part in the three-day program of individual talks and panel discussions, workshops, film and documentary screenings. The international participants included Louis de Bernières, Caroline Moorehead, Dame Joan Bakewell and Martha Kearney. The British Library curated an exhibition of rare photographs of Burma especially in honour of the Festival.
Media coverage, which was widespread, again noted the Festival’s importance as a forum for freedom of expression, whether political or literary. The UK’s Independent newspaper carried an insightful piece by long-time Myanmar watcher and journalist, Peter Popham, author of The Lady and the Peacock.
2015 Festival, Saturday 28th – Monday 30th March, Manadalay Hill Resort Hotel, Mandalay
The third Irrawaddy Literary Festival continued the pattern of literary excellence already established and, in keeping with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s wish that it should become an annual event, the organisers began the process of registering the Festival as a not-for-profit organisation, its stated purpose being ‘to promote a love of literature and writing, and freedom of expression in Myanmar, by bringing together the finest writers from Myanmar, Asia and around the world, to share their work and explore their art.’ The plan for the future is to offer an annual three-day Festival which is free of charge to the general public.
Participants in the 2015 Festival included international authors Anne Enright, Louis de Bernières and Michelle Aung Thin as well as many Myanmar authors. Margaret Simons wrote afterwards in the Guardian, ‘The Festival is a kind of miracle in a land where everything is hard. Its future is continually in doubt and relies on the patronage of Aung San Suu Kyi, yet its message is perpetual: that ideas and books can be freely discussed.’
The Irrawaddy Literary Festival has now been identified by, among others, Time magazine, The Sunday Times, Asia House and the fiction writers’ website ‘Novelicious’ as one of the world’s top literary festivals. The Sunday Times has described it as a ‘cultural game-changer for Burma’. For a volunteer-run event on a shoestring budget, this is a remarkable accolade.
2017 and beyond
Unlike many literary festivals around the world, Irrawaddy had always been a non-profit venture with entirely philanthopic goals, such as bolstering free speech, improving literacy, and providing a forum for interactions between international and Myanmar authors. The decision to establish the Festival as a full UK-based Charitable Trust will ensure that the Irrawaddy Festival always maintains its integrity within Myanmar as its international reputation.
The political situation in Myanmar is improving rapidly, and with the landslide victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in the elections in November 2015 and the greater openness to international influences that has followed, the Irrawaddy Literary Festival must look to its future role as a continuing symbol of that openness.
The Festival is now seeking major sponsors to assist the board in developing from an acclaimed boutique event into a major annual nexus for any and all individuals interested in Myanmar and the intellectual culture of South-East Asia.