Revered and feared: Asia’s authoritarian states censor and mistreat poets

World Poetry Day brings tributes to fallen and jailed poets and vows not to back down.
By Paul Eckert for RFA
2024.03.21
Revered and feared: Asia’s authoritarian states censor and mistreat poets
Illustration by Amanda Weisbrod/RFA; Photo by CleanPNG

Six Myanmar poets have been killed by the junta that seized power in a 2021 military coup. In China and Vietnam, bards are locked away for political crimes. A prominent translator of Tibetan poetry says he worries about the many authors who’ve disappeared without a trace.

This year’s World Poetry Day appears to offer little to celebrate across a region where popular reverence for poets sits uneasily with the censorship and repression of ruling communist and military governments that are hostile to free expression and political activism. 

But the bleak environment is not stopping poets from trying to play their historic roles in movements for freedom and social justice, poets told Radio Free Asia ahead of World Poetry Day, established in 1999 by UNESCO.

"Poets are those who love truth and want justice,” said Yee Mon, a former political prisoner who serves as the defense minister of the shadow National Unity Government that is fighting the Myanmar military junta.

“Today, we take special pride in the poets participating in the Myanmar people's Spring Revolution,” said Yee Mon, who has been writing poetry under the pen name Maung Tin Thit for more than 30 years.

The Spring Revolution, a protest movement that was launched after the February 2021 military coup, was met with fierce retaliation by the junta. 

“Following the military coup, local poets have suffered immense physical and psychological losses, including loss of employment, financial strain, deteriorating health, and tragically, loss of life,” said Nyein Thit, a poet and former member of parliament who is among more than 70 Burmese poets in hiding inside or near Myanmar to evade arrest and torture by the junta. 

Six Myanmar poets have been killed by the Myanmar since the 2021 coup. They are, clockwise from top left: A Sai K, K Za Win, Khet Thi, Ko Yin Awe, Maung Po and Kyi Lin Aye. (Citizen journalist)
Six Myanmar poets have been killed by the Myanmar since the 2021 coup. They are, clockwise from top left: A Sai K, K Za Win, Khet Thi, Ko Yin Awe, Maung Po and Kyi Lin Aye. (Citizen journalist)

Six Myanmar poets were killed, with torture suspected in the death of Khet Thi, who before his arrest in May 2021 wrote: “They shoot us in the head, but they don’t know that the revolution is in the heart.”

Sixteen Burmese poets have been arrested and imprisoned. Among them, poet Kyaw Gyi received a 30-year sentence and Lu Phan Khar was sentenced to 28.5 years.

For Tibetans in China, “freedom of speech is an unattainable dream” and “any effort to reveal the truth will be undermined, oppressed and even punished,” says  Beijing-based Tibetan writer and poet Woeser.

“I feel more and more the pressure of being grabbed by the throat,” she told RFA Tibetan. She said Chinese customs confiscated copies of her new poetry collection "Under the Scorching Sun of Lhasa" when they were shipped from their publisher in Taiwan. 

Tibetan and Uyghur poets in jail

Chinese authorities frequently detain Tibetan poets, writers, artists, and singers who promote Tibetan identity and culture or who have criticized China’s seven-decade rule over Tibet. Content seen as “endangering national security” or constituting an “act of separatism” is banned.

“Tibetan writers and poets who persist in sharing the contents of their heart, despite heavy-handed government censorship and retaliation, show tremendous courage and resilience. They also play a critical role in society by preserving and elevating Tibetan culture,” said James Tager, director of research at PEN America.

Dechen Pemba – whose website, High Peaks Pure Earth, publishes English translations of Tibetan poems, writings and songs from inside Tibet – says, Tibetan artists persist in writing and expressing themselves,” using social media and evolving digital platforms despite the threats they face from authorities. 

“The biggest concern I have right now is the arbitrary detention of many Tibetan artists by the CCP, with many cases remaining unknown to us,” she told RFA Tibetan, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

Tibetan poet and writer Woeser is seen at Samye Monastery in Tibet in August 2023. (Provided by Woeser)
Tibetan poet and writer Woeser is seen at Samye Monastery in Tibet in August 2023. (Provided by Woeser)

In a recent example, poet Tenzin Khenrap, pen name Dhongrang Chak, was taken into custody in July 2023 and has since been arbitrarily detained with no information of his case or whereabouts. 

RFA Uyghur has documented the imprisonment of scores of Uyghur intellectuals and artists, including an educator and poet who died in prison last August, and renowned Uyghur writer and poet Abdulla Sawut, who was released after five years in detention in poor health and died in December 2022 because he could not obtain food or medicine amid a strict coronavirus lockdown.

In 2020, Vietnam sentenced dissident poet and blogger Tran Duc Thach, to 12 years in prison for “activities aimed at overthrowing the People’s Government," although his lawyer said he was only promoting political pluralism.

