Is this the era of "Brave New Burma"?

by Thomson Reuters Foundation | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 8 August 2013 12:37 GMT

A photo from the book depicting Aung San Suu Kyi holding a meeting at her Rangoon home with her party's executive committee, while military intelligence scrutinise those entering and leaving the building. Photos of her famous father hang on the walls.

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Photojournalist Nic Dunlop is interviewed about how and why he turned his 20 years of reportage in various parts of Burma into a black and white photo book of the beautiful and complex country

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Three years ago, after half a century of brutal military rule, Myanmar held its first election in 20 years. It was widely condemned as a sham.

Now, the impoverished Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma has made the leap, unimaginable a few years ago, from pariah nation to everyone’s darling.

It’s a rare success story. Or is it?

In his book Brave New Burma, Nic Dunlop, a photojournalist who has been documenting Myanmar for the past 20 years, depicts the complex nature of Myanmar’s troubles and cautions against forgetting the past.

The brooding black and white pictures throw light on the lack of basic human rights, the long-running civil wars, the much-feared army and the diversity of people that make up Myanmar but that it seems unable to appreciate.

On Thursday, the 25th anniversary of the 1988 student uprising in Myanmar, Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to the author.

Q: What were you hoping to achieve with this book?

A:  First, I set out to do a portrait of Burma under military rule to show what it looks like, because I didn't know what it looked like. The other thing was of photography and the limitations of photography as a medium.

In the absence of soldiers everywhere you think everything is fairly normal. You could visit Burma as a tourist and think nothing was amiss, but just scrape the surface a bit and you have these strange encounters, people speaking in riddles and this sense of fear.

To get certain things like the civil war (with the ethnic minorities) included was also central, that's why you have those portraits at the beginning. They speak of diversity. That's the thing that hits an outsider who first arrives in Rangoon - an extraordinary array of different looking people and how exciting that is.

I've also tried to talk about the military because that … remains the biggest unknown in Burma to me. So it's a quest for understanding.

Q: You said you wanted a more complex, nuanced look at the country.

A: A Nigerian novelist called Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk about the danger of the single story, where you reduce everything to a one-dimensional version of an event or people or identity.

For example, the Burmese military is evil, Suu Kyi is a saint, the students are courageous. She was saying that the thing about these stereotypes is not that they're wrong but they're incomplete. 

With Burma, there was a lot of self-serving, righteous posturing on the part of  Western governments. Now that's falling away. Why? The power relationships have changed. So the people who are still talking about human rights, political prisoners, the Rohingya and civil war are sidelined.

I thought it went too far the other way before and now it's gone too far in the opposite direction.

Q: Why did you take only black & white photos?

A: Burma is a very beautiful country. I was looking at the darker side of Burma and I wanted to create a mood because my intent was to draw attention to another aspect of Burma which was the dictatorship, which to all intents and purposes wasn't visible.

Q: Why do you call it Brave New Burma?

A: Well you know Aldous Huxley's book Brave New World and the whole idea that we move into a new era but still, possibly, another form of dictatorship.

In Cambodia it was a one-party socialist dictatorship and within the space of a few years it became a one-party capitalist dictatorship, and I rather fear the same thing is happening in Burma right now.

Q: Some say the book focuses too much on the horrible past, not enough on the positive changes.

A: Well, my book is about the past. It's a salient lesson and a warning and I think that's important. I'm not there to be a cheerleader. I don't think journalists should ever be cheerleaders.

The big question is: are these reforms going to benefit the majority of people or are they simply shoring up an elite, enabling them to survive and continue doing what they've been doing in the past, but with a veneer of respectability.

I didn't spend a lot of time writing about the reforms because that wasn't what I was doing. Of course, it's a momentous change and a watershed in Burma's history.

I hope at least (the book) serves as a yardstick by which to measure whatever progress has been made. 

Q: Do you think you’re quite harsh about the positive changes ?

A: I suppose I'm being too judgmental too quickly because we're still in a very early period, but all the key markers for what I would consider to be real, genuine progress are still there.

As someone said, the civil war hasn't stopped, somebody just pressed pause. 

The other marker is release of political prisoners. We don't even know what constitutes a political prisoner in a place like Burma because there's no definition.

Before, we had an opposition, a fairly courageous and principled one. They've been totally usurped and they're now totally part of the establishment that persecuted them.

What is really good about now, is engaging in a Burma that is the complicated, fascinating and amazing place that it is, rather than a morality play. 

Q: You took one of the most iconic pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi. How do you think she's been doing? 

A: She's made that leap from being an icon and a very courageous dissident to becoming a politician, and the career of politician is one of compromise. But if you talk to ethnic minorities and other disenfranchised people who are not benefiting a great deal in this new era, they sound very disappointed with her.

For somebody who's actually built her platform largely on democracy and human rights to be so quiet in the face of such clear pogroms against Muslims and Rohingya and the civil war in particular, I can see why these people would be very disappointed. 

Q: Do you still believe the military is part of the solution? 

A: They have to be. They're the single biggest employer in the country.

 Before, the activists were describing the Burmese army as an army of occupation. In a way they were, but I think it's a misleading idea or perception that they somehow descended from Mars. They're a product of Burmese culture and history.

 Q: As someone who’s covered the ethnic issue quite extensively, do you think it’s been left behind in this reform process? 

A: Very much so … Ceasefires have been signed but they've been signed before. … If you start to address the underlying grievances like access to basic medical care and treating people with a degree of equality, you might see people are less likely to take up arms.

My advice (to the authorities) would be to travel these areas and talk to ordinary people. Try to get a sense of what life has been like and where those fears come from because now there's great potential to see genuine and sincere exchanges. 

Going back to the Nigerian author, she said the single story makes common humanity difficult. The Burmese feel uniquely humiliated by the Brits. The Karens will have another set of grievances too but refuse to acknowledge the others.

There needs to be an acknowledgment of "Yes, everyone's had a really shitty time but let's start from the point that we're both humans."

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