Bagan Book House owner U Htay Aung has watched Myanmar evolve over the past decade, after Aung San Suu Kyi was released from political imprisonment and went on to win the presidential election in November 2015. A more open government has enabled Aung to put some formerly banned books back on the shelves. He tells Kate Springer about running the shop, controversial books, and his all-time favorite reads.
How long have you been running Bagan Book House?
My dad started the book store in 1976 when I was about 16 years old. It was his hobby at first and I grew up with the store a big part of our lives. My father passed away in 2005 and so I inherited the shop. It’s our 40th anniversary this year.
I was born across the river in a more countryside town, but my father had asthma so we moved downtown in 1973 and he opened the book store three years later.
How have you amassed such a comprehensive collection?
Sometimes when people die, we inherit their books, and other times I go around hunting for good books. There are all these roadside stalls, even outside on this street, where people have books and don’t know how special they are. I have found some rare books that I’ve bought and brought back to my shop. We have so many books — on culture, history, politics, pleasure reading. We have it all.
Which types of books sell the best?
I really like to collect history and culture books about Burma. We actually see a lot of foreign people coming here to learn more about the country. More foreign people than local people, actually. More people are studying here and education is getting better. Of course the new generation is obsessed with the internet. They are always on the phone, swiping, and staring. That’s not good. But I think this is a problem everywhere.
How has the country changed in the past few years, since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release?
Things have changed here so much. Before, a lot of books were sold under the table, but now we don’t have to worry about that. Now we have a lot more transparency in the country. The government changed and there’s more openness.
We can travel around more, and so can tourists. Aung San Suu Kyi is good for our country. We have much more freedom and we can read and sell these books in the open. These books [points towards a rack of books about Aung San Suu Kyi] used to be banned.
This one [picks up Twilight over Burma] is probably the most controversial. It’s a true story and an amazing story about Inge Sargent, an Austrian woman who ruled the [autonomous] Shan state with her husband [prince Sao Kya Seng] until the violent military coup [in 1962]. Now she lives in the United States.
Have any favorite books you keep going back to?
My favorite books are policy, history and government. However, I love to read travel and fiction books like Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, and the The Old Man and the Sea. I read these classics again and again and again.
Visit Bagan Book House: 100 37th Street, Kyauktada, Yangon, (+95) 1-377-227.