No negotiation for blood debt

A painting of two red hands against a grey background, holding up three fingers

By Seungok Ryu via

In October 2021, Aung Way, one of the most prolific poets of the Burmese diaspora in the US, found himself in a pickle for plagiarism. The senior poet was accused on social media by fellow poet Thit Kaung Eain, for stealing the lines, “no negotiation for blood debt” and “when the line between friend and foe wasn’t clear / even the sangha were murdered”, in the introduction of his new collection of poems, Devadetta’s Pistol.

Thit Kaung Eain pointed out that the first line, “no negotiation for blood debt”, was his own and the other line was by the late Min Tate Kha, another activist poet. Aung Way initially apologised on social media for his appropriation of the lines, but he also published a lengthy three-part essay in his own defence in Moemaka, a Burmese journal.

Aung Way asserts that he too is a poet of Marxist leanings and that the lines in question are neither his or anyone else’s—they are “The words of the revolution. The words of resistance.”

“If a poet claims that they were the first to use those lines in their poems, I can accept that claim. But if they brand those lines as their coinage or copyright, I’d say 'Sorry.' Claiming the right to those lines amount to claiming the copyright to the revolution.”

Aung Way adds that in a long-form poem he wrote in support of a 2015 Myanmar student rally, he penned the line, “Negotiable alone / would’t pay off the blood debt.” The rhyming Burmese phrases, thwaykyway for “blood debt” and swaynway for “to negotiate” and yan-nga for “friend and foe” and “sangha” for “monks”, must have had a wide currency in the Burmese resistance movement since the 1970s and no poet has the right to claim them, writes the senior poet.

The Burmese language resistance poetry is deeply embedded in the country’s colonial past. Following the third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, when most of the present-day Myanmar was annexed to the British India, Buddhist monks were among the first to take up arms against the British. They realised that the sāsana, the teaching of the Buddha, was endangered under the British occupation. The monks penned resistance poetry, some of which travelled far and wide through the country by word of mouth. One of the most enduring among them was by the Zibani Abbot: “The hti is Nil. / The palace is Nil. / The city is Nil. / It’s better to die fighting than live in the Age of Three Nils.” Hti, the Burmese word for parasol, is an umbrella-like structure atop a stupa or a palace spire and is taken to represent the Buddhist religion as well as the monarchy.

Ko Ko Thett
Co-editor of Picking off new shoots will not stop the spring
Excerpted from Anushangik Journal

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