Before I left for Myanmar, I picked up a 25mm 1.8 lens for my Olympus OM-D E-M10. My previous lens was a 14-42mm 3.5-5.6, and it didn’t quite have the aperture specs to make my photos pop, especially with the sort of candid portraiture I end up doing out of shyness. I don’t usually spend a lot of time shooting people, but many of my most memorable photos from my time in Myanmar were of the lives and individuals there, adding some warmth and balance to my city and landscape-heavy preferences. The young man below with the birdcages is one of my favourite shots, but you can find a lot of other examples scattered throughout my other Yangon entries (pt.1, pt.2, pt.3, pt.4, pt.5, Dala, Shwedagon Pagoda). The photos in the first section below don’t really fit into any one category, so I lumped them together with three larger people-focused photo stories.
The Novice Initiation
In Myanmar, every Buddhist boy spends at least part of his youth as a novice in a Buddhist monastery, and the initiation ceremony is called the shinbyu. A photojournalist from Mizzima, Hong Sar, invited us out to witness one such shinbyu event, so, early one Sunday morning, myself and Ted, another intern, hopped in a cab to meet with Hong Sar at a far-off monastery. The preparations were well under way by the time we arrived, and it seemed like the ceremony could start at any moment – except it didn’t. When we asked Hong Sar about it, he told us that the whole thing was organized by a local tour company as an excursion for a cruise ship, and the Buddhist officiants were waiting for the tourists to arrive. So we waited, and the children fidgeted, the dancers practiced, the novices sat uncomfortably in their chairs, and I wandered around taking photos of all of them. Finally, a bus pulled up outside of the temple gates, and the participants sprung to life. As the tourists filed into the complex, the novices were lifted up onto sturdy shoulders and led out of the temple and down the street, a train of children following afterwards. After they had made a quick loop, the novices returned and sat motionless in their chairs as dozens of cameras and phones jockeyed for position to snap a soon-to-be-forgotten photograph. It was a strange thing to witness – the shinbyu was real, but it was also a bit staged for the tourists. Such is the reality of cultural tourism, and I don’t know enough to say any more.
Street March for the Tatmadaw
That same afternoon, as I was reviewing my shinbyu photos, I heard a muffled commotion coming from the streets outside the hostel. I grabbed my camera and ran down the stairs – blinking the sunlight out of my eyes – to see a procession making their way south along Sule Pagoda Road. Being the dutiful journalist intern that I am, I followed the crowd and took photos, asking the people around me for any insight or explanation into what was happening. There weren’t any clear answers from the observers on the street, and even our contacts at Mizzima weren’t sure about the details. The march ended in front of Maha Bandula Park, in between Yangon City Hall and the Sule Pagoda, and a temporary stage had been set up on one end of the makeshift assembly space. A stream of important-looking people went up and gave speeches to the flag-waving crowd – some appeared to be enthusiastic participants, while others merely curious onlookers – and I didn’t understand a word. I left after about half-an-hour, but, the next day, I learned that it was actually a demonstration in support of the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Armed Forces. The country has fought multiple civil wars in the frontier states for decades, and a recent spate of fighting had dominated the local news, which I assume led the organizers to call for the pro-military assembly. They later faced criticism from representatives of different ethnic groups, however, for dressing up participants in ethnic costumes to give the appearance of a trans-ethnic national unity. The whole mess of realities in defining nationality and ethnicity here is a touchy topic for many, especially in a country that has struggled, and continues to struggle, with what it means to be a part of Myanmar society, and many here have hopes that one person in particular might be able to bring about some measure of justice and clarity into the national conversation. So let’s talk about her.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the Scouts/Guides Centenary
Early one morning, I stumbled out into the pre-dawn streets to catch a cab to the Mizzima office. I met up with a staff photographer outside the ground floor lobby and we took another cab to the University of Yangon campus, by the placid shores of Inya Lake. The hour was still quite early, so we took shelter at a roadside coffee stall and sipped our insipid coffee mix, the air tinged with the smell of tobacco and burnt eggs. As we contemplated and calculated the hours of sleep we were missing out on, small groups of scouts and guides, dressed up in their finest, scurried past us and around the corner. Taking that as our cue, we got up and followed them down the quiet street and into a gated compound, where a large white banner had been set up to commemorate the Myanmar Scouts/Guides Centenary. An all-female marching band practiced on the front steps, as white-gloved scouts lingered around the red carpet leading into the building. Parents dropping off their uniformed children lingered by the bushes on the lawn, taking photos on their Chinese smartphones and occasionally yelling out instructions from across the yard. As the morning wore on, we were joined by more and more photographers, and the subtle fight for positioning began – the veterans staking out the high points with the best angles, while the rest of us grunts using elbows and footwork to get a spot in the front row. And then, almost without warning, the band launched into their dissonant melodies, the cheerleaders began their enthusiastic choreography, and the dignitaries and special guests arrived on the scene – car after car swooping in, dropping off their passengers, and then disappearing around the corner. Cameras sprung into action around the fanfare, as the scouts tried in vain to hold us back – and then, just like that, it was over, and we filed in after the crowd to see the main event.
The night before, I had gone back and forth with myself on whether or not I should even cover the event. I had a flight that afternoon back to Hong Kong for the weekend, and the timing would be incredibly tight, especially with Yangon’s afternoon traffic. In the end, however, I decided I couldn’t pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Aung San Suu Kyi in person. Much has been said and written about the woman known simply as The Lady, and she’s come under much scrutiny lately for her ambiguous statements regarding the Rohingya. There is such a mythology surrounding her, however – her father, the martyr and national hero, her role in the 8888 Uprising, the Nobel Peace Prize, the house arrests, and finally, the victory of her party, the NLD, in the 2015 elections. Seeing her in person was like witnessing living history, warts and all. She faces many challenges, however, not the least of which are the heavy expectations from abroad for her to do something – anything – about the treatment of the Rohingya by government forces. Domestically, her NLD party must navigate the country through the remarkable changes in its society and economy since the military leadership, for whatever reason, decided to open up Myanmar at the beginning of the decade. These are not light burdens, and the expectations are just as heavy. In conversations with locals, however, many are willing to give her and the NLD the benefit of the doubt, though who knows how long the good will will last.
I didn’t stick around for the entire event, slipping out after listening to her speech so I could get to the airport in time. After a quick stopover in Bangkok, I was back in Hong Kong that evening, and I never felt better. I would return to Myanmar the following week, but, alas, I’d already left my heart in Hong Kong over the Christmas weekend, and, from the moment I found myself back in Yangon, I was counting down the days.
This about wraps up my Myanmar photodump entries (see others here and here). I took way too many photos over my five week internship, and I suffer from the common affliction of liking all of them. The good news is, the end is in sight – I plan to wrap up this particular travel arc over my next two entries, where I’ll get a chance to talk about my forays outside of the Yangon city limits.