Writer withdraws from literary festival over Rakhine crisis

The crisis over Rakhine State has prompted at least one author to withdraw from next month’s Irrawaddy Literary Festival, launched in 2013 with the aim of connecting “long-silenced Myanmar writers with the international literary community”.

Australian children’s writer Gus Gordon has pulled out of the event and Tony Wheeler, the British-Australian co-founder of Lonely Planet, was undecided about attending, the South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday.

It quoted Gordon and Wheeler as criticising festival organisers for not mentioning the crisis in statements about the event, due to be held at the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel in Mandalay from November 3 to 5.

“The statement put out recently again doesn’t mention the current crisis at all. It is very odd,” Gordon told the newspaper.

Ms Jane Heyn, who founded the event in 2013 when her husband, Mr Andrew Heyn, was the British ambassador to Myanmar, defended the festival’s organisers.

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“The [ILF] board has decided that it would be inappropriate for the ILF, a literary festival, to make public statements about the situation in Rakhine State,” she said in an email to the SCMP.

“The festival is of course liaising with all participants individually, including discussing any concerns they may have about the situation in Rakhine State,” she said.

Wheeler was sharply critical of the festival’s patron, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, for not speaking out more about the humanitarian crisis.

He intends to address the situation if he attends the festival.

“I’m not going to go there and say Lonely Planet has been good fun, they’ve got a nice new guide to Italy. I’m going to have to confront the situation there,” Wheeler told the newspaper.

More than 20 foreign participants are listed on the festival’s website for this year’s event, which will also be attended by about 100 Myanmar authors, including the activist and magazine editor Ma Thida, and Myay Hmone Lwin, the pen name of Ko San Mong Aung, who has published a collection of short stories.

The overseas participants include BBC world news editor John Simpson, Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy, and Michael Vatikiotis, Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of the 2017 book Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia.

Vatikiotis told the SCMP he intended to attend the festival.

“I generally don’t let anything get in the way of engagement in troubled places,” he said.

“Moreover, the festival is probably needed more than ever because in the current situation there’s a danger there will be no dialogue, only divisive rhetoric.”

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