Book Review—Emerging from the Shadows, Book Reveals Burma's Painful Past

Saw Yan Naing The Irrawaddy

“Burmese Shadows,” a book by veteran Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise that was first released in September, will soon be available in Burma, giving the country’s people a chance to see images that not so long ago would have been banned.

Spending more than 25 years covering Burma, Falise has traveled from big cities to war-torn ethnic states, meeting everyone from powerful political and military figures to ordinary people and rank-and-file rebels, witnessing and photographing human rights abuses across the country.

Sitting in a cozy cafe near Bogyoke Aung San Market in the heart of Rangoon earlier this month, Falise said that until very recently, he didn’t think he would ever see the day when people in Burma could openly discuss politics or sell t-shirts with images of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her father Gen Aung San.

Now all of that is commonplace, making it less surprising—yet still significant—that his own photographs are no longer hidden from public view in the country where they were taken.

“The fact that the book has been accepted by the Myanmar censors is of course a very good sign. This would have been impossible less than two years ago,” said Falise, adding that he didn’t know exactly when his book would be distributed in Burma, but that he’d heard Monument Books in Rangoon recently placed an order and planned to put it on sale soon.

With its striking, high-quality photographs and short but highly informative essays that put the images into context, “Burmese Shadows” is a compelling testament to Burma’s complex and often tragic past—a past that is still very much part of the present.

“I believe that the censorship board has been clever enough to realize that my book is more a reminder of the country’s recent history, a history which is not over yet in many respects. My hope is that it will become more and more difficult or impossible to take pictures showing these sad realities,” said Falise.

While hardly the sort of book to appeal to the average tourist, “Burmese Shadows” also captures much of the country’s beauty, often expressed through its spiritual traditions or in the simple way of life of its people.

But it is the harsher facts of life in Southeast Asia’s poorest and most conflict-ridden country that stand out in Falise’s book. After decades of war and oppression, suffering is never far from the surface of the scenes he depicts.

Since 1987, when he first started covering Burma, Falise has witnessed many dramatic events, including the brutal crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution. On occasion, he has even risked his own life to travel to ethnic conflict zones, where government troops are under orders to shoot on sight. He has seen the drug trade in full swing in the Wa region of Shan State, photographed warlords and child soldiers, and documented the lives of internally displaced persons and refugees.

Now, after a quarter of a century, Falise said he believes Burma is finally on the right track, but still faces many challenges on the road ahead. The greatest, he said, will be reaching a settlement to end the ethnic armed conflicts that have plagued the country since it achieved independence in 1948.

“Look at the ethnic conflicts—the government has undertaken ceasefire efforts with ethnic groups, but they are still far from achieving a genuine and stable peace agreement. And at the same time, the conflict in Kachin State has resumed,” said Falise.

“I think that the ethnic issue, which is very complex and which consequently does not interest the West so much, has to be resolved as a priority because it concerns many people—their traditions, their culture and their natural resources,” he added.

While the way forward is still far from clear, however, Falise believes that there is now no turning back. If the military stages a coup, it will only provoke another revolution. And this time, he says, the people of Burma will be ready to fight to the finish, unlike in 1988 and 2007, when the army ruthlessly crushed mass uprisings.

But even if he believes that the people of Burma will ultimately prevail, he has no illusions that the journey to genuine democracy will be a difficult one. “Nobody with common sense can expect that half a century of mismanagement by a military dictatorship can be swept away overnight,” he said.