June 12, 2012
by Chien-Chi Chang
In the past half century, Burma went from being the richest to being the poorest country in Southeast Asia. Economists say the country has a “resource curse”—the rulers profit from the rich natural resources but don’t share the wealth. (The average per capita income is $435 US.) Of all children under the age of five, one in three suffers from malnutrition in the country that was once the rice bowl of Asia. The military junta reigns supreme, using force, fear, and ubiquitous informers to control every aspect of life. Citizens are led to believe that every move they make is being watched and every word they say is overheard.
Burma is rife with paradox. It is an intensely Buddhist country, with every male entering the monastery at some point in his life. Yet fortune-tellers have great influence; astrologers are treated like rock stars and publications touting predictions for coming years are newsstand best sellers. Still one of the most hermetic nations in the world, Burma courts foreign tourists, who are allowed to visit temples and lovely scenic vistas. But there are always reminders that behind the cultural façade stands the repressive regime that has held Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Burma’s democracy movement, under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.
The Burmese continue to live a real-life version of Animal Farm. When I posed as a tourist to make these pictures, there always seemed to be shadows following me. Big Brother has many little brothers.