Myanmar is often characterized as the Land of the Golden Pagodas and while this cliché is appropriate, it only describes the surface of a very complex country. To be sure, it is tempting to focus on the impressive temples and pagodas, the past kings, princes and the leaders, but what about the current inhabitants and their lives?
Geoffrey Hiller, a keen and patient observer, has been capturing in photographs the daily life of the people of Myanmar since 1987. After a trip in 2000, Hiller created the award-winning web documentary Burma: Grace Under Pressure and has returned several times since the historic opening of the country in 2011 to document evidence of changes. In 2014, he published Daybreak in Myanmar, a stunning selection of 170 of his photographs. The arrangement of the images from dawn to dusk and into the night creates an interestingly cohesive approach following the daily rhythms and routines of people at work, in tea houses, travelling by ferry, truck, trishaw or taxi, or just having a break.
Myanmar is home to over 51 million people, which includes 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. With great sensitivity and warmth Hiller has photographed people from different ethnic backgrounds, some engaged in various religious acts, be it Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Hindu because that, too, is the reality of Myanmar.
In any recent publication about Myanmar one would expect to see many images of Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the founders and now leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), but there are only five photographs that include an image of The Lady, all taken in 2012. It should be remembered that photographs of her were forbidden by the military government and only recently allowed.
To create another layer of interest and depth while “reading” the photographs, Daybreak in Myanmar also allows us to hear the voice of some of the people of Myanmar. British journalist Francis Wade interviewed six prominent Burmese, most of whom fled the country or spent time in jail for being involved with either the 1988 student uprising or the 2007 monk led “Saffron Revolution.” Each of them gives their perspective on various cultural and current issues. The stories from people such as author Pascal Khoo Twe, who grew up in an ethnic village on the border with Thailand and who fled in 1988, writer Ma Thanegi, personal assistant to Aung San Su Kyi, who spent three years in Insein jail, and political dissident Dr. Ma Thida, jailed in the 1990s for six years, are poignant. He also interviewed activist monk leader U Gambira and blogger Nay Phone Latt, who were given long jail sentences for their involvement in the 2007 uprisings, but who were released early in 2012 as part of a general amnesty. The interview with historian Dr. Thant Myint U (grandson of U Thant, the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971), who grew up and was educated outside of Myanmar, is focused on his vision for Yangon in the 21st century. He sees it as it could be: a liveable city that incorporates the colonial era buildings, maintaining a meaningful connection to its recent past. For this vision he founded the Yangon Heritage Trust to document, teach and acknowledge its colonial heritage.
Daybreak in Myanmar is a carefully chosen title, indicating the country coming out of a long period of darkness under the military regime, when the country was socially and politically isolated for decades, into an era of light, hope and the possibilities of change.
Paula Swart (email@example.com)
Citation: Swart, P. 2016. Review of Hiller, G. 2015. Daybreak in Myanmar, posted on New Asia Books on 22 Feb 2016; newbooks.asia/review/daybreak-myanmar