Kyi May Kaung: Activist, Artist,
and Poet in Exile
“Truth is the same, whoever is called to witness it, just by turning his or her eyes towards what is happening, and not away.”
So writes Kyi May Kaung. Born in Burma (now known as Myanmar), Kyi came to the U.S. in the 1980s on a Fulbright scholarship. Now living in exile here she devotes her energies to calling attention to the oppressive military junta that rules her country.
A multi-talented artist Kyi pours her political outrage and her longing for her homeland into numerous creative outlets. She writes fiction and plays, is a prize-winning poet, and she paints. From 1997-2001 she wrote and produced a well-regarded weekly international radio show on dissident poetry.
Kyi lives near Washington, D.C. where she runs a literary salon, participates in art shows with other refugee artists, and gives poetry readings, all the while keeping political activism as the thread of her life. The well-known Burmese poet, Tin Moe, died recently and Kyi has translated many of his poems into English. One of them, “New Pages” has a line that describes Kyi’s optimistic humanity and courage as she keeps her eyes on the truth of what is happening in her homeland:
“But old as I am/I still have the unrent flag/of my heart’s spirit still/waving undaunted.”
WRR: You were born in Rangoon, Burma and grew up there. What was it like?
Up until the time my father died in 1956, or even after, until the first military coup of 1962, it was mostly wonderful. Between 1948 and 1962, Burma was what some Burma experts have called a quasi-democracy. Quasi or not, and even given the idiosyncrasies of the elected Prime Minister U Nu, I remember it as a time when all the grownups were happy; there were a lot of parties; we had enough food, and my parents were freely associating with their foreign friends.
By high school, I was reading the jataka stories (based on their Indian versions) by the famous monk U Awbatha in Burmese. The jataka or zat taw gyi the great royal dramas are the previous lives of Prince Siddhartha, who worked his way through many animal and human existences to achieve his parami or destiny as the Buddha Gautama, the historical Buddha, who lived in India over 2500 years ago. Of the jataka of the ten human existences that Siddhartha traversed, the one I liked best was about the famous king Waythan Daya (Vesantara) who was so giving, he donated his throne and wealth to others and went to live in the forests of the Himalayas. There he donated his son and daughter to a hunter to be his slaves. This story is very renowned in Burma and in Thailand which has the same kind of Therevada Buddhism as we do: the Buddhism of the Theras or the old learned people.
WRR: You spent time outside of Burma when you were a child.
Between 1947 and 1950, my father, a leading educator, had a job with the Burmese embassy in London, looking after Burmese state scholars or students there. He also did work for the Burma Currency Board, and his signature was on the Burmese banknotes; modestly signed “Maung Kaung.” (Master Kaung).
Some of my father’s students became world famous and leaders in their fields, especially Dr. Hla Myint, said to be, with Arthur Lewis, one of the founders of Development Economics. There was also A.K. Sen, Nobel Prize winning economist, whom I found out later was born and brought up in Mandalay, Burma. But I do not remember my father mentioning him. Another was Dr. Hla Pe, who lived in the UK and worked on the Burmese-English dictionary at SOAS during World War II. In the early 70s, he married a spinster aunt of mine who was a second cousin of my mother’s; my mother engineered the match. They now live in Moulmein, Burma.
Our family came back to Burma in 1950 via Gibraltar and the Suez Canal in a big steamer named the HMS Worcestershire. We had also gone to England in 1947 by sea, when I was a few years old, but I do not remember the journey out.
When we returned to Rangoon, we lived for a time with my aunt and uncle and their children on Fytche Road, near the old colonial governor’s mansion, which was now occupied by the new Burmese President, the Shan Saopa Saw Shwe Thaike, whose family I was to come to know. Shan is a different ethnic group from the Burmans who live on the Shan Plateau in the east and ethnically and linguistically are closer to the Thai. During World War II and the Japanese Invasion of Burma, before I was born, Saw Shwe Thaike’s family had looked after my father and our family and other Burmese officials in a jungle village.
