A quick look at the social and economic profile of the country through key statistics collected between 2010 – 2016.
Images of a country under the junta
In 1996, I found myself on a train to Mon State in Burma. Our progress was glacial as the ancient carriages swayed and groaned along uneven tracks. Hours into the journey, while I gazed at the beauty of the landscape, the train came to a halt and I could hear the sound of clinking metal. I looked up and saw an enormous quarry, carved out of the hillside, surrounded by watch towers. Groups of men were working under the nonchalant gaze of guards with rifles. The chains around their legs rattled as they crushed rock under a blazing sun. Their movements were slow. I went to grab my camera. The carriage suddenly lurched forward and the apparition disappeared from the window, replaced, once again, by the green countryside.
Prisoners carrying out hard labour was not, in itself, indicative of Burma’s situation; but thousands of activists had been thrown in prison as common criminals. Often they were sent to labour camps like this one. Some died from torture and beatings. That is how it was in Burma. One minute I’d see something, the next it would vanish. Such fleeting glimpses left me questioning what I had witnessed; like the time I saw a man being taken away on a Rangoon street, or a group of chained men being marched along a road in the Ayeyarwady Delta. These momentary glimpses were just enough to disturb the picture-post card image of a country that the military junta wished to promote.
Four years earlier, in 1992, I was just starting out as a photographer and had run out of money. I was offered a place to stay with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Bangkok. There I met political exiles, mainly students, who had fled the 1988 crackdown in Burma. We were the same generation and I remember thinking that had I been born in Yangon, I might have been one of them.
It was from that compound that an English-language magazine called the Irrawaddy was born. Run entirely by these former students, it set out to provide a ‘Burmese perspective’ on the situation in the country. Later, they often supported my trips inside the country in exchange for the use of the photographs. As a foreigner, I was in a privileged position; I could traverse the country and gather photographs that ordinary Burmese citizens could not.
For 20 years, I made frequent trips to the country. Sometimes I would stay for months on end. I photographed insurgent armies in the jungles, refugee camps in Thailand and Bangladesh. I photographed the democratic opposition, prisoner and forced labour in different parts of the country, and always as a tourist; journalists were rarely welcome and their trips was carefully managed by the regime.
One question kept nagging me: how could a reviled military hold onto power for so long? It was a simple question that western activists and media were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to explore because it muddied the ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ portrayal of the situation. The junta’s hold on the population, I began to realise, was a complex mixture of coercion and collaboration. There was no need to have soldiers on the street; people policed themselves. Spies and informers permeated every strata of society, including all ranks in the military. Nobody knew who might be watching at any time. Petty revenges could be exacted on the pretence of ‘unlawful activities’. People’s lives were governed by fear. But they also needed to survive.
When I began visiting Burma I knew very little about the situation. In the West, it was portrayed as a struggle between good and evil; between Aung San Suu Kyi and the generals. One the one hand, some argued, that stories of repression had been greatly exaggerated. These were mostly businessmen keen to invest. On the other, were the activists whose voices became increasingly shrill. In the end, I wanted to find out the situation for myself.
I wanted to show what life was like under the military and to capture it in all its complexities. I set about creating what I hoped would be iconic images of the dictatorship that described the ongoing oppression.
When I first went to Yangon, in 1995, I expected a heavy military presence. After checking into a guest house in the centre of the city I made my way through the streets of mouldy, old buildings to a noisy biryani shop. I sat and watched the bustling crowds on the streets go about their daily business. Everything appeared normal. There were no soldiers to be seen. It was lively and colourful – not what I expected. I began to wonder if taking pictures of the dictatorship was beyond photography. The situation presented a unique challenge: how do you photograph what can’t be seen?
I realised taking photographs was going to take time. To get the kinds of photographs that really ‘spoke’ of life under military rule, I would have to keep going back because so much of what was going on was either hidden from view, difficult to photograph, or forbidden by the regime.
One photograph I took in Pa An, in Karen State showed a billboard opposite a tea shop. The billboard was erected by the military with the slogan: “Only when there is discipline, will there be progress”. It was one of the few times the regime made its presence known.
In Burma, teashops are found all over the country. Traditionally, they are meeting places where many discussions and debates takes place. The positioning of the signboard may have been accidental, but the 1988 uprising began after an incident at a teashop in Rangoon. Images like this become pregnant with meaning when the context is understood. I wanted to create a sense of a being watched and of conspiracy, where people are forced to talk in riddles and whispers. Words, for me, became important in order to explain what could not be seen. On their own, photographs can’t show anything. For instance, the image of a paper-round in Yangon: what could be more ordinary than newspapers being delivered? But when I took the photograph, in 1996, journalists were imprisoned. Everything was heavily censored and editors and journalists had to be very careful to ensure that they didn’t fall out of favour with the regime. Without words, the scene is deceptively ordinary. Other ways in which the regime managed to hold on to power were more easily understood. The climate of fear was sealed by the smiles of people who were terrified when the conversation slid off topic.
