Capturing Myanmar

It was the perfect narrative: an oppressive regime, a liberation icon in jail, a popular struggle for freedom. How much of it was true?

Capturing Myanmar

Story by Elliott Fox
Photography by Olga Stefatou

YANGON, Myanmar

In early 2007, a Greek photographer named Olga Stefatou traveled to the Myanmar countryside. This was her second visit in only a few months. One day she arrived at Bagan, once the beating heart of an ancient kingdom. Tourism in Bagan has surged in recent years: photos celebrate its enduring temples, crumbling just-so — there are thousands — dotting a portion of view sometimes-verdant, sometimes-parched, exalted portraits of a bygone glory shown at dawn, dusk or lesser moments in between. But this was 2007. There were few tourists then. And anyway, those clichés were not what Stefatou wanted, though it was, of course, a picture she sought. “I make my plan according to the light,” she told me.

She passed a photographer’s studio. Feeling a kindred pull, she peered in. (“If the light is bad in the day I try to get inside,” she said.) As a rule she did not seek permission. (“If the people are negative, I negotiate.”)

Stefatou stayed. She joined the photo shoots for six whole days. The woman in charge was puzzled. Uneasy even. Why was Stefatou here? Why did she keep coming back? Was she a journalist? Stefatou insisted she was not.

There were few cameras in Myanmar at the time. For most people, a visit to the photographer’s was a precious occasion. That week the customers were surprised to find two, their usual and Stefatou, a bit removed but shooting nonetheless.

The girl looked miserable.

She had come to take portraits with her boyfriend. She wore a crisp white blouse and spoke a bit of English. They chose a plastic backdrop, mimicking a traditional lakeside scene with tranquil wooden walkways.

Throughout the shoot, the girl never smiled.

“What’s wrong?” Stefatou asked.

The girl turned to her. The room fell silent.

“How could I smile in this country?” she replied.

This kept happening, wherever Stefatou was.

“People were coming up to me in this quiet way,” Stefatou said. “I’m not free. I’m not happy. There is no democracy here. Please help us. Please say to the world. Most of the time I was alone and I was the only foreigner. You have this feeling afterwards: You want to talk about what you saw.

“The people here, they give you something. And you have something to give the world.”

Many Westerners claimed a similar urge. Until recently Myanmar, also called Burma, was a place you visited for that reason. The story. To see it. To tell it.

Here was a place so tortured it could not get itself, or the world, even to agree on its name. (One of them, Burma, was bestowed by the British.)

Westerners have felt the need to tell the country’s story because they feel the story is partly theirs to tell. The phenomenon traces, at the very least, back to George Orwell who spent five grim, boozy years as a young colonial officer in Burma in the 1920s. The period inspired his first novel, Burmese Days, which counts as quasi autobiography save for the moment at the end where the main character, a young colonial officer in Burma in the 1920s, shoots himself in the face. The period also inspired his supposedly biographical essay,Shooting an Elephant, in which Orwell shoots an elephant in the face, its slow death a metaphor for the bankrupt colonial project.

Written decades after Orwell’s death in 1950, the opening page of American writer Emma Larkin’s travelogue, Finding George Orwell in Burma, has her meeting a Burmese scholar in his home to discuss the writer. The man was very old (“cataracts had turned his eyes an oystery blue”) and his fine mind was lost in a haze until “the old man’s eyes suddenly lit up. He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition, slapped his forehead gleefully, and said, ‘You mean the prophet!’”

A prophet implies a story: the simpler the better. This one had everything: good versus evil, ruthless soldiers versus peaceful monks, army generals versus one woman they call “the Lady.” For decades, it was spun and spread by a canon of Western storytellers who took up the mantle of a country and a people trapped inside. And back in 2007 the people, Sefatou told me, were urging her to do the same: to “say to the world.” To tell the story.

By-and-large, it went like this.

A British colony beginning in 1824, Burma secured independence in 1947 through the maneuvers of a legendary student-turned-freedom fighter, only 32 years old. His name was Aung San. A few months before the flag raising (and lowering) ceremony, Aung San met his cabinet in an extravagant British-designed building — the Secretariat — that glows from the local bricks, the clay more orange than you think. A group of men burst in. They mowed down the gathering with submachine guns, killing Aung San and six of his ministers on the orders of a rival.

From the northernmost mountains of Kachin State, bordering China, to the beige beaches spilling into the Andaman Sea to the south, the young Union of Burma faced enormous turmoil. Viewed on a black and white map, the borders show a generous territory, wedged between China, India (and since 1971, Bangladesh), Laos and Thailand. But these anonymous lines belie the huge diversity of life massed within.