In Rangoon I started to hear a word I had never heard my father and mother use in England “Independence.” They were forever now talking about “before Independence, after Independence and ”now that we have Independence.“ I did not understand it at all, and on my first night in Rangoon, had to be taught by our nanny how to sleep with my hands and arms not spread out and touching the mosquito net. The tiny house lizards crawling on the walls and the ceilings were a novelty to me, and maybe because I was already short sighted, I could not see the mosquitoes flying around that our nanny kept pointing out to me. She said I already had a mosquito bite on my forehead, but I had not noticed that either.
At this time, I formed the comforting and interesting habit of listening to my aunt tell real stories, about things that had just happened. At teatime while we ate yellow pound cake from Shamie’s Bakery and ”U Nu samosas,“ she told us of her fear during the Karen insurrection a few years before, just before Independence. She said during the bombardment, shells were fired from the government house over the house where we were, onto the Karen quarters behind the railway housing units. (My uncle was an engineer in the Burma Railways.) She said she could hear the cries of Karen mothers screaming as their children were thrown into the flames by government forces.
Eventually we moved to Windermere Crescent, where our neighbors were U Nu, other high officials of his government and right at the end of the crescent, the Burma Broadcasting Station or BBS. In the Windermere Crescent house before my father died in Calcutta in a car accident, I would sit in the drawing room (the living room), while my father chatted with his guests, who included my writer cousin Min Shin (Ko Too’s elder brother), poets Zawgyi and Minthuwun, artists U San Win and U Ngwe Gaing, and a science teacher who came to tutor my elder brother who had weak legs and was not able to go to school till the 10th grade. My younger sister and I spent a lot of time with our cousins of the same age.
My father also often took me to art exhibitions, or we visited with his mentor G.H. Luce, famous historian of Old Burma (the tenth and eleventh centuries) and a member of the Bloomsbury Group before he came out to Burma before World War II. I understand now all this might have been equivalent to living near J.R.R. Tolkien and his family while he was writing Lord of The Rings.
I didn’t understand what it all was until it was suddenly taken away. My father died and we moved back to live with Uncle and Aunty for a while. But more importantly and on a larger scale of calamity, the military led by Gen. Ne Win staged its first coup on March 2, 1962. Our world started to fall apart.
I would not see some friends until years later in the 1980s and 1990s in America.
This is what makes me think systems are so important. You either try to leave for another system, try to change the unsatisfactory and pathological system to a more favorable one, or try to do both. I have tried both.
WRR: When and why did you leave Burma?
I left in 1982 on a Fulbright scholarship. But that was not my first time leaving. In 1969, a few weeks after my second son was born, I accepted a scholarship to go to Warsaw, Poland, but I was there only nine months for a course in Economic Planning. With the military coup and due to the Revolutionary Council’s new scholastic policies, scholarships to the west became very rare. It was mostly for medical doctors to Columbo Plan countries.
My next chance to apply for a scholarship would not come again until 1982, when Ne Win’s daughter Sandar Win (now under house arrest in Rangoon), failed her entrance exams at a British medical school and her father, the General, seemed to have suddenly realized again that a foreign education was desirable, at least in the technical subjects. My original scholarship was in Transportation Economics. There was a lot of nepotism and the then economics professor had earmarked his own man, but that man failed his English proficiency exams. Then the upper age bar was removed because the professor wanted his brother in law to get the scholarship. I applied and I only got it because my English marks were so good. My nemesis was left behind by a few prepositions (3!) in a test called The Georgetown Test. It’s hard not to believe it was karma.
WRR: When did you first think you might have to leave Burma permanently?
The staff had to take brainwashing sessions the party cadres were the instructors. My instructor did not believe me when I told him I had morning sickness and thought I was just inventing a sickness to shirk classes. When the sessions ended and my tummy began to show a few months later, I ran into this man on campus and he said, “Oh, you really are pregnant!” That was the level of control that took place.
So in the early and mid-seventies most of the staff of the Economics Institute were applying for any scholarship or job overseas. Some left as UN volunteers to places like Africa, Fiji, Papua, New Guinea, anywhere.
