Burma’s Nay Phone Latt is many things – a poet, a blogger, a political dissident. On January 13, he also became a free man. After four years behind bars, Latt was among 651 prisoners released by the Burmese government as part of a mass amnesty. The move has been interpreted as the latest indication that Burma is slowly easing towards a more democratic model. The newly liberated Latt is cautiously optimistic about his country’s future.
Latt launched his blog from Rangoon in 2007 as a way to share poetry, news and his political and social commentary with the world. He soon garnered the attention and praise of international media outlets, which saw his blog as an invaluable source of information about events within Burma’s borders. Nearly one year later, Latt was arrested and eventually sentenced to more than 20 years in prison on charges related to his blog.
In 2010, while still incarcerated, Latt was honoured with the prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and named as one of TIME magazine’s top 100 influential people of the year in an article penned by novelist Salman Rushdie.
After four years spent in prison, friends and fellow bloggers celebrated Latt’s release by gathering at his home, where they greeted him with confetti poppers, gifts and a cake with the words “Welcome back Nay Phone Latt” scrawled in pink icing.
At four minutes into this video (courtesy of Htoo Tay Zar), Nay Phone Latt is seen returning home from prison to find friends and fellow bloggers at his house, ready to celebrate.
Burma came under military rule in 1962 after a coup ousted the country’s civilian government. Diplomatic ties between Burma and the West soured during the 1990s, and ultimately resulted in both the United States and the European Union imposing harsh sanctions on the south-east Asian country.
Latt’s release comes at a time when Burma seems to be headed for profound change. On March 30, 2011, Burma’s ruling military junta officially handed power over to a civilian government led by President Thein Sein. Eight months later, the opposition National League for Democracy party was allowed to rejoin the country’s political process, and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi announced plans to stand for parliament. Following the mass amnesty of prisoners two weeks ago, the European Union eased sanctions, notably lifting travel restrictions on the country's top leaders.
"I went to a tea shop and saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s photo hanging on the wall. People used to be afraid to display her image, but no longer!"
Nay Phone Latt, 31, is a Burmese blogger. He blogs in Burmese here.
In 2007, freedom of expression was highly restricted in my country. I had wanted to write for local magazines, but it was difficult because of censorship. I couldn’t stand seeing my words, my art being cut and reworked by people who didn’t know anything about it. So I decided to launch my blog.At the time, using Gmail or browsing certain news websites could be considered a punishable offense, but we couldn’t let fear paralyse us. In the end, I wasn’t worried because I knew that I wasn’t doing anything wrong.My blog wasn’t the real reason I got into trouble. I was arrested because of my ties with opposition figure and actor Zarganar and the 88 Generation Students [a Burmese pro-democracy movement]. Being a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and a blogger also played a role. The government was still angry at the way bloggers had been able to spread news of the 2007 monks’ protest to the outside world [In 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks protested against the country’s military rulers and demonstrated support for NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi]. They wanted to make an example out of me and others.I was sent to Pa-an prison, which is very far from my home in Yangon [also known as Rangoon], so my family was only able to visit me about once a month. I was one out of ten political prisoners in the prison. I spent most of my time reading, doing Yoga, playing Chinglone [Burma’s national sport], writing to my friends and family, and brainstorming about the country’s future. It was not wasted time – I think I can use what I learned in prison in the future."Today it's easy to join the [opposition] National League for Democracy, and many youths are doing so"When I was released, I was surprised to see how much my country had changed. For example, this morning I went to a tea shop and saw a calendar with Aung San Suu Kyi’s photo hanging on the wall. People used to be afraid of displaying her image, but no longer! I also saw a couple of tables where people were talking about politics, without fear. I didn’t see anyone [from the intelligence services] checking what they were saying. Then I went to a meeting of the 88 Generation Students, which unfolded peacefully, without any disturbance.Today, we can use Gmail, blogs, Facebook and other news websites freely, even though some restrictions as far as what sites you can visit are still on paper, and need to go. It’s also easy to join the [opposition] NLD, and many youths are doing so.I believe the release of the prisoners of conscience is related to the sanctions [imposed by the US and the European Union], and to building trust with the population. Releasing prisoners was a key step towards solving these problems.I find the fact that so much has changed in such a short amount of time somewhat alarming. What if this evolution slows in the future, or stops? While I think things have improved for artists and writers, I don’t think we will be truly safe until the country passes laws protecting our right to freedom of expression.”