Photo Exhibit Closes Early Amid Fears that Content ‘Too Sensitive’

By Nobel Zaw 27 April 2015

RANGOON — An exhibition of photographs documenting recent student protests was prematurely shuttered after the building owner expressed concern that the material was too politically sensitive.

The show, titled “Documenting Burma’s Long March,” featured the work of five local photographers who followed student activists on a 300-plus mile education reform march that came to a violent end last month.

Originally set to be open at Rangoon’s Thing Art Gallery from April 25 to 27, doors were closed on Sunday after police visits triggered “worry” among the building’s management, according to one of the featured photographers, who was also a key organizer.

“The owner of the building said he doesn’t want to be associated with politics, and he worried about the exhibition so he asked us to stop it,” said JPaing, a photojournalist working for The Irrawaddy.

He said that on the opening day of the exhibition, a police officer came to the gallery and asked an attendant to move two images depicting police brutality to poorly lit corners where they would be difficult to see.

The offending images were taken during the violent dispersal of two protests; one in Rangoon and one in Letpadan, Pegu Division. Images of the latter incident flooded the media in the days that followed, revealing what appeared to be excessive and indiscriminate violence used by authorities against students, onlookers, monks and journalists alike.

The manager of Think Gallery, Aye Sang, told The Irrawaddy that the building is owned by his older brother, who asked him to halt the exhibition once he realized that it had been widely publicized. About 400 visitors came to view the show’s 37 images over the first two days.

“This hasn’t happened with other shows,” Aye Sang said, “but this is a sensitive issue so all of my relatives were worried and asked us to stop.”

Aye Sang said that he was not pressured by authorities, but decided to terminate the show to allay his family’s concerns, though the gallery was visited several times by men he believed to be Special Branch officers. While Aye Sang did not wish to elaborate on the visits, he told The Irrawaddy that the men asked him many questions and he supplied them with satisfactory answers.

Images featured in the show were shot by The Irrawaddy photojournalists JPaing, Sai Zaw, Hein Htet and Teza Hlaing, and one photojournalist from The People’s Age weekly journal, La Min Tun.

The photos capture the highs and lows of a protest that at turns featured jubilant chanting and tense confrontations with local authorities, right up through the brutal crackdown in Letpadan, Pegu Division, that effectively sent the movement underground.

Student activists on Jan. 20 began their march from Mandalay to Rangoon, but the protest came up against a police blockade in Letpadan in early March, with authorities refusing to allow them to proceed to the commercial capital. The standoff ended violently on March 10, when baton-wielding police dispersed the students and detained more than 120 people.

Seventy students remain in police custody facing trial, and 11 of their supporters are also facing charges but have been released on bail.