Brave, Yes, but ‘New’?

By Andrew D. Kaspar 15 July 2013

It was in witnessing the sorry state of camps for Myanmar refugees along the Thai border in 1992 that Nic Dunlop’s curiosity was first piqued. A few years later, when The Guardian newspaper sent him to Yangon on assignment, the Irish photographer realized that Myanmar’s complex story was not easily told within the constraints of deadlines and word counts.

So began a 20-year attempt to “show what a modern, mature military dictatorship actually looked like” through the lens, in a country notorious for its secrecy and isolationism. As reforms continue to change the nation he spent two decades photographing, Mr. Dunlop has released a book, “Brave New Burma,” that he hopes will provide greater insight into Southeast Asian’s most enigmatic country.

The resulting 200-page chronicle offers readers black-and-white analog photos and accompanying text. The writing, provided in six chapters that address various aspects of life in Myanmar over the last two decades, is a well-struck balance of basic background for Myanmar novices and anecdotal nuance that even long-time watchers of the country will likely find interesting. The pictures give the sense Dunlop sought to evoke—imagery imbued with a timeless melancholy.

“More than anything, I wanted to avoid the trap of taking pretty pictures in a very beautiful country and wanted to focus instead on the stark reality,” Mr. Dunlop told The Irrawaddy, referring to his decision to eschew color photography. “I thought black and white was much more suited to convey that kind of atmosphere.”

From the streets of Yangon to the mountain outposts of the Shan State Army, the country Mr. Dunlop pieces together is clearly a complex one. Myanmar’s ethnic civil war, the repressive military and the lives of Myanmar refugees in neighboring nations are all given attention as the photographer tries to turn 20 years’ worth of film rolls into a story of Myanmar under the junta.

The task pushed Mr. Dunlop to his professional limit.

“Of course, the whole idea of arriving in [Yangon] and seeing nothing that spoke of oppression in an obvious way—there were no soldiers on the streets, there were no coils of razor wire or checkpoints, none of that—presented me with a unique problem. And so I thought, this is beyond photography. How do you do this?”

In “Brave New Burma,” his effort comes down to about 115 photographs, including several double-page spreads.

Mr. Dunlop admitted that the military regime’s penchant for secrecy and its restrictions on access to several of the country’s conflict-ravaged regions were at times a challenge, but not always.

“Although it was difficult to get some images, it was remarkably easy to get others,” the Bangkok-based photographer said. “For example, forced labor is something that occurs today throughout Burma [Myanmar], particularly in ethnic areas. In Shan State, I remember going out to look for forced labor, and it wasn’t a question of finding it, it was a question of which village’s turn it was to provide forced labor next.”

And considering the fear-based tactics that the junta for decades employed to stifle dissent, the country’s people proved unexpectedly helpful.

“The thing that surprised me was the lengths that they would go to put themselves at risk to give you access to something that they felt was wrong, such as forced labor,” Mr. Dunlop said. “They were extraordinarily brave.

“I generally worked alone because I didn’t want Burmese to get into trouble. I knew that the worst that would happen to me is I’d be bundled up on a plane back to Bangkok. For the Burmese, of course, it’s a very different situation where they could be arrested, they could be tortured, they could be incarcerated for years.”

If there is one gripe with the book to be had, it’s that the “new” in “Brave New Burma” gets short shrift, though Dunlop makes clear that it was the former military regime that he set out to document. In a brief concluding chapter on the changes of the last two years, it’s apparent that he is a skeptic amid continuing praise from many corners for the reforms of President U Thein Sein.

“Thein Sein was a member of a regime that was lumped in with North Korea as an ‘outpost of tyranny’ a few years ago, and you get dizzy seeing the changes that have taken place and what it all means,” Mr. Dunlop told The Irrawaddy.

“The danger of releasing a book like this at this time is that you might give the false impression that things are much better. Things have changed and things have improved in certain areas, but in other areas they remain the same and in other areas they’ve gotten a great deal worse. So it’s a very mixed message in terms of what this current time means.”

“Brave New Burma” will be launched at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok on July 30.

This story first appeared in the July 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.