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Profiling change in Burma: The secret booklender

Instead of punishment, one enterprising librarian received a rare green light from the government.
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Ye Htet Oo (Julie Turkewitz/GlobalPost)

YANGON, Myanmar — In June 2010, Ye Htet Oo was reading in his clandestine library on 28th Street in Yangon when his cell phone rang. On the other line was the head of the township's Ministry of Information, asking him to come in and chat about his library "issue." 

For about a year he'd been lending English books to students around the city, operating out of a locked back room in his bookshop. While government authorities had given the okay to a store selling pre-censored volumes in Burmese, they had refused to license an English-language library. Ye Htet Oo had formed one anyway, filling a secret room with 6,000 or so volumes. "In Myanmar, if you don't have a library license, you're in trouble," he said. 

At the minister's office the next day, he trembled. "I was trying to breathe," he said. "This is a rumor I always hear: Whenever they want to get somebody, they invite them in the name of 'discussion.'"

He was not, however, thrown in jail. Instead the township official said he would be granted a license. It was 2010 — still several months before the country's military generals had ceded power to a reformist quasi-civilian government – and Ye Htet Oo was shocked.

"I said, 'Are you sure?'" he recalled. "She said, 'We've decided to issue you a license. It is an order from the capital, Naypyidaw.'

The Tharapar Library has since grown to about 15,000 books. It has three satellite locations in other parts of the country and exists with no government controls, said Ye Htet Oo, now 27. He has moved from 28th Street to a larger location in Hlaing Township. Many of his members are poorer students who have come to Yangon to study.

"If you ask me if I'm a rebel I would say, 'no,'" he said. "I consider myself an innovative educator." 

The library operates out of a garage-like space below an English school also run by Ye Htet Oo. Membership costs 2,000 kyat, or about $2 a year. The library's walls are jelly-bean green, its shelves are lined with frayed copies of "Animal Farm" and "The Outsiders," as well as hundreds of donated curiosities ("The Idiot's Guide to Surviving Divorce," "Low Fat Cookery," "Testosterone Inc: Tales of CEOs Gone Wild.")

Ye Htet Oo — professorial and avuncular in an ironed white button-down and traditional blue longyi — grew up in Yangon, the son of a sea captain and a homemaker. As a child, he often visited the British Council, one of the only places in Myanmar where he could find English-language books. Secret police would wait outside. There, he worked his way up to Sherlock Holmes, Oliver Twist and Treasure Island. 

In 2008, he began dreaming of a library that he would name Tharapar, after the gate that marks the entrance to Bagan, a city laden with thousands of ancient golden pagodas. He applied for a library license, but it was denied. Then a friendly local official suggested he start a bookstore and operate the library on the sly. 

He did, shutting Shakespeare, Mark Twain and Agatha Christie behind a wooden door.

About a year in, the director general of the Ministry of Information — a man who is now the presidential spokesman — wandered in to Tharapar. It was this man, Ye Htut, who instructed the township official to issue the library license. 

This February, Ye Htet Oo and Ye Htut met at a conference in Naypyidaw. "I asked him, 'How do you know about me?'" said Ye Htet Oo. "He said, 'My kids were in your library before me. I was really interested. I thought it was unbelievable, it's not possible. And I got in there, and I loved your library.'"

Just a few years ago, this encounter would have been unthinkable in Myanmar. But since a transition to a new government in 2011, media-related changes have been among the country's most tangible reforms: President Thein Sein has released jailed journalists, ended pre-publication censorship and removed barriers to Internet access.

It would easy to make Ye Htet Oo a poster boy for national reform. (He was recently hired by the Ministry of Information to coach officials in English). But Ye Htet Oo said he doesn't believe the changes in his life are indicative of what's happening to the rest of the population. And he's certainly not sure they'll last.

"We have been living under a dictatorship for more than 50 years. Every generation has experienced what we could call signs of 'democracy'," he said. "Right now we can see change. But how far will we go? This is what we have to know." 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/groundtruth-burma/profiling-change-burma-the-secret-booklender

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