Burmese Shadows - a glimpse behind the Bamboo Curtain

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ONE of the first things that strikes you as you work your way through photojournalist Thierry Falise’s new book of images – apart, of course, from the stunning photographs themselves – is the amount of dedication and effort involved.

For 25 years now, the Bangkok-based, Belgian journalist has been writing about and photographing the struggles of the people of Burma for dignity and democracy in the face of crushing opposition. He has travelled across the breadth and width of the nation and to its many borders to meet all sorts of people and to hear their stories.

The images contained in his new work ‘Burmese Shadows: 25 years reporting life behind the Bamboo Curtain’, are bewilderingly diverse. He has spent time with rebel fighters from the United Wa State Army, hung out with rock stars in Rangoon and watched Karen villagers planting rice during the monsoon rains.

It seems he has always been at hand when news is breaking. He was present in 1996 when a young Aung San Suu Kyi delivered a public lecture from the gates of her Rangoon house, he was there 11 years later when thousands of Buddhist monks and civilians marched through the streets of Rangoon and other cities during the September 2007 Saffron Revolution and was somehow back again, just eight months after that, during the devastation of Cyclone Nargis.

His ubiquitous presence is explained by a footnote in which he apologies to both his mother and his wife for his repeated and lengthy reporting trips. Indeed, in another entry he reveals that almost every year since 2000 he has made at least one month-long trip into the country with the Free Burma Rangers – so-called volunteer “commando medics” who slip into the country to provide medical care in the most hostile places. This collection of memorable images is reward for such efforts.

And yet not all of Falise’s images are of conflict and misery. Many of the most striking are scenes of every day life – of monks queuing for alms, of Buddhist statues in the jungle and of frenetic football matches. One memorable set of photographs contained in his book, published by McNidder and Grace, documents the shamen and mediums of the Taungybone spirit festival in Mandalay.

“[This book] strives to show the complexity of Burma’s history, at least during the 25 years that I have been reporting on the country,” Falise writes in the foreword. “To serve as reminder of recent turbulence and human rights abuses, but also to bring light to the diversity, beauty and life that can be easily found there.”

By email I had the following Q&A with Falise about his work covering Burma and the recent changes the country has experienced.

Q. You have been working on Burma for more than 25 years. How did you first become involved?

A. I first went in Burma in 1987 to cover the Karen resistance (from the Thai border). I was working in Paris as a staff writer with the French language department of Associated Press and I decided to travel in Asia on my holiday as a free-lance photographer and writer. At that time there was a sort of generation of young local reporters who were covering the Karen conflict. In 1991, after I went back a few times to Burma, but also in other south east Asian countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand. I resigned from AP to settle in Bangkok as a free-lance photojournalist (and later book writer).

Q. The issue of Burma has been in the news a lot in the last couple of years, but was it always as easy to get people interested in the issue?

A. Yes and no. Apart from major events such as the popular uprisings in 1988 and 2007 or developments linked to Aung San Suu Kyi’s fate, hot news has been pretty rare these last twenty years. On the other hand, I have always favoured covering feature stories to hot news (because it has become almost impossible to compete with established agencies and I also prefer to spend time on my own rather than covering a story with dozens of colleagues) and in Burma I have so far always managed to dig out such stories.

Until a few years ago it was also a time when periodicals were still abundant and with financial means! For instance, I published quite a lot about the tragic stories of the IDP (Internally Displaced People) in Burma’s ethnic territories in women’s magazines (through the angle of women nurses working for a relief group). In the 1990s, there were also very powerful and exclusive stories on the narcotics’ trade (in the infamous Golden Triangle) or about the “God’s Army”, a small armed Karen splinter group made up of children and teenagers and commanded by nine-year-old twins Johnny and Luther Htoo.

Q. You have returned to Burma a couple of times since the release of Ms Suu Kyi at the end of 2010. What has struck you the most about the changes?

A. To me the most striking change lies in people’s minds; there seems to be no fear any more. People now feel free to express themselves openly, with enthusiasm and defiance. After almost half a century of military regimes founded on fear, denunciation and distrust, this dramatic evolution seems to me irreversible. If, in the worst case scenario, the military tries to regain total power, for instance, I think that the people will be ready to go down in the street and resist to the death (like in 1988 but unlike in September 2007).