During the heady days of 1988, when it appeared that an overthrow of military rule was inevitable, hundreds of thousands protested against military rule. Many believed change was simply a matter of time. The military responded with ferocity – and thousands lost their lives – people were beaten into submission and faced brutal and uncompromising power. For many in the West, the uprising assumed near mythical proportions; many activists and many in the media hoped for a similar uprising. But the last thing ordinary people in Rangoon wanted was a repeat performance.
Later when I searched film archives for footage, I found myself viewing protesters beating suspected spies and holding up severed heads. Many soldiers and members of the armed forces had also taken part in the protests calling for the restoration of democracy. This muddied my simplistic version of a victimised population brutalised by the army.
There were other situations in Burma where a rather crude curtain was erected concealing what was really going on. One time, in 2005, I was in the town of Nyaung Shwe in Shan State. Novice monks were forced to attend a ceremony during the visit of a general to the town. Generals were conspicuously, and regularly, seen making merit at various religious ceremonies throughout the country. These events were televised to demonstrate their good Buddhist credentials to the nation. People were forced to line the roads and wave flags to give the impression that the generals were genuinely popular. Again, with photography it was hard to get an image that didn’t conform to the very image the generals were intent on promoting.
In the south, I photographed a road to a market widened on orders by the military which destroyed the fronts of homes. The front of each house was torn away by the authorities and the owners were given no compensation. Tarps were used to stem the constant drizzle of the monsoon coming in from the Bay of Bengal. Thousands of people are forced by the junta to vacate their homes with little or no compensation to make way for military or commercial ventures, including tourist sites. Here too, without the background, it was an unremarkable street scene in a poorer part of Burma.
Burma is a heavily militarised society with one of the largest standing armies in Southeast Asia, Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Burmese rely on this institution to survive. The patriarchal networks that govern Burma under military rule are still very strong, underscored by a Burmese Buddhist national identity that, in many ways, lies at the heart of the country’s crisis, particularly the civil war.
Burma is home to the world’s longest ongoing civil war. A key mission of the junta’s propaganda was to exploit the widespread fear of the country being broken apart by ethnic insurgents. The people have been deliberately kept ignorant of the true nature of the war. To the outside world, the insurgencies have appeared separate to the issue of totalitarian repression: in fact, they are inseparable. The civil war has been central to the regime’s justifications for its hold on power.
Although the military have conceded a certain amount of power since the election of 2011, it isn’t going anywhere soon. It is the principal power in the country and its largest employer.
~ Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based photographer and writer represented by Panos Pictures. His book Brave New Burma, a portrait of Burma under military rule spanning two decades is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Photographer Steve McCurry’s portraits of Afghan children, who have experienced successive wars.
This issue of Himal Southasian raises the question of what reclaiming Afghanistan after 2014 will look like. Photographer Steve McCurry’s portraits of Afghan children present the face of a generation of young Afghans who have experienced their country through successive wars and occupations. Afghanistan has one of the highest proportions of young people in the world, with a median age of 15.6 years. Reclaiming Afghanistan will pose many challenges for the nation’s youth, and with most of their life ahead of them, they will be the ones responsible for shaping Afghanistan’s future. McCurry first travelled overland from Pakistan to Afghanistan, smuggled by a group of Afghan refugees, just as the Russian invasion was closing the country to all Western journalists. McCurry brought the world the first images of the conflict in Afghanistan, putting a human face to the issue. His iconic photograph ‘Afghan Girl’, taken in a Peshawar refugee camp in 1984, featured on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985. It has been called the magazine’s most famous photograph, and regularly features on lists of the most famous images of the 20th century. McCurry has continued to travel to Afghanistan over the years, capturing the landscape and the people of the turbulent and often misrepresented country. These photographs represent multiple realities for Afghanistan’s future: militarisation, violence, displacement, poverty and the burden of labour for some; education, literacy, hope and prosperity for others.
Steve McCurry has been a photographer for over 30 years.
Street dogs are an integral part of community life in Indian cities.
India’s cities and towns are home to about 30 million ‘stray’ dogs. However, the Indian city tends to treat street dogs pretty much the same way it treats homeless people: with mistrust and undisguised contempt. Although cases of attacks by dogs are sporadic, the 2015 incident of a child in Jamia Nagar in New Delhi getting mauled by dogs caused alarm and indignation over the ‘threat’ of ‘stray’ dogs. From the capital to Kerala, street dogs have regularly been demonised in the mainstream media. This usually leads to calls for their culling. The usual reasons are trotted out: they are a menace to the public, they takeover public spaces leaving them unsafe for people, they spread diseases like rabies. In August 2015, 40 dogs were killed by citizens under the banner of ‘Street Dog Eradication’ group in Kerala’s communally-sensitive Kannur district.
According to the World Health Organisation, the annual estimated number of dog bites in India is 17.4 million. While these figures might be debatable, there is a need to educate the public about dog-behaviour. Evidently, the attitude towards street dogs is largely of apathy and low tolerance, while pedigreed dogs are much sought after. The fact that more than half of all rabies cases and about 40 percent dog bites in India are by pet dogs is conveniently overlooked.