The name Burma derived from just one of those groups, the Bamar, to whom the British had left the keys. The constellation of other groups — Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, Wa and many others — had, for the most part, never experienced full or formal Bamar rule. They had no desire to start.

Civil war raged. In its wake, in 1962 a general named Ne Win deposed the prime minister, U Nu, and set the country on a grinding path to isolation, ruling with a clenched fist and fantastical whims that betrayed a penchant for astrology. (Japan once gifted Myanmar a planetarium, which Ne Win reportedly used to help him schedule political decisions.) By the 1980s, Burma, a place once praised in some quarters for its genteel subjects, was a pariah state in Western eyes. The capital, Rangoon, was rocked by regular protests and uprisings. Outside Rangoon, the civil war ravaged still. Though the army, the government and some of the “ethnic armed groups” signed a ceasefire this year, fighting continues today.

The tensions between the people and the army climaxed in 1988 when Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San’s daughter — who was 2 when her father was murdered, and spent much of her adult life abroad in Oxford, England — returned to Burma and her mother’s deathbed. Back home, she was swept up in the country’s biggest demonstrations yet. Gen. Ne Win instructed officers “not to shoot upwards” — to shoot to kill . Thousands died.

Suu Kyi delivered a speech at the foot of the country’s spiritual heart, the Shwedagon Pagoda, a towering 99-meter stupa covered in gold, and overlaid with more gold every five years. Most believe it was built in the sixth century; Buddhist chronicles date it to 600 BC. Tens of thousands flocked to the rally. “Reverend monks and people!” she began, rousing the masses.

There was an heir to Aung San’s winning legacy.

Yangon 2012. NLD supporters show images of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her father after restrictions are lifted.
Yangon 2012. NLD supporters show images of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her father after restrictions are lifted.

For her troubles, Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. But the uproar she triggered was overwhelming. The generals blinked and held elections in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, the NLD, won a resounding victory.

The army rejected the result. Daw Suu (Aunt Suu), as she became known, spent 15 of the next 21 years imprisoned in her family villa on the shores of Inya Lake in northeast Rangoon, where she filled her days mastering meditation and listening to the BBC World Service.

In the aftermath of the 1988 uprisings, the government changed the country’s colonial name, Burma, to the more traditional Myanmar. Many in the country and abroad rejected the new name. Paradoxically “Burma” — a name borne of the British Empire’s mangling of Bamar language — now stood for the hushed, steadfast resistance of the country’s pro-democracy movement. Britain still refers to the country as Burma today; the Foreign & Commonwealth Office says it will call it Myanmar when Aung San Suu Kyi does so.

Time stood still in Myanmar in the 1990s. Visas were hard to obtain. A blacklist of foreign journalists and activists snowballed to 6,000 names.

(The list was a rustic effort: British academic Timothy Garton-Ash discovered “some gloriously unspecific entries such as ‘239. David’ and ‘859. Mr Nick,’ but there I recognizably was: ‘285. Gartonish, Timothy John.’” The ordering of names was telling, too. No. 1 was Andrew William Harding, a BBC journalist; two and three were Aung San Suu Kyi’s sons, Alexander and Kim Aris.)

The emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as a human rights icon — she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 — seemed to focus the minds of Western powers. By 2002, former U.S. president George W. Bush was calling Myanmar an “outpost of tyranny” in the famous State of the Union address that first referred to the anti-American “Axis of Evil.”

Although some Western media portrayals of Myanmar suggested North Korea levels of opacity, the world witnessed unprecedented political tremors in 2007 as the people erupted again. Thousands of robed Buddhist monks descended from their monasteries, leading huge protests throughout the streets of Rangoon (now called Yangon), an unfurling wave of orange that gave the moment its name: the Saffron Revolution. Dozens were killed — much fewer than during the 1988 uprising, but among the victims was a famous Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Nagai. Shot at point-blank range, the whole scene was secretly captured by a fearless reporter from the illegal Democratic Voice of Burma.

The Saffron Revolution, as its name suggests, offered powerful images. Two features seemed to stick and travel round the world: the deep color of the monks’ robes as they faced off with the khaki of soldiers, and the view of Kenji Nagai, in shorts and flip-flops, toppling backward as a soldier, also in flip-flops, leaned forward to inspect his deed.

Stefatou first came to Myanmar the year before, in 2006.

“I didn’t know much about the country before then,” she said. “I wondered what it could be like to live in such an isolated place.”

When she was 13, Stefatou’s father made the first of several expeditions to the Himalayas. Each time he returned with powerful tales of a faraway and forbidding place. Olga described a similar appeal to Myanmar. Except the country’s isolation was not dictated by altitude and geology, but by men.

“I knew it was one of the hardest dictatorships in the world,” she said. “For some reason, that intrigued me a lot. At the same time, I was reading about how people in Myanmar have this fire to change things.”