Q. What issues do you think get overlooked as people talk about the democratic changes that are taking place?

A. Although I agree that the country is now on the “right track” to some sort of liberalisation – let alone democratisation – I don’t share the over-optimistic view taken by some Western institutions and observers who believe that the worst is over. The remaining task (before a majority of people enjoy the fruit of the current opening and positive developments) is huge and will probably take a long time.

I see a few important issues. For now, life has not changed yet for the bulk of the population (70% or so) who live in rural areas. The risk – as it’s commonly observed in the history - is a “two-tier” development for the urban population’s benefit but at the expense of the rural population.

The complex and crucial ethnic issue is far from being solved. Even though the government has taken positive steps by signing cease-fire agreements (I would rather say “cessation of hostilities”) with a few ethnic armed groups, the situation remains very fragile. The everlasting stumbling block between the government who advocates that economic development will ultimately bring peace and the ethnic groups who want as a priority a political agreement based on the establishment of a federal system (where they would get more control over their natural resources, traditions, etc) remains solid.

This issue also raises the role of the army and the influence of the president upon this army. As agreements were signed with the Karen, the Karenni, the Shan and other ethnic groups, in June 2011 a 17-year-old cease-fire with the Kachin (an ethnic group in the north of the country along the Chinese border) was shattered, triggering  the resumption of a nasty war with its catalogue of murder, rape, forced labour and civilian displacement. This war is currently going on even though the president is said to have “ordered” the army to stop fighting.

Another ethnic issue (although very different than the others) is the conflict in the Rakhine state (western Burma) between the Rohingya, a Muslim population of 800,000 people or so living there for generations and who since 1982 have been considered a stateless population, and the Buddhist Rakhine who form the majority. I believe that for the Burmese (and particularly the Burman ethnic) population, it epitomises the fundamental quest for their country’s identity.

For decades Burman ethnic people have been brainwashed by xenophobic military regimes who told them that, along with Buddhism, they ARE the essence, the only and true nature of the country. Now that in this new era of opening and transparency, old issues such as the Rohingya are reopening, people feel threatened in their own identity. Recently in Yangon, a Burmese friend of mine, a young and well educated businessman, was telling me that “you (Westerner) have to understand that we (Burman) are genetically Buddhist”.

It was difficult to argue with him that there is no such a thing as a “Buddhist gene”. Now we see Buddhist monks (probably the same who heroically demonstrated for democracy in 2007) marching in towns to demand that the Muslim Rohingya be thrown out of the country. We see self-appointed historians and academics coming back from exile to be welcomed as heroes while they are screaming hatred and fascist, anti-Muslim slogans undeserving of civilised people. This is very sad and worrisome and could actually endanger the whole process of national reconciliation.

Q. What do you think is going to happen over the next few years? Will there be a transformation to a genuine democracy?

A.Well, as no so-called expert or pundit has ever predicted the major developments which have occurred in Burma, I will certainly not commit myself to such predictions, I leave this to the astrologers ! If we observe other countries in south east Asia which have reached a certain level of economic development, we have to acknowledge that hardly any of them has reached a “genuine democracy”. This should remain as an ultimate ideal but we also should not claim for Burma more than we accept for countries such as Thailand, Indonesia or the Philippines.

Q. Who deserves the credit for the changes that have taken place?

I won’t be very original by saying that the moment the situation shifted from stagnation to change was the first official meeting between Aung San Suu Kyi and president Thein Sein in August 2011. I guess that other personalities within the new regime seriously realised that the country could not keep on evolving as a world’s pariah state but also as a “23d province of China”.

Now we have to remain realistic and keep in mind that what is happening now is first and foremost the implementation of the seventh (and last) step of a “roadmap to disciplined democracy” launched in 2003 by the junta. The positive thing is that this latest step in its definition was wide open to interpretation and implementation. So far I think that the country’s new regime have adopted a rather positive interpretation of this step.

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