For almost six weeks in a row, two debut novels in the Myanmar language were featured in the top-ten list of the nation’s biggest and most prestigious bookstore. The pair share many similarities—the authors, Min Ko Naing and Mya Aye, are prominent leaders of the 88 Generation Students civil society group who were recently released after many years as political prisoners. Indeed, until early 2012, their novels would not have passed the former regime’s strict censorship criteria.

“Rear Mirror” reflects on the tribulations a student activist goes through during 1988—fear felt by the families of student activists for their safety; being constantly on the lookout while hiding in a faraway place; warm support from villagers; and being somewhat frustrated at not being amidst the action.

The main characters of “Clouds in the Sky” are a mysterious young man, who lives alone in a poor suburban neighborhood and helps the lives of surrounding people, and a beautiful doctor. Other characters are chosen to representing the poor and downtrodden in Myanmar—a trishaw driver who resorts to robbery to pay for his sick child’s operation, a lost and alcoholic old man, and a young girl who becomes a prostitute to support her brother and gambling-addicted mother.

In November 2009, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) published “Rear Mirror” to commemorate Min Ko Naing’s birthday. He was in prison at the time and his novel was not allowed to be printed or distributed inside Myanmar.

Min Ko Naing and Mya Aye have been released and their bestselling books can be bought legally inside the country. Thus, the success of these two debut novels should be considered not only for their pure literary worth, of which there is plenty, but also for a subtle indicator of wider change in Myanmar.

2012.12.29 The Irrawaddy