IPA and PEN America on Myanmar’s Closure of a Publisher

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The publishing house, Lwin Oo Sarpay, was shuttered by Myanmar’s junta reportedly for distributing a book from a Bloomsbury imprint.

Morning traffic, November 23, 2021, in Monywa, in the Sagaing region of Myanmar. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Hale Irwin

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

A Third Reported Publisher Shutdown in Recent Weeks
In its report from June 1, Radio Free Asia’s Burmese unit reports that Lwin Oo Sarpay, a high-visibility publishing house in Myanmar, has been closed by the junta “for importing and distributing a book on the 2017 Rohingya genocide”—and this report is based on information from Yangon’s state-controlled newspapers.

That attribution is significant. Radio Free Asia functions by a United States congressional order, operating to generate journalistically sound reportage from free-speech hotspots in China, Tibet, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (the junta’s preferred version of the name over “Burma”). In basing its report on state-outlet accounts, Radio Free Asia is signaling not only the source of its information but what can be assumed is the state’s pride in its reported actions against this publishing house. More about the book in question is below.

The International Publishers Association (IPA) has worked with PEN America to issue a stinging condemnation of the action against Lwin Oo Sarpay.

The two agencies make the point in their communiqué, issued on Tuesday (June 7), that “two other publishing houses have been closed down in recent weeks—Shwe Lat and Yan Aung Sarpay and the Win To Aung printing press—that were also publishing books on sensitive themes, including LGBTQ+ content.”

These actions bring Yangon’s reported aggression directly into the framework of concern and activism shared by the International Publishers Association, with its annual Prix Voltaire for publishing valor under often dangerous oppressive action, and PEN America, a leading national section associated with PEN International.

Many concerned world publishing professionals will welcome this joint commentary from PEN America and the IPA for its logic and its ability to see both organizations’ efforts amplified through their extensive respective world channels.

Einarsson: ‘To Sow Fear and Encourage Self-Censorship’

Kristenn Einarsson

Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish committee—and managing director of the newly staged World Expression Forum (WEXFO) in Lillehammer—is quoted, saying, “Cracking down on these publishers is designed to sow fear and encourage self-censorship.

“We urge the junta to reverse these closures, renew publishing licenses, and allow these publishing and printing houses to reopen immediately and print and distribute books without obstruction.”

And Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk programs, says, “Closing these publishing houses is a gross misuse of the judicial system and outdated, restrictive laws to prosecute individuals and businesses for producing or disseminating written content.

Karin Deutsch Karlekar

“Following on from the imposition of broad censorship of the media and online platforms immediately after the coup—including the arrest of dozens of journalists and influential online commentators—these developments are a prime example of the junta’s strategy to stifle information that contradicts or challenges its own narrative, and appear to represent a new onslaught against literary and creative content and a further closing of the space for free expression in Myanmar.”

The Radio Free Asia report, written in English by Roseanne Gerin and translated by Khin Maung Nyane for Burmese consumption, says that Yangon’s military has accused the publishing house, Lwin Oo Sarpay, of violating Section 8 of the a “printing and publishing law,” which “imposes restrictions on the content of publications and websites run by publishers and bans the import or distribution of foreign publications that contain banned content.

“In this case, the prohibited content was deemed as causing harm to an ethic group or among ethnic groups.”

Ronan Lee’s ‘Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide’

The book that Lwin Oo Sarpay is said to have been distributing is Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide: Identity, History, and Hate Speech by the Irish-Australian former politician Ronan Lee. A former member of the state parliament in Queensland, Lee is a doctoral prize fellow at the Institute for Media and Creative Industries, at Loughborough University London. He was awarded the International Association of Genocide Scholars’ Early Career Emerging Scholar Prize in 2021.

Published on February 25, 2021, by Bloomsbury’s IB Tauris imprint, the book, according to the publisher’s promotional text, “adds convincingly to the body of evidence that the government of Myanmar has enabled a genocide in Rakhine State and the surrounding areas.”

In the book, Lee analyzes what he calls “the largest forced migration in the region” of Burma “since the Second World War, with more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing Myanmar in terror for the relative safety of Bangladesh.”

The 2017 “clearance operation” of Rohingya communities led by the army, he writes, saw the Tatmadaw “razing hundreds of Rohingya villages with fire, murdering at least 9,000 Rohingya men, and unleashing a monstrous campaign of sexual violence against Rohingya women and girls.”

In their joint message to the news media, the International Publishers Association and PEN America write, “The license of Lwin Oo Sarpay Publishing House was withdrawn on May 28 for importing and distributing a foreign-published book on Facebook.

“The junta charged the publisher with an alleged violation of a 1962 law prohibiting the import and distribution of foreign publications containing banned content—in this case, content that caused harm to an ethnic group or among ethnic groups.”

In March, Anthony Blinken, the United States’ secretary of state, spoke at Washington’s Holocaust Museum after seeing the museum’s exhibition, Burma’s Path to Genocide, which also is available for you to experience in a digital format here. You can read the comments made on March 21 at the museum by Blinken, the American designation of Yangon’s actions as genocide, Blinken saying, in part, “The evidence … points to a clear intent behind these mass atrocities–the intent to destroy Rohingya, in whole or in part.” And this, of course, is genocide.

“That intent has been corroborated by the accounts of soldiers who took part in the operation and later defected, such as one who said he was told by his commanding officer to, and I quote, ‘shoot at every sight of a person,’ end quote—burn villages, rape and kill women, orders that he and his unit carried out.”

In Tuesday’s messaging, PEN America highlights its major report from December, Stolen Freedoms: Creative Expression, Historic Resistance, and the Myanmar Coup, the organization’s second such report on the Burmese situation. As the organization points out, the report includes information on “how private publishers could only publish a book after it was approved by censors.

“Following the democratic reforms in 2012, the end of pre-publication censorship ushered in a blossoming of new genres and types of books published in Myanmar. This ended abruptly in February 2021 with the military coup, and now Myanmar ranks third in PEN America’s 2021 Index of the world’s worst jailers of writers.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the International Publishers Association is here, more on PEN America is here, more on freedom of expression and the freedom to publish is here, and more on the Burmese/Myanmar market is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s global media partner.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here. 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.