Bagan 2006
Bagan 2006

From the photographer’s studio in Bagan, Stefatou journeyed farther north to a town called Bhamo. To a Westerner, at the time, Bhamo was the edge of the known universe: The place beyond was Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state. Beyond Myitkyina was a military-ordered no-go zone: a wild, mountainous region filled with flashpoints in the bitter war between the military and the Kachin Independence Army. Kachin was, and is, home to deep jade quarries and the heroin trade, sources of staggering revenue to both sides of the conflict.

It happened there, too.

“I was having my dinner,” Stefatou said. “A girl came up to me, she said, ‘I don’t feel free. I just want to tell you that. Enjoy your dinner.’ And then she went back to her friends. This gives you many mixed feelings,” Stefatou said. “Very weird feelings. About where you are. What you can do. What is visible. What is not visible.”

She wondered: “When you live in a cage, how do you manage to be yourself?”

Myitkyina, Kachin state, 2007. Female soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army.
Myitkyina, Kachin state, 2007. Female soldiers of the Kachin Independence Army.

“Very often it was women who spoke to me,” she added. This echoed what she knew and admired about the imprisoned democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi. “People here are passionate for freedom. But Myanmar is a very conservative country — especially towards women. So for one woman to stand against this military government, for so many years, supported by so many people, in a very simple, very absolute way…”

She let the sentence hang, as if the story rang louder without an ending.

Stefatou was moved by those many brave, quiet pleas she received “to tell the world” — to tell the story. “I knew I would come back.”

But as she launched into the project and returned many times over the next 10 years, something strange happened. The story of good and evil fell apart.

First, the story got even starker. A year later, in 2008, Cyclone Nargis became the most deadly natural disaster in the country’s recorded history, wiping out nearly 140,000 lives. To global consternation, the government rejected most offers of aid. Instead it ploughed ahead with a referendum on a new constitution, held only a few days after the cyclone. According to the generals’ tally, 92.8 percent voted yes.

The constitution provided for general elections, scheduled for 2010, and a nominal return to civilian rule. In 2010, the elections proceeded. The rulingUnion Solidarity and Development Party, or USDP, a collection of ex-generals and others close to the regime, won easily. The NLD boycotted the event because Aung San Suu Kyi was still locked up.

Then the story got more complicated. A few weeks afterward, Daw Suu was released, to jubilant crowds. A few months after that, in March 2012, she stood for parliament in a by-election and won a resounding victory.

Her career as a legitimate opposition leader began.

More reforms followed. The army-led regime released hundreds of political prisoners. The press, previously muzzled, was allowed to work freely. (“Goodbye to the red pen,” the Myanmar Times’ front page proclaimed that week.)

As the country’s oppressive apparatus slowly unclenched, a long-repressed population surged into this new space of freer expression. Myanmar was opening up.

But there was a side effect few Westerners predicted. Thick, intense Islamophobic vitriol gripped parts of the country, ostensibly fanned by a group of hardline Buddhist monks. Their leader, Ashin Wirathu, a former political prisoner himself, was adept at using the country’s fast-improving internet coverage to reach new audiences. His portrait appeared on TIME’scover in July 2013, headlined: “The face of Buddhist terror.”

There were numerous episodes of deadly anti-Muslim violence, especially in Rakhine State on the border with Bangladesh, where Myanmar’s authorities contest the right of more than a million people to live there. They self-identify as an indigenous ethnicity, the Rohingya. The authorities claim no such group exists, and that they are instead Bengali migrants.

With an eye on the promise of free and fair general elections, slated for fall 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi consistently refused to speak out in support of Muslims or the Rohingya, other than to raise the need for “rule of law.”

Suddenly the story was changing. Myanmar’s monks now evoked something darker than before. The West was happy to engage with generals; the E.U. and the U.S. dropped most sanctions against Myanmar. Writing in The New York Times, a Bangladeshi journalist called Aung San Suu Kyi, “a bust,” adding, “If [she] is remaining silent on the plight of the Rohingyas because she’s afraid that speaking out would cost her an election, she doesn’t deserve to come to power. And as her silence leads to the deaths of more and more innocent people, she doesn’t deserve our respect either.”

Western champions of Myanmar faced a quandary. Their privileged place as go-betweens, as storytellers, was eroding fast. Their message was undermined by both greater freedoms and an uglier reality. The great easing of visa restrictions and the digital revolution were, at last, allowing many Burmese to address the world for themselves, and bringing more casual tourists into the country. (In 1989, 2,850 tourists visited, compared to 3 million in 2014.)