I took to applying for scholarships too, once I realized my husband was happy there in his job with a Danish company and was not going to leave.
A Venezuelan friend had convinced me while I was in Warsaw that although a Buddhist, I could not keep saying “In my next life,” because I only had one.
And I realized that one life, and especially my children’s lives, would not wait for “things to get better.”
WRR: Do you still have family there?
Yes, but we are all estranged. It’s been twenty-five years. I see members of my family or extended family now and then at various places overseas. Working for the Burma Fund affiliated to the Exile Government between 2001 and 2004, I saw many Burmese refugees, students, friends, on trips to attend international conferences. As a radio broadcaster between 1997 and 2001 I met many survivors.
I don’t think foreigners realize that twenty-five years lived in a closed society and twenty-five years lived outside in an open one, can make people evolve very differently.
It’s like the difference between North Koreans and South Koreans. Sometimes I get annoyed and stop trying to explain.
WRR: You are an artist, poet, writer, and political activist. How do you integrate all of these roles into your life?
They aren’t “roles” that I am playing and therefore have to “balance” carefully or conscientiously when I get tired of one thing, or when the need comes up, I do whatever I need to do. They’re me and there is no conflict between anything.
If there’s a demonstration in front of the Myanmar Embassy, I go if I can. If someone asks me to read a poem, I stand up and read it. If I get tired of words, I paint or cook or clean my apartment. I have learned to “clear up” crazy making things like friendships that go sour, not to answer my phone when I am writing. To keep blocks of time, such as a lunch or dinner alone, to think.
It’s easier to do as I grow older as everyone expects an old lady to be cranky anyway.
WRR: Who is your favorite poet? Artist? Author?
Oh, so difficult to answer as the favorites change all the time, till my next visit to the bookstore:
T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, W. S. Merwin. I like simplicity, economy in words (parsimony), honesty, and “shooting from the hip.”
Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” the play “A Man for All Seasons” oh Wole Soyinka’s “Death and the King’s Horseman,”
the film “Ran” by Korusawa.
The short stories of Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams, and D.H. Lawrence. Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.”
The stories of Chinese writer Mo Yan Red Sorghum, Red Poppy by the Tibetan writer Alai, all perfectly translated by Howard Goldblatt.
My Name is Red and Snow by Orhan Pamuk.
The Dog Fighter by Marc Bojanowski.
Artists. Now Paul Klee, Miro, Modigliani.
WRR: As a political activist, what kind of support do you have here in the U.S.?
I have been so fortunate. In the last ten years I have worked closely with some of the most brilliant and committed individuals and organizations that anyone could possibly wish for. I can’t name them all for obvious reasons, but the United States Campaign for Burma has helped me a lot. Some organizations are presently in states of flux, so I don’t wish to go into details. But lots of people help me, from the little to the bigger things.
People call in with news scoops “Huay khaloke camp is burning right now!” “The military has hired a new PR firm.” “So and so has lost his job.”
WRR: You describe yourself as a professional “Burma watcher.” How do you get your news?
It’s not difficult at all especially if you have an international network of friends who themselves think and get involved in activism a great deal. The international Burmese democracy movement grew on the cusp of the Internet revolution. Burma watchers based in Thailand, India, and China get news from across the border. Hundreds of refugees and migrant workers cross over to Thailand daily. International wire news such as AP, Reuters etc cover Burma regularly; there are even reporters/writers/analysts who concentrate solely on Burma.
Most of my work is thinking anyway, as Nancy Kissinger once said. I read what everyone else reads, something called the Burmanet which compiles everything published about Burma daily. I go to international conferences, read the academic papers presented at the Burma Studies Conference, mostly talk to people. Or rather “they tell me things.”
My job is then to think things through and identify what is happening. The Penn Ph.D. helps. Nothing like a solid theoretical groundwork and wide reading.
WRR: Do you get discouraged by the lack of political progress or change in Burma? How do you deal with these feelings?
No, I don’t get discouraged. As our late compatriot Eugene Yawngwe (Dr Chao Tzang Yawngwe,) son of the first president of Burma, used to say: dissidents and activists are perennially optimistic. They couldn’t function if they weren’t.
