THE HISTORY OF MYANMAR LITERATURE
The literature of Myanmar spans over a millennium. Burmese literature was historically influenced by Indian and Thai cultures, as seen in many works, such as the Ramayana. The Burmese language, unlike other Southeast Asian languages (e.g. Thai, Khmer), adopted words primarily from Pali rather than from Sanskrit. In addition, Burmese literature has the tendency to reflect local folklore and culture.
Burmese literature has historically been a very important aspect of Burmese life steeped in the Pali Canon of Buddhism. Traditionally, Burmese children were educated by monks in monasteries in towns and villages. During British colonial rule, instruction was formalised and unified, and often bilingual, in both English and Burmese known as Anglo-Vernacular.
THE CLASSICAL LITERATURE OF MYANMAR
The earliest forms of Burmese literature were on stone engravings (kyauksa) for memorials or for special occasions such as the building of a temple or a monastery. Later, palm leaves were used as paper (peisa), which resulted in the rounded forms of the Burmese alphabet. During the Bagan Dynasty, King Anawrahta adopted Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, and brought many Pali texts from Ceylon. These texts were translated, but Pali remained the literary medium of the Burmese kingdom. Non-fiction and religious works prevailed during this period although Ka gyin, a war poem by a monarch, was an early form of this genre in history. As literature grew more liberal and secular, poetry became the most popular form of literature in Myanmar. The flexibility of the Burmese language, because of its monosyllabic and tonal nature, and its lack of many consonantal finals allowed poetry to utilise various rhyming schemes. By the 1400s, four primary genres of poetry had emerged, namely pyo (poems based on the Jataka Tales, linka (metaphysical and religious poems), mawgoun (historical verses written as a hybrid of epic and ode), and eigyin (lullabies of the royal family). Courtiers also perfected the myittaza, a long prose letter.
Monks were also influential in developing Burmese literature. During this time, Shin Maha Thila Wuntha wrote a chronicle on the history of Buddhism. A contemporary of his, Shin Ottama Gyaw, was famous for his epic verses called Tawla that revelled in the natural beauty of the seasons, forests and travel.
After the conquest of Siam by the Toungoo Dynasty, Thailand became a Burmese colony. This conquest incorporated many Thai elements into Burmese literature. Most evident were the yadu (yatu), an emotional and philosophic verse and the yagan, which imitated the themes of the yadu genre. Some parts of Laos and Cambodia also became Burmese colonies during Second Burmese Empire.
As the Konbaung Dynasty emerged in the 1700s, the Third Burmese Empire was founded. This era has been dubbed the “Golden Age of Literature”. After a second conquest of Ayutthaya (Thailand), many spoils of war were brought to the Burmese court. The Ramayana was introduced and was adapted in Burmese. In addition, the Ramayana inspired romantic poems, which became popular literary sojourns among the royal class. Burmese literature during this period was therefore modelled after the Ramayana, and dramatic plays were patronised by the Burmese court.
Monks remained powerful in Burmese literature, compiling histories of Burma. Kyigan Shingyi (1757-1807) wrote the Jataka Tales incorporating Burmese elements, including the myittaza.
During the First Anglo-Burmese War (1823-1826), more solemn and muted moods exuded from Burmese literature, including lyrical music.
THE COLONIAL LITERATURE OF MYANMAR
The British author George Orwell, who was severely critical of the Burmese, wrote Burmese Days published in 1935.
When Burma became a colony of British India, Burmese literature continued to flourish. English literature was still relatively inaccessible although both English and Burmese were now taught in schools. Despite the fact that Burmese literature was well entrenched in Burmese culture, the lack of patrons to support literature did slow its further development.
Beginning in the 1920s, a nationalist movement emerged, and this influence became evident in modern novels, short stories, and poems. At the University of Rangoon, student writers continued to develop new forms of Burmese poetry. A major landmark in Burmese literature was called the Hkit san (Testing the Age) movement, a search for a new style and content, led most notably by Theippan Maung Wa along with Nwe Soe, Zawgyi, Min Thu Wun and Mya Kaytu, while still at university and after, in the decade before the Second World War. The movement for independence continued to fuel Burmese literature.Thakin Kodaw Hmaing was greatly influential in spawning this anti-colonial literature with his powerful leigyo gyi and htika verses famous for their patriotic and satirical content.
Theippan Maung Wa, Hmawbi Saya Thein, and Thein Pei Myint were quite original and innovative authors from the colonial period.
THE POST-COLONIAL LITERATURE OF MYANMAR
After independence in the 1950s, Burmese literature went further to adopt and assimilate Western styles of writing. Many contemporary works are of history and biographical accounts. Because of strict government censorship beginning in the 1960s with the rule of Ne Win, Burmese literature has lost many of its historical characteristics, and is often mundane in nature. Short stories in magazines, however, continue to be published and remain very popular.
One of the greatest female writers of the Post-colonial period is GyanÃ¨ gyaw Ma Ma Lei. The journalist Ludu U Hla was the author of numerous volumes of ethnic minority folklore, novels about inmates in U Nu era jails, and biographies of people working in different occupations. The Prime Minister U Nu himself wrote several politically oriented plays and novels.