YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Poet Saw Wai parked himself on the lawn, unfurled a map of Myanmar with a blob of blood-red paint dripping down from a spot up north and invited people to make poetry with him.
"He's calling for more trouble," said a passerby.
What the message lacked in subtlety it made up for in brazenness. Government forces have been pounding ethnic rebels in Myanmar's northern Kachin state, displacing tens of thousands and testing the country's fast-growing friendship with the West. It's the sort of thing you couldn't really talk about here for 50 years.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- This story is the first installment in "Portraits of Change," a yearlong series by The Associated Press examining how the opening of Myanmar after decades of military rule is -- and is not -- changing life in the long-isolated Southeast Asian country.
Nearly two years into reformist President Thein Sein's term, the rush of hope and idealism that greeted many new freedoms -- most strikingly freedom of speech -- is turning into a measured assessment of the nation's progress. Long accustomed to writing around censorship, Myanmar's writers are relearning the habits of free thought and testing the boundaries of speech. But change has also brought questions about how licensing requirements and market capitalism will shape public debate and how speech should be regulated in a multiethnic and multireligious nation of Buddhists, Muslims and Christians.
Saw Wai, who served 28 months as a political prisoner, grinned as he handed out photocopies of his latest poems.
"I'm not afraid," he said. "I'm just a guinea pig, testing freedom of expression on behalf of the people."
Myanmar's censorship board, which shut in August, was officially rebranded the Copyrights and Registration Division at the end of January, just in time for Yangon's first international literary festival, where Saw Wai staged his poetry performance. The festival, which ended Sunday, brought together around 80 Myanmar authors -- including exiles and former political prisoners like opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi -- and international writers, like Jung Chang, whose best-selling "Wild Swans" recently became available in Burmese, though it is still banned in China. Myanmar is also known as Burma.
For decades Myanmar's books, like its people, were subjected to varying degrees of physical violence. First, there was the censor's red pen, which slashed across manuscript pages. Writers, bearing gifts of food, clothing and books pleaded with censors not to cut too deep. Authors also had to submit copies of their printed work before distribution. Pages that didn't conform to the government's edit were torn out, undesirable phrases blacked over.
It was an age of allegory. There were forbidden words: Poverty. Suicide. Kiss.
Fiction began to fill in for news. People turned to literary magazines, stuffed with topical short stories, because newspapers and television broadcast only government propaganda. Writers passed banned manuscripts among friends.
Saw Wai said he never let the censors into his head, writing exactly what he wanted to, even if it meant his work could not be distributed. That's changing. A new book of his poems, including some that were previously censored, came out in November.
No publisher has yet been brave enough to publish the poem that landed him in prison in 2008. That doesn't mean you can't read it. A poster of the poem, which includes an encrypted insult against Myanmar's former leader, hangs on the wall of his wife's restaurant in Yangon. It's also on his Facebook page.
Newly unmuzzled, many writers are eager simply to say what they see.
While Saw Wai calls his work "realism poetry," author Ma Thida describes her novels as "documentary fiction." In 2011, her book "The Roadmap," which opens with the 1988 uprising when the military brutally crushed popular protests, was published abroad. Though it was written in English and came out in Thailand, she was afraid to publish under her own name, choosing Suragamika ("Brave Traveler") instead.
She knew something had changed when her prison memoir was published in Myanmar a year later. "I didn't expect to get this book published in Burmese," she said.
While the new liberties have been good for Ma Thida's writing, the rush of competition has been terrible for the circulation of the four publications she helps oversee. The arrival of nongovernment news journals has also pulled people from her literary magazine, she said.
Today, some of the laws used to incarcerate Ma Thida, who was sentenced to 20 years for passing an opposition political journal to a friend, remain on the books.