PEN America in 2022 documented 18 imprisoned writers in Vietnam, placing the country fourth globally in imprisoning writers.

"Authorities further intimidate and silence writers and artists through travel bans, equipment confiscation, and detentions based on artistic work," the group said.

The number of writers and poets behind bars in China has grown since ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping took power in 2012, according to Zhang Yu of the writers' group Independent Chinese PEN.

"We have on our list, which dates from 2001 to the present, more than 300 people," Zhang said. "There are more than 70 who remain behind bars."

‘Jasmine Revolution’

Chinese dissident poet Zhu Yufu was jailed for seven years in 2011 on charges of "inciting subversion of state power" for a poem he wrote in oblique support of China emulating the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia that sparked the “Arab Spring” of anti-authoritarian protests.

His detention came soon after posting these lines online, in a reference to the political legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre:

It is time, people of China! It is time

The square belongs to us all; our feet are our own.

It is time to use our feet to go to the square and to make a choice ... 

We should use our choices to decide the future of China.

-- Zhu Yufu "It is time"

Chinese poet Zhu Yufu. (Provided by Zhu Yufu)
Chinese poet Zhu Yufu. (Provided by Zhu Yufu)

“My short poem ‘It's Time’ is actually quite neutral, encouraging people to make choices, without prescribing any specific action. It was their guilty conscience that led them to first arrest people and then fabricate charges, using my poem as a pretext,” Zhu told RFA Mandarin.

“When I was released, the prison sent six guards to inspect every page of the books I purchased and the calligraphy I wrote,” he said. “One of my poetry manuscripts was absolutely not allowed to be taken home.”

Zhu remains unbowed after multiple prison stints.

“Don't think that burying the seed means there won’t be spring anymore

Don't think that when the tide recedes, it will never return,” he wrote for World Poetry Day.

In July 2019, authorities in the southwestern province of Yunnan detained poet and political activist Wang Zang after he showed support for mass anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong.

He was handed a second jail term in December 2021 alongside his wife Wang Li behind closed doors by the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture Intermediate People's Court, which found them guilty of “incitement to subvert state power."

Prosecutors cited Wang's recent poetry, essays, interviews with foreign media, and performance art since his last release from prison in 2015, as evidence against him.

"State security police visited him so many times [after] he wrote "Epitaph Without a Tombstone," Wang Li told RFA Mandarin in an interview after her release.

"It's still pretty sensitive for them."

A road to idealism 

paved with newly upturned corpses

facing the loving gaze and newly sworn vows of their spouses

riddled with bullet holes, tears and sweat in their eyes

from the effort of dodging bullets while carrying the bodies

amid the smoke of gunfire and the silent spray of the water trucks

Now, we are in the United Front of singing and dancing in the New Era

while the old wounds that can't be named congeal and

go into exile to stand guard over the night.

-- Wang Zang "Epitaph Without a Tombstone."

Never stop speaking out

Wang Li said Wang Zang had never stopped speaking out, however.

"He believes that if everyone keeps quiet, then nothing would change, and everyone would suffer even more," she said. "He didn't want that."

While Wang Li was released after serving a shorter jail term, she and her family were placed under round-the-clock surveillance by a 24-person security detail.

Recently, she was able to visit her husband in prison.

"Still 73 days until Wang Zang comes home!" Wang Li posted to her X account on March 17. 

"I went to visit Wang Zang this morning with his brother, and he was looking thinner," she wrote. "He lost 3 kilos lately."

"Everyone pay attention to Wang Zang, who is nearing the end of his sentence -- thank you!"

Dissident poet Wang Zang, right, and his wife Wang Li are seen in an undated photo. (Wang Li via X)
Dissident poet Wang Zang, right, and his wife Wang Li are seen in an undated photo. (Wang Li via X)

Wang met with his attorney on March 20, but it is unclear whether he will be allowed home or have his freedom of movement restored following his release, as authorities in China frequently place high-profile political prisoners under surveillance or house arrest even after their release from prison.

Wang Zang was previously a resident of Beijing's Songzhuang artists' village, and has previously been targeted with repeated forced evictions and a jail term for showing online support for the 2014 Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong.

Burmese poet A Mon – who keeps a comprehensive list documenting poets who died, were incarcerated or fled Myanmar – said he is staging a commemoration involving 70-80 poets on World Poetry Day somewhere along the Thai-Myanmar border to honor fallen poets and showcase the resilience of the anti-junta struggle.

"Poetry embodies a collective voice, truth and justice,” he told RFA Burmese.

“It is imperative to persist until victory is achieved in the struggle against military dictatorship."

Reporting by Tenzin Pema, Tenzin Dickey and Pelbar for RFA Tibetan, Kitty Wang for RFA Mandarin, and Khet Mar for RFA Burmese. Translation by Luisetta Mudie and Kalyar Lwin.

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