Proud Puppets and Whizzing Wizards


Politics, propaganda, “post-modernism” and amid it all, the search for truth – a look at the trials and triumphs of modern Burmese poetry

Someone has said socialism is the scourge of Burma's literary talent. Knowing as he did how obsessed the intelligentsia was with things socialist, the politician Ne Win launched his Burmese Way to Socialism, and won over quite a drove of so-called left- wing politicians and left-leaning writers, although he himself had not an iota of serious thoughts – socialist, populist or otherwise.

Fed up with the clichés and hackneyed phrases of Socialist Realism, a search for new poetry began in earnest in the late 1960s. The veteran poet of Khitsam fame, Min Thuwun, ran a weekly poetry workshop at his home in the university campus. Mya Zin, a translator who usually renders Burmese poetry into English, and Maung Maung Nyunt a.k.a. Nyunt Kyu, a poet and a language scholar, wrote articles on modern poetry. I myself published an anthology of translated verse (English, European, and American, Romantic as well as modernist) – the first of its kind in the country. One anthology followed another. A great hullabaloo ensued – those who opposed anything modern and were self-appointed custodians of old values railing against those who advocated modernity. Against such odds, modern Burmese poetry embarked on a new course.

Maung Chaw Nwė and Zaw Pyinmana, both now dead, were traditional poets who came to embrace modernism in their later years. Khin Aung Aye began as a modernist poet as did most of the younger poets writing today. Maung Chaw Nwė has published several collected poems, Zaw Pyinmana has one, while Khin Aung Aye has yet to compile one.

To get a better panoramic view of Burmese poetry today, one will also have to read more of Zawgyi, Min Thuwun, both hailing from Khitsam days and both now dead, Dagon Taya, the late Tin Moe, Maung Swam Yiy and Aung Wei, who are now expatriate poets, Aung Cheimt, Thukhamein Hlaing, Aung Baq Nyo, Maung Shin Saw, Maung Aung Pwint and several others.

Someone has said socialism is the scourge of Burma's literary talent.

Zawgyi left two volumes of collected poems and was the first to use allegory in his poetry. In 1984, in the height of Burmese Way to Socialism, he wrote Widhura's Dukkha (Widura's Suffering). Depicting the sufferings of Widhura, a hero in the Buddhist Jataka stories who was maltreated because his tormentor misread his instructions, the poem in fact tells the sad story of the Burmese under the iron heels of Ne Win and his cadres who, loud-mouthed as they were with socialist slogans, knew nothing about or cared about socialist tenets. It immediately became highly popular.

Another short poem he wrote at the time was very popular too:


Zawgyi and Invisibility

On the marionette stage

a zawgyi with a wand

how he leaps and soars

watching his antics

I despair


Super art invisibility

the power to make your body disappear

I dread invisibility

I fear you will next have your mind disappear

translation Maung Tha Noe



Zawgyi, from which the poet takes his pen name, is a puppet, a representation of an accomplished alchemist-magician, a wizard who can fly through the air and make himself invisible. The belief comes from vidyadhar of the Indian epic Mahabharata.

There is no mistaking who the proud puppet in the poem stands for.


This article is part of a longer essay, Modern Burmese Poetry, published in MoeMaKa in October 2008.


Maung Tha Noe is a student of linguistics and poetry, educated in Mandalay University and Rangoon University. He has published two books on language – Burmese Spoken and Written (1972) and Myanma, Language and Literature (2001). He also translates books and poems from English to Burmese, and vice versa.

MoeMaKa is a website of Burmese news.


Images from / and