April 16, 2013
by Chris Steele-Perkins
For a long time many people did not go to Burma because they did not want to seem to support the military dictatorship that has controlled Burma for decades. Now, since the elected leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed from her long house arrest imposed by the military, and now takes her place in parliament, and since Aung San Suu Kyi has said she supports independent tourism, and the military, under President Thein Sein, promised they will hold elections in 2014, Burma is finally opening up.
I was born in Burma but left the country aged two with my father for England. I have no reliable memory of the place. I decided I would visit the country with its newly found freedoms, freedoms still heavily limited but none the less significant. I wanted to see if I felt any imperative to produce a major piece of work about the country, or just see what kind of reaction I did have. Was it meaningful for me? I was not burdened by any romantic notion of "homecoming"; of reconnection with my roots. I am thoroughly English and that is not going to change now. But, I was curious.
I wanted to wander around and see what I saw in a relatively random way with chance as a constant guide. I did not want to focus on stories, the biggest one being ethnic and religious tensions and violence against the muslim population, and I did not have a lot of time. I decided to spend a few days exploring Yangon, the old capital, and then I hired a car, an old Toyota driven by the easy-going Ishmael who told me there were no signs of the divisive problems in Yangon.
I chose a few locations on a map that we could get to in a sensible time on an eight day journey, so I could stop and photograph along the way wherever I wanted to. I chose to go north from Yangon, but only 6 to 700kms up to central Burma, circle round via the new capital Naypyidaw, Taunggyi, Meiktila, Magway and back to Yangon. It ended up as 10 days, one lost to an unhappy stomach. Meiktila seemed a relaxed and quiet place, but there were clearly tensions beneath the surface as muslim/buddhist riots erupted there a couple of weeks after I left.
These are some of the photos that came out of the trip, a little bit of urban and rural, young and old, work and leisure. Nothing in depth or political, but a variety of intriguing and unexpected encounters. I realize I am scratching the surface, that there are still parts of the country that foreigners are not legally able to visit, and many places one can visit that I did not have time for.
I will go back as I still find it interesting, and I hope my connection to the place will develop and perhaps produce work of substance. Time will tell.