Nic Dunlop’s book is not only an intimate portrait of Burma in photographs and words. It’s an entire, twenty year long journey in search of understanding the mechanisms allowing a contemporary dictatorship rise, last, and fall.
Photographs and text by Nic Dunlop
In early 2012, I sat in a teashop in Rangoon awaiting a bus that would take me to the new capital of Nay Pyi Daw. It was the first time I had been back to Burma since political reform had begun the year before. I was staring at a series of calendar photographs that showed a beaming Aung San Suu Kyi prominently displayed on the wall. No one was paying much attention. It seemed so normal and yet, just two years before, the owners of the teashop would have been arrested for displaying these images. I was having trouble remembering what it was like back then and how fearful people had been.
My introduction to Burma, exactly 20 years before, seemed a distant memory of another world. In 1992, I visited refugee encampments along the Thai-Burma border. Unlike other camps I had been to, there were no barbed wire perimeter fences, no checkpoints, no fleets of Landcruisers belonging to aid agencies. They appeared more like large villages than refugee camps. Set against the mist-covered mountains of the frontier, they looked almost idyllic. It was only in the clinics of the camps that the reality penetrated this image. There I found victims of Burma’s regime. People stared silently through their malarial haze as I took photographs. One mother told me how she and her husband had narrowly escaped marauding Burmese troops who had burnt down their village. The mother spoke mechanically of their escape, as though it had happened to someone else.
At that time, I understood little of Burma’s crisis. I knew the country was ruled by a military dictatorship, that widespread protests had been crushed by the army and that there was an ongoing civil war. I had heard of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for her stand against the dictatorship, but that was the extent of my knowledge. At the border, I listened to the fiery rhetoric of Western activists, feeling out of my depth. They described a situation polarised between the military on the one hand and Aung San Suu Kyi on the other. With the right pressure, I was told, the regime would collapse and Aung San Suu Kyi would take her rightful position as the country’s leader.
And this was the Burma we came to know: a brutal military dictatorship and an oppressed people; victims and perpetrators; good and evil. After some time, I realised that we in the West had imposed our own simplistic narrative on Burma’s crisis. The reality was far more complex and far more compelling.
When I first went to Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi had just been released from her first term under house arrest. Tourism and foreign investment were being encouraged and hotels were appearing. The regime had begun to clean up its image in preparation for what it hoped would be a flood of tourists. With Suu Kyi’s release, the world’s media descended on the city. At the time, I remember her saying it would be a pity if Burma were to slip from the world’s headlines again. Magazines and newspapers can only cover something if it is accessible or dramatic. What they are unable to cover is a routine reality. A slim corridor of the country was open to outsiders, but large swathes remained off limits. Those journalists who were invited were restricted by their visas, making it difficult to cover Burma as a story. Frustrated by the limitations of the media, I set out to describe the ongoing oppression. I knew this would take time. Over the next 20 years, I made countless trips inside the country and along its various borders.
Photography, for me, has always been a way to learn first hand. I wanted to get images of a modern dictatorship that would brand themselves onto the imagination. When I started out, I had no idea just how difficult that would be.
It was possible to visit Burma as a tourist and never know the country was controlled by a military dictatorship. Apart from crude propaganda billboards, life appeared normal – and even these signposts looked quaint, like something from a bygone era. Gradually, I began to perceive the impact of the regime on those around me. The people I met were friendly but holding back, unsure if it was safe to talk to a foreigner, fearful of spies.
References to politics were oblique and momentary. When I did catch glimpses of the regime at work, they were usually fleeting: the outline of a pair of handcuffs in a man’s longyi (sarong), a member of Military Intelligence filming the crowd outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s home, an unobtrusive arrest on a street corner.
The dictatorship was so deeply entrenched, I realised, that there was no need for soldiers on the streets. This left me in a quandary; how do you photograph a paranoid conversation on a Rangoon street corner?
After years of travelling to Burma, I became increasingly frustrated by what was missing from my photographs. Because of the fear that governed so much of life in the country, it was difficult to achieve a degree of intimacy with people without putting them in danger. The military was clearly feared and despised, but it was not clear what underpinned the power of the generals.
