3 Burmese poems, introduced and translated by Kyi May Kaung

In the Burmese original, these poems were first broadcast on my weekly poetry column, “Poems of Those Who Love Their Country” (later Garland of Poems) on Radio Free Asia’s Burmese Service between 1997 and 2001.

"In Memory of My Little Daughter" is one of my favorites as it is so heartfelt and moving. It was sent to me by a poetry fan from Burma as a tear sheet from a magazine whose name I cannot now remember. I thought it was based on a true incident, so true are the emotions expressed there, but someone told me that the poet Htay Aung is in fact a single gentleman and has no children. But of course it does not matter, as he speaks for all the thousands of parents who have lost a child – especially those who have lost a child during the vicious clampdown on the pro-democracy movement in Burma in 1988.

"Moe Ma Kha Plant" [Plant Which Does Not Kow Tow to the Sky] was the first poem I featured on my weekly radio program. A co-worker who used to be with the ABSDF (All Burma Students Democratic Front), which emerged from the university students who fled after the 1988 clampdown and which is based on the Burma-Thai Border, directed me to this poem. The moe ma kha plant, he told me, is a kind of water plant that grows in the Moei or Thaung Yin River which forms part of the border between Burma and Thailand.

Naing Win Swe was a former communist who became a freedom fighter for democracy and died in the jungle. I remember having read somewhere about the death of Naing Win Swe and how his comrades had no time to bury him and so left his remains covered with wild flowers. The broadcast of this first on-air poetry feature of mine brought a warm response from the listeners, one of whom started sending me poems she had collected in Burma. This woman told me she had not known of Naing Win Swe’s death until she heard my radio program.

"The Late Dear Departed" is part of Maru (Kyaw Aung Lwin’s) poetry collection Ultimatum to a King.

When I featured it on my on-air column, Maru was still a refugee from Burma waiting on tables in Tokyo. I was directed to the poem by Maru’s best friend, then also working in the Burmese Service of RFA.

I called Maru in Tokyo from the studio and he read the poem for me. At the end he short temperedly threw the receiver down, saying abruptly “Dar bè.” I thought this “That’s all!” worked so well at the end of this very angry and very true ultimatum poem, that I have left it in.

Subsequently, Maru’s wife Kaythwe and I became close friends, and now Maru works also in international broadcasting.

Now that the late great Burmese poets Zawgyi, Minthuwun and Tin Moe are all no longer with us, I consider Maru one of the best Burmese poets around. Our Poet Laureate in fact.

He excels at a very visual imagery and metaphor and is not “flowery” like most Burmese poets but a lot more “in your face,” and I believe that denotes courage as an artist and the ability to confront evil head-on.

Kyi May Kaung (Ph.D.)
March 19, 2007

In Memory of My Little Daughter
Htay Aung

One day after the other
goes by, and we arrive back
at this day.

Daughter, just as in previous years
the raindrops fall, drop out of the sky
slowly, slowly.

Daughter as for your father
he is still, holding tenderly to his
breast, the small green frock
edged in white.

At this time you would be
up out of bed
you would be, washing your face
taking a bath.

Oh, even though it is
a long time for us
your mother and me
the memory is still
quite new and fresh
like the tiny jasmine flowers
in the small vase, in front of
your picture
my daughter.

My daughter who used to
listen so carefully
so silently as I read to you.

The books of cartoons must also
be remembering

The little slippers that went
gauk gauk as you walked.

The slippers that we got back
only one of the pair.

The gauk gauk slippers must be
Telling us, of the things that I
your father, did not see.

Dear little daughter
the skies themselves
have not
had their fill of

Moe Ma Kha Plant
[The plant that does not service, kow tow, to the sky]
Naing Win Swe (1940-1995)

That time when they
submerged my head
in water
they did not
not even
one moment
let me
raise it up
to breathe.

Thick cream of mud
essence of mud
rushes over
runs over
my head.

Flotsam Jetsam
Dirt Excrement
Floating weeds.

Old rotting logs
hit my head
bump my head
I turn like a top

I lurch
a drunken

To breathe
no air
no vacuum
to breathe.

No air.

Just within
my own

I breathe
IN . . .
OUT . . .

A hero
the gallows
to be hanged
does not

Keep smiling
every inch.

I make
telling myself
when you use
the hammer
do not
pull back.

In my

Am I still alive. Am I still alive?

Ah, the great
peoples’ revolutionary
has given his life
for freedom
has walked
the bloody

Am I still alive.

I am not

One day
two days
three days – oh.

One month
two months
three months -- oh.


In the water
I am


When the time
is right
water over-
water runs off.

Moe Ma Kha plant
out of muck
struggles up
bent over.

Beautiful sunlight
under trees.