Being active staves off depression. If I get really angry I can stamp out something on my keyboard; at the very least send it to my email list or post it on my Blog, write a poem, or fling paint around.
I’ve been through a lot, including what could be called a clinical depression which I could not shake with just the talk cure. As one of my family friends who had a well-paid job at the World Bank used to say, “Living well is the best revenge.” For me, being happy is the best revenge.
I am alive; within reason I can say or do whatever I please. I live in one of the world’s great functioning democracies, which still is the best place to be. There’s no reason why I should not be happy. I paid dearly to be here.
WRR: In a poem you wrote about Burma and Iraq (“Burma and Iraq: For DC Poets Against War”) and read recently in D.C. you say these two countries are connected. How do you see this connection?
They had, in the case of Burma, still have, dictators and a dictatorship. When the second Iraq invasion took place, some Burmese intellectuals wanted a US invasion of Burma. The Burmese junta, I have read, still seriously believes the U.S. might invade Burma.
I don’t think that the idea that Iraq is like Europe and the Marshall Plan after World War II is an apt analogy. Look at what is happening in Iraq right now. Everything is going wrong. I think those Burmese intellectuals who were so gung ho about a U.S. invasion don’t really know about the most modern war technology. I don’t like to see Burmese dying under the dictatorship or dying in the democracy struggle, but many more would die if there were an all out war with modern weapons.
WRR: You are very active in the arts community in Washington, D.C. and Silver Spring, MD. How does this involvement feed you as a person and as an artist?
Every time I change jobs I change my friendships, even though as a rule I do not socialize much with people whom I work with on a day-to-day basis. I am not so fond of teaching, but I miss the university environment. So setting up a literary salon (I was offered the use of the space on some Fridays by the Kefa Café) has been a way to ensure I am always meeting new people. There are a lot of non-profit organizations and idealist individuals in the DC area. Some of my artist friends say it is harder being an artist in Washington DC (than in New York). But I don’t think I could deal with living in NY, especially after 9/11.
In Philadelphia, I was fortunate to find a writing community through the Rittenhouse Writers Group, the Meridian Co-op, and so on.
In the DC area, whenever I go back to more intensive periods of almost full time writing, I go back and take courses at The Bethesda Writers Center. I took about three courses in the novel and advanced novel and a day course in travel writing as well as tried setting up two writing groups there last year. This was in between two trips to South East Asia and two art exhibits.
When I started in Burmese political activism in DC in 1997, just meeting one charismatic person and “hanging around” resulted in my meeting so many extraordinary people. Last year was rather like that a lot worked serendipitously. I also took a multidisciplinary course run out of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and did a poetry and dance collaboration with them.
And I recently found out that the DC area has a large number of theatres. Also I sometimes go to a local group called Footlights, where actors and directors, sometimes playwrights, come and talk about plays being shown in the area.
The important thing is to have people to talk to, many projects going all the time, and never to be bored.
WRR: On one of your blogs you describe yourself as the human equivalent of ET, able to look at things in a fresh way. Please explain how you developed this unique talent.
I think it started when I came back as a seven year old to Burma. And I was a little foreigner so I soaked up everything. As a child I was the proverbial middle child. My elder brother and my younger sister had poor health in childhood, and so my mother was very preoccupied looking after them. I was the healthy middle child and so I went around with my father, and was rather lucky to be put in a co-ed school and to get a stellar education.
But the term itself ET, I got from my brilliant niece who is Burmese-Japanese. When she was in grade school in Westchester, NY she wrote under a cartoon she drew of herself “Yumi (not her real name), where the hell are you from?”
Now, to my great amusement, I have found out that there is a female astrologer, currently doing very well in Burma, whose name is Ethi the foreign journalists call her “ET.” The astrologer has or is cultivating a speech impediment and her sister translates for her. I find this so funny. Her sister must be very politically savvy. It’s not easy being an astrologer in Burma. Not as difficult and dangerous as being a politician, or a political analyst, or a poet. But still, not easy.