For ordinary people, the reality of life had long been a mixture of coercion and collusion. The power of the military was not merely the control of a totalitarian state imposed on a suffering people; it was a response to internal conflicts dating back to the Second World War and, before that, to decades of British occupation.
Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse societies in the world, with more than 130 distinct races. It is also home to the world’s longest-running civil war, with a patchwork of ethnic insurgents battling the regime. This conflict began long before the military took over. To the outside world, the civil war appeared remote and obscure compared to the more compelling stand-off between Suu Kyi and the generals. But what linked them was the military.
By the mid 1990s, Aung San Suu Kyi had become the face of Burma’s quest for human and democratic rights. Most photographs showed a glamorous woman smiling off the years of isolation. With the portrait I took, I wanted to “say” something about who she was, what she represented and the difficulties she faced – to complicate her image with psychological reality. To my surprise, I found it being brandished by activists in protests around the world. Whatever my pretentions, Suu Kyi’s face had become a global icon. But support for Aung San Suu Kyi is not universal. Some insurgents I met pointed out that her father, General Aung San – an ethnic Burman – was founder of the army they had spent decades fighting.
Burma has now entered a new chapter in its history. After years of political stagnation and isolation, a nominally civilian government has begun a programme of reform. But the changes that have begun to take place in Burma are not irreversible. Military rule could still be re-imposed and, as long as there is ethnic tension and violence, the reform process remains tenuous. Although much has changed inside the country, much remains the same.
Photography is, in large part, about projection. We see the things we want to see, irrespective of more complex realities.
In my portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, she can be seen as strong, courageous and principled. That was my intention. She has been compared to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, whose philosophy of nonviolence she has espoused. But photography is an inherently ambivalent medium. Her portrait may also reflect other characteristics: stubbornness and self-righteousness, for example.
In my book I set out to describe life in a country under dictatorship. The Scorched Earth chapter deals with the civil war and the persecution of ethnic minorities, which run central to Burma’s crisis; The Invisible Dictatorship takes the reader on a journey into life under a repressive regime; and The Burmese Gulag provides a glimpse into the world of political prisoners, torture and forced labour. But perhaps the most ambiguous portrayal is The Enemy Within, a profile of the Burmese army – the Tatmadaw – which has dominated life since 1962. The monolithic image we may have of a united and brutal force breaks down to reveal, not monsters, but ordinary men and boys: the rank and file of the army. And then there are those who have fled. Freedom from Fear describes the lives of Burmese men and women who have sought a better life in neighbouring countries – often to be confronted with other perils. The final chapter, Brave New Burma, describes the situation as Burma gradually moves away from direct military rule.
Looking back over my photographs, I realise I had long been obsessed with images that contained a narrative, preoccupied with what they might “say”. When I took portraits of individual people, however, the process was almost unconscious: a simple response to those around me.
At the time, I held little store by these. Now, it is less the pictures of forced labour or the military that I turn to, than the faces of ordinary people: from the streets of Rangoon to the fields of upper Burma, from the refugee camps in Bangladesh to insurgent armies in the jungles. For me, these portraits represent the antithesis of the national conformity that the regime has tried to impose. They refuse categorisation and, if they tell any story at all, it is simply that of Burma’s extraordinary diversity. The portrayal of Burma’s crisis as a stand-off between Aung San Suu Kyi and the generals is not incorrect, just simplistic. It is a starting point, one that, with a closer look, opens up into a more nuanced, more difficult, but also, perhaps, more rewarding picture.
Brave New Burma has been published as clothbound hardback book by Dewi Lewis and is available on sale.
Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based photographer represented by Panos Pictures and a renowned author. His work has appeared in numerous international publications, including The New York Times, Newsweek and The Guardian. He also worked for Greenpeace International and UNICEF. In 1999, he received an award from the John Hopkins University for Excellence in International Journalism for exposing the head of the Khmer Rouge secret police and commandant of the infamous S-21 prison, comrade Duch, what was described in his famous book, The Lost Executioner. Nic also co-wrote and co-directed Burma Soldier, an HBO film which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the United Nations Association Film Festival in 2011 and nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing the following year.
You can book an individual photojournalism course with Nic here.
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