“Lots of Westerners in the media or NGOs were shocked when their governments started engaging with the generals, as if our leaders were being tricked,” Kim Jolliffe, a British analyst, told me. “Those people forget that our governments had no issue dealing with oppressive regimes in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam for years, as long as those regimes kept up certain appearances.”

Underpinning that feeling of betrayal was Myanmar’s position in the broad Western view of international affairs: a rare, if not the only, subject in which elected officials and human rights activists were totally aligned.

Describing the pre-2012 years, one Myanmar-based Canadian journalist, wrote: “Back then, Myanmar was an easy cause for Western governments to champion. Unlike other states with deplorable human rights records, Myanmar had no deep economic or strategic importance to the West (here’s looking at you, Saudi Arabia).”

There is a word for the shattering of Myanmar’s story: transition. The strength of this euphemism is that it hides the extent of what has changed and what has not.

What was clear, though, was that the previous imagery of oppression (which reached its peak with a sun-drenched, sugar-coated 2011 Hollywood film,The Lady, about Daw Suu’s life) could not function anymore. In other words, pictures of monks did not equal peace.

“I’m looking for something more essential,” Stefatou told me about her work. “It’s easy to take folklore pictures in Myanmar. It’s so easy. It’s an exotic place. I try to avoid all of that.”

Scrolling through her portfolio with me, she stopped on a photo of a man holding a snake at the Snake Monastery in Bago. “I like this picture a lot,” she said. “It’s my only picture of a monk,” she added, without thinking to explain the tangle of scenes therein — is that kissing? — as if the young monk were just one of the stories inside the frame.

When I asked her about the meaning of another picture, she said, “The level of light. The background. The foreground,” in that order.

Often she cannot explain, she said, why she stops to take a picture. She gave an example. In 2008 she made her third visit to the country. Yangon was palpably reeling from the Saffron Revolution and its aftermath.

“I was walking in the streets,” Stefatou told me, “and I crossed a very narrow street. A wall with just some red dots. At that moment I felt something strong here. I don’t know why. In my mind, it was symbolizing blood. OK. I took the picture. Done. Just two frames, a dog passed by.”

(“I love dogs, so that was great,” she added.)

She illustrated further. “If I show a homosexual person — which is illegal in Myanmar — I don’t want to show a homosexual, I want to show his beauty: what he is struggling for.”

“In a sentence,” she continued, “it is all about freedom. My personal freedom. Their freedom. What freedom means when you live inside a cage.”

When Stefatou returned in 2012, she met a young man with an artificial leg. She asked him what happened. The army had recruited him for forced labor, a widespread practice in Myanmar. Soldiers were known to enter villages and round up the men, often conscripting them.

They did this to prisoners, too. That was his case. He was sent to the front line of the military’s war with the Shan State Independence Army. In the jungle, he stepped on a landmine.

Unable to carry soldiers’ equipment any longer, he was sent back to prison. And in October 2011, a few months before meeting Stefatou, he was among the hundreds of political detainees whom the government chose to release.

Asked what he did to end up in jail, he told her it was for political activism. The man belonged to Generation Wave, a youth movement founded in the Saffron Revolution’s aftermath. Meeting at his home, he showed Stefatou a black and white pamphlet. It contained a small picture of the action that got him jailed, and cost him his leg.

She recognised the street at once. In 2008, he said, he threw red paint on the walls of Yangon to mark 30 years since 1988. They were the red dots from her picture.

“I was shocked,” Stefatou said. That conversation “was one of the best moments I had in Burma. When you realize that you did something unconsciously, and it has a value that you never knew.”

I met Olga during the fated November 2015 election, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD triumph, winning a huge majority of seats.

The transition, she reflected, “is very well planned. It didn’t happen by chance. Give a bit of consuming freedom, but not human rights or real freedom.”

And yet, she added, this last visit contained real change. “The Burmese look at you in a different way. The glance has changed. Probably because there are more tourists now, more foreigners live here. They are more used to us.”

She struggled to hunt down the man with the artificial leg, but, through an old mobile phone number that a relative had taken over, she eventually succeeded.

She took his portrait recently. Tin Tun Aung is now 30 years old and back in college. (“After a long delay,” Stefatou said.)

I asked if she mentioned the other picture, the one of the wall with the red dots. Did she tell him what it meant to her?

“Of course,” she said. “I don’t think he understood my feeling.

“But for me, it is still very strong.”

Elliott Fox lives in London and works in the nonprofit sector. He is the co-author of a book on Yangon’s architecture.

Olga Stefatou is a freelance photographer and filmmaker. She has participated in such pioneering projects as “Solar Impulse: the first round the world solar flight,” “The Prism” and “Depression Era.” The World Economic Forum recognized her video report on domestic violence in China.

Edited by Shilpa Jindia. Additional editing by Ben Wolford.