Moe Ma Kha plant

Moe Ma Kha plant
a little shaky
Moe Ma Kha plant

Moe Ma Kha plant
a little broken
a little, crooked.

Little things, minor things
let them all
be washed away.

With wounds, with scars, with marks

Smiling I look up
at sky. Universe



Our Late Dear Departed
Maru (Kyaw Aung Lwin)

Our late dear departed
You won’t be on time.
As for us we aren’t quite sure
The train has not yet – arrived.
There are many fallen – on our side.
Before – the enemies have become friends, the friends
Have become enemies.

In that kind of – rather messed up
Raggedy rundown country, with its rather
Wobbly, lopsided history
We are backward in everything
Backward behind
In monsoon winds
Backward behind in
The sun rising, and the tide
Backward behind, in education
In rock music, tin beer cans
Tissue paper and lavatories that keep
The flies, firmly, out.

From these things to something called
Democracy. We are behind in everything
Most clearly and effectively, behind.
In that place we had to trade, for something called
Human rights
with our lives.

Before our young men have become
Buddhist novices
They have gone, early into prison.
Before they’ve even gotten
A little diploma
They’ve been sentenced
A heavy jail term.
Before they’ve even gotten themselves
A little sweetheart, they’ve become
Long-term prison residents.

It’s that kind of country, with that kind of hatchet marks and
Stab wounds on it. That kind of struck dumb nation
Notched crooked nation.

The kind of nation where, even without
Anything to eat, you have to meet
Your financial obligation.

That kind of nation where even though
Married, children have to be carefully
Prevented, with permanent

That kind of country where, if it
Becomes unbearable, and you want
To vomit in disgust, you’d better plan
A silent noiseless

That kind of country where lives
Slowly become small
And insignificant.

Where husband and wife
Start to fight more and more.
Where you soon lose

Where you begin to suffer from
Malnutrition, where
evil deeds multiply, where
the bad stars cast their light, growing
cruel and oppressive, where
rather than live one would
rather die.

A great nation like that where
The seeds of our dreams never reach

A great nation where many fall and die
Where the standard of living is low
The death rates high.

A great nation that can’t hold up
Its head, among others.
A great nation that is, below par.
A great nation that isn’t, truly human.
Where it isn’t worth it, to be
A human being.

A nation without a parliament, our great
Royal nation, of course.

But there are people who would
Like to see that country
Of all countries shining gold
Would like the country to be
accepted among all others.

Our martyrs, our late
dear departed have died
for their beliefs, been
crushed, their blood fallen
on black earth.

Those of us remaining, can only
Quite often, pray
And pay our respects, to the fallen, as to
The Buddha in this
Country of ours where
Morning has
Not yet

That’s all!

On 1-1-99, New Year’s Day
(excerpts from Shan Human Rights Report Feb 1999, selected by Kyi May Kaung, and read as poetry).

On 1-1-99, New Year’s Day
SPDC troops of IB66 led by
Myint Sein
6 women and killed one man.

The women were carrying
rice on their shoulder yokes
were walking
from farms to village.

Before they reached home
they met a patrol of 70-80 mentioned above.

The troops stopped them
Forced them to put down their yokes
And interrogated them
Accusing them of intending to husk the rice
And give it to the Shan rebels.

Commander Myint Sein took away
Nang Leng Sa aged 15
from Nawng Kaw
and raped her. After that
he shot her dead.

As he was about to shoot her
one of the civilian porters
pleaded for mercy
“I am from the same village
and I know
she is innocent.”

The commander forced the porter
Sai Mu aged 29
to sit down near Nang Leng Sa
and shot him dead as well.

Then he said to his troops
“you can rest one hour
then you can do whatever you like with the women
except kill them.”
So the troops raped them for one hour and left.

It took some time for the women
to be able to stand up and walk back to their villages
but they could not
their rice.

The women were, not their real names
Nang Ser aged 22 from Wan Ek
Nang Peng aged 27 from Wan Ek
Nang In aged 30 from Wan Wawn
Nang Lu aged 31 from Wan Wawn
Nang Non aged 33 from Wan Ed.

They shot a mute person aged 21
at Hawn Lin
on sight.

He was hit in the stomach and badly wounded.

They said he was an informer for the Resistance.

After they found out he was mute
they let him go.

To prevent the news they had shot a mute
person, from spreading --
they did not allow him to go to the hospital
in Murg-Ton
instead they said
he must go to Thailand for
medical treatment.

1 comment:

Jamba Dunn said...


Thank you for this powerful work. We're studying political poetry this week in my lit theory course and I'd like to present them with "Our Late Dear Departed" and "On 1-1-99, New Year’s Day". This latter poem is very much in line with the works of Charles Reznikoff, and will fuel our ongoing political discussion regarding the modern political status of women around the world.