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Untold Stories: A Literary Family Keeping Myanmar’s History Alive

The Ludu Library is a treasure trove in a nation still reeling from the oppression of army rule. Built to house books and manuscripts accumulated over the lifetimes of Myanmar’s most famous literary couple, it is one of the very few modern libraries in the country.

Written by Kelly Macnamara Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Than Yin Mar has been running the Ludu Library in Mandalay, Myanmar, for over a decade, acting as caretaker for her parents' vast collection of books. Kelly Macnamara

Ludu U Hla and his wife, Ludu Daw Amar, founded the left-leaning Ludu (the People) newspaper in 1945 in the city of Mandalay, Myanmar. They become so famous for it that they eventually adopted its title into their own names. The couple also ran their own publishing house, which printed dozens of their novels and nonfiction books. Their writing put them at loggerheads with successive military governments: Along with their two sons, they were harassed and imprisoned, and stalked by tragedy.

Prolific writers, they also amassed a vast collection of books and manuscripts that they hoped to one day share with the public in a library. In 2000, construction of the Ludu Library began.

Many books in the collection today still bear the marks of the military’s draconian censorship regime at the time, which required novels, newspapers and even song lyrics to be submitted for pre-publication scrutiny. Draft manuscripts are slashed with red ink and scrawled with orders from censors to change or omit passages. Even after publication, texts were not safe from the editorial incursions of military officials. They used silver paint to block out text and would sometimes stick pages together to stop their content from reaching the public. While the censorship law was changed in 2012, Myanmar (which used to be known as Burma) continues to lag on press freedoms.

Tucked down an anonymous alley, away from the frenetic bustle of the city, the library is barely known outside literary circles. Its books have survived army rule, fire and the annual monsoon. Under the previous government, authorities would have been given control over the collection if the library was made public. The rules have recently been modified, but the family has decided to retain the library’s independence.

Ludu U Hla died in 1982 and Ludu Daw Amar in 2008, so their collection is now looked after by their daughter, Than Yin Mar, a doctor, author and retired medical professor who has run the library for more than a decade. She is currently overseeing an ambitious digitization program to preserve the Ludu journal and other newspapers and rare books.

Than Yin Mar hopes her son and daughter will follow in the literary footsteps of her parents, even if she focused on a medical career that she said gave her a rewarding sense of community service. She was never overtly political like her brothers. But her quiet determination to protect the library, which has now expanded with the collections of other well-known Myanmar authors, has ensured that the perspectives and alternative views of history that it enshrines are preserved for future generations.

As founders of the left-leaning Ludu newspaper, which first published in 1945, Ludu U Hla and his wife Ludu Daw Amar were harassed and imprisoned. (Kelly Macnamara)

This is for the nation. My parents collected books all their lives. They collected them all in their house in iron boxes. My father used to dry them in the sun once or twice a year so that they wouldn’t be eaten by insects or destroyed.

They both thought these collections of old newspapers from the early colonial period, as well as the whole collection, might be useful to the newer generation, so they could be used as references for history writers or people writing literature.

My father and my mother were workaholics. I never saw them sleeping on the bed or listening to music. When they were producing newspapers, they worked until very late in the night. My father slept only when the newspaper was printed at about four in the morning.

He wrote a book called “Lower Burma.” My mother published it when he died. The references were all from the old newspapers he collected. He also wrote a book about Burma during World War II and Burma after the war.

We are very lucky that the collection wasn’t destroyed by the fire that broke out in 1984, known as the U Kya Gyi fire. The fire wiped out almost one third of the city of Mandalay. It destroyed the press and the bookstores. Only our house was left untouched, as well as our books.

I am the oldest daughter, and I’m the only one of their children now involved with the library. My older brother went into exile and died in the jungle. My youngest brother was imprisoned in Yangon for almost 10 years. He could not bear to be arrested again so he fled. I saw him going down the back stairwell at home and tried to stop him. I thought if he escaped to the jungle like my older brother, I would never see him again. At least if he was imprisoned again, he could be released. I tried to drag him back, but my mother let him flee.

Than Yin Mar is overseeing a massive digitization project to preserve the Ludu journal and the library’s other rare books and documents. (Kelly Macnamara)

I have wondered whether I wasn’t actively involved in politics because I was a girl. I can’t say for certain. I was never as interested in politics as my parents and brothers were, perhaps because my studies required intense concentration. I guess I must also have felt fear and concern to have a similar life to theirs. As the eldest, I think I also felt I should be at home.

When I went to the medical university, women made up only about one-third of the class. At that time, and after I graduated and started working in Yangon and elsewhere, there were few well-known female doctors. There were mostly men in the top positions. But there were some women – like professor Myint Myint Khin who was my mentor and role model. She was also a prolific writer. I learned a lot from her.

Both my mother and Daw Myint Myint Khin grew up and entered the professional world as women in Myanmar. We never felt like men were lording over us. I don’t think there was the belief that men are better. These days there are even more women who are smarter and harder-working.

This library is the most precious thing for our family and for our nation. Although it’s now the age of the internet and people are used to reading from the e-libraries, in Myanmar they still read books. I love the fact we have a new generation of people interested in books. With books, they can make their dreams come true.

A version of this story originally appeared on The Kite Tales.

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