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Burmese poet, Uighur historian to receive 2002 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards

(PEN/IFEX) - The following is a PEN American Center press release:

Burmese Poet, Uighur Historian to Receive 2002 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards

New York, New York, April 11, 2002 - PEN American Center today named Aung Myint, a Burmese poet serving a 21-year prison term for distributing a press release to foreign diplomats and press, and Tohti Tunyaz, an ethnic Uighur historian and writer condemned to 11 years in prison for researching his people's history in the People's Republic of China, as recipients of its 2002 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards. The awards, which honor international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression, will be presented at PEN's Annual Gala on April 24, 2002 at the Pierre Hotel in New York City.

Distinguished writer, historian, and PEN member Barbara Goldsmith underwrites the two awards at $20,000 per year. Candidates are nominated by International PEN and any of its 129 constituent PEN Centers around the world and screened by PEN American Center and an Advisory Board comprised of some of the most distinguished experts in the field. The Advisory Board for the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards includes Carroll Bogert, Communications Director of Human Rights Watch; Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists; Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation; Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Vice President of International PEN; and Aryeh Neier, President of the Open Society Institute.

On September 14, 2000, poet Aung Myint and his assistant Kyaw Sein Oo were arrested by members of Myanmar's Military Intelligence Service for distributing information about persecution of National League for Democracy figures to international press agencies and Western diplomats based in Rangoon. The charges specifically related to a press release he and his assistant issued a few hours after NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested by security forces as she was trying to leave the city in September 2000. Mr. Aung was charged with violating the State Protection and Emergency Provision Acts and on December 20, 2000 was sentenced by a military court to 21 years' imprisonment. His assistant was tried separately under the Printers and Publishers Registration Act and sentenced to seven years in prison.

A leading representative of the so-called Second Line poets - the second generation of poets following Burmese independence - Aung Myint is known for poems illuminating the daily lives of the people. In the 1980s he worked as a civil servant and contributed articles and poems for the official newspaper Botahtaung, the now-banned magazine Pay-ful-lwa (The Message), and Cherry, where he served as assistant editor beginning in 1988. He was also active in the NLD, and in 1997 was jailed for two years for his work as the party's head in Bahan Township. Myanmar authorities fired him from his position at Cherry and prohibited him from returning to his post when he was released, reportedly banning his name from all Burmese publications. He was working as an information officer at NLD headquarters in Rangoon, where he was in charge of literary postings, at the time of his arrest in 2000. He is married to a successful fiction writer and has a daughter who is also a well-known writer and actress. Mr. Aung is serving his 21-year sentence in Insein prison and is scheduled to be released on September 13, 2021.

On February 6, 1998, historian and writer Tohti Tunyaz was arrested a few weeks into a research trip to Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in northwest China. Mr. Tunyaz, an ethnic Uighur who grew up in the region, was studying for a Ph.D at Tokyo University's School of Humanities at the time, specializing in the history of China's policy toward minorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. His only proven "crime" appears to be copying part of a 50-year-old document obtained for him by an official librarian.

On November 10, 1998, Chinese authorities charged Mr. Tunyaz with "stealing state secrets for foreign persons" and "inciting national disunity," the latter charge allegedly for publishing a book in Japan in 1998 entitled The Inside Story of the Silk Road. According to the Chinese government the book advocates ethnic separation; scholars in Japan, however, insist no such book exists. He was convicted by the Urumqi Intermediate People's Court on March 10, 1999, and following an appeal, was sentenced by China's Supreme Court on February 15, 2000 to 11 years in prison with an additional two years' deprivation of political rights.

Mr. Tunyaz is from Bay County, Aksu Prefecture, in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. He graduated from the history department of the Central Institute of Nationalities in Beijing in 1984 and was assigned prestigious work for the China National Standing Committee. Adopting the name of Bay County's largest river, 'Muzart,' as his pseudonym, he has published several papers on Uighur history under the name Tohti Muzart in Japan as well as a book in Beijing. Mr. Tunyaz's wife and children reside in Japan, having remained there when he traveled to Xinjiang to carry out his research. He is serving his sentence in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Prison Number Three in the provincial capital of Urumqi. Mr. Tunyaz has reportedly exhausted his appeals, and so is due for release on March 31, 2009.

"The shockingly long sentences imposed on Aung Myint by the military regime in Myanmar and on Tohti Tunyaz by Chinese authorities are grim reminders of how dangerous it can be to perform the most basic work of being a writer: seeking, receiving, and imparting information," PEN American Center Executive Director Michael Roberts said in announcing the awards. "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly guarantees the right of all people everywhere to do exactly that, and so in recognizing Mr. Aung and Mr. Tunyaz, we wish to call attention to two especially flagrant violations of an essential human right."

"At the same time," Roberts added, "in a year where Americans have become even more acutely aware of the importance of protecting and promoting a free flow of information, this year's PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Awards honor the heroism of many of our colleagues around the world who defy the censors, often at great personal cost, to bring critical truths into the light."

This is the 16th year that the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards have honored international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. The awards are an extension of PEN's year-round advocacy on behalf of the more than 700 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Thirty-one women and men have received the award since 1987; 21 of the 23 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released. Three recipients of PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards gained their freedom in 2001: 1993 recipient Nizar Nayouf, writer and human rights activist, was released from prison in Syria in May; writer and journalist Daw San San Nwe, who received the award in 1995, was released from prison in Myanmar in July; as was Chinese poet and editor Xue Deyun, a 2000 recipient of the prize.

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