While fights between neighbours within gated colonies over feeding stray dogs is common, it is important to note that the areas in which dogs are born are where they belong. And taking care and feeding them is an enactment of a constitutional right guaranteed in India. The only humane and legal way to deal with dogs is for them to be sterilised under the Animal Birth Control (Dogs) Rules, 2001.
The following photos are an attempt to show how street dogs are a part of larger community life.
Scenes from the maternity ward at a public hospital in post-earthquake Nepal.
“It’s the most joyous minutes for me; to hold the baby in my arms and feed them some 4 or 5 ml of glucose. That calms them down,” says senior nurse Maria Gurung, who also works as an anesthesiologist at the Patan Hospital in Laliltpur. Every inch on the ground floor inside the Nick Simon ward of the hospital is occupied by mothers holding their new-born children.
Despite the continual aftershocks since the 25 April earthquake, maternity wards in major public hospitals in the cities have been operational. According to the Disaster Emergency Committee, a collective of charities in the UK, over 14,000 women from earthquake-affected areas are expected to give birth.
Prashant Shrestha, a gynecologist at Patan Hospital says, “We have a support team of two medical officers and a resident doctor, three doctors on call, and two interns who are helping us out here.” Along with two other doctors, Shrestha has been attending to 50 women at the hospital. “Since the last big tremor on the afternoon of 12th [May], we had to pitch three tents: one for the operation theatre and one for the OPD. On the 12th there were eleven caesarian operations performed outside in the tents: seven girls and four boys were born. We had one mother from Lele village, Anandbhan, who fell down when the earth shook and was rushed here. We had to operate on her immediately, performing a caesarian and she required two units of blood to be transfused. Both the mother and child are healthy and happy.”
~Rudra Rakshit is a freelance photographer and writer based in Bangalore.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: The large aftershock of 12 May has brought many in Patan back to its streets.
At 12:47 am on 12 May, seventeen days after the massive earthquake in April, an aftershock of 7.3 magnitude sent the people of Lalitpur running to the nearest temple courtyards, bus parks and school grounds. At Kumbeshwar, the five-tiered pagoda temple, one of the tallest such structures in Nepal, the brass finial is hanging precariously, waiting for the next tremor to completely dislodge it.
At Purnachandi Pokhari near Siddhi Lakshmi temple, Abesh Choudhry from Bihar, India, is selling fruits. He says he was midway through cutting a watermelon when it happened. The 25 April quake saw over a thousand people take refuge around this pond area. It’s only after this aftershock that they reopened the gates to the Pokhari, which had been shut five days after the first quake.
“Since I’m not from this country, I’m not entitled for any of the relief material, Choudhry says. “I had to buy the tarpaulin the first time, we have four children, and we are all going to be sleeping here.” The house where Abesh stays in Agnisala previously housed 40 other people from his native Bihar. But they’ve all left by now. “My home is here,” he says, “fifteen years back when I came to Nepal I had nothing. Today, in spite of all the chaos, loss and trauma, I can say this is where my home is.”
Near Patan Dhoka, the entrance to the city of Patan, is the Madan Smarak high school on whose grounds there are already 20 big tents pitched, with many more to come. At the gates of the school ground a bamboo frame stands without a roof or walls – a makeshift classroom after the school building was seriously damaged on 25 April. Inside I meet Nanda Ratna Shakya, a metal engraver who says he was working on the legs of the Green Tara when it started to shake. “We have traditionally been metal engravers and the house we stay in is my grandfather’s and over a hundred years old,” he says. “When the earthquake in 1934 occurred, nothing happened to our house. But this time the structure has weakened. There was a team who had come to assess the buildings and they have declared our house unsafe to live in. So I’m here with my family.”
His neighbour, Raju Maharjan, also a metal artist is here with his family. He and his wife had a baby boy a week before the earthquake. They are squatting down inside the makeshift bamboo classroom and hoping to arrange for tarpaulins before the night fall. Back at Mangalbazaar, near the Patan palace complex, a shop is selling tarpaulins for those who can afford to pay NPR 2200 for a fifteen-by-fifteen square feet sheet.
~Rudra Rakshit is a freelance photographer and writer based in Bangalore.
~‘Notes from the field’ is a reporting initiative, where we bring stories of the people and places that have been affected by the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: After the devastation of the earthquake, a remote village in Nepal looks for its missing children.
The April 2015 earthquake has caused the death of more than 7500 people and has left tens of thousands displaced. Access to remote villages has been cut off due to landslides and damaged roads, making it difficult for search and rescue teams to reach the victims.
I travelled to Pading, a village in Sindupalchowk district, along with Myngma Tamang, a mother of three, who was airlifted from her village to get treatment for her trauma injuries. She returned to her village to look for her five-year-old daughter who was yet to be found.
These images from Pading show daily life in the aftermath of the earthquake.
~Sami Siva is a photographer based in New Delhi.
~Also see ‘Notes from the field’, where we bring stories of the people and places that have been affected by the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal.