Dewi Lewis Publishing (2013)
I understood so little about Burma and I felt the only way to really get to grips with it was not only to read about it but to travel. . . It grew out of a quest to really understand how a deeply unpopular regime could hold on to power.
This is how Nic Dunlop explained his interest in Burma to BBC journalist Fergal Keane at the May 2013 launch of Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club in London.
A significant challenge for Dunlop in undertaking his quest was the difficulty of capturing life in Burma under a totalitarian regime:
For most visitors to Burma at that time, stories of slave labour and repression seemed at odds with the images they encountered: smiling people, exotic festivals and gleaming temples. Burma was a mature totalitarian state, its operations to subtle for the casual observer to perceive… The regime was so ubiquitous there was no need for troops on the streets. The vey absence of the army was proof of its power.
How then does one capture the brutality of a military dictatorship when the army is not visible on the street? Or record something so pervasive that it is almost imperceptible?
Dunlop tracks down those who have been forced from their homes, tortured and forced into labour before penetrating the military heart of the regime to observe the leaders up close shortly before protests by buddhist monks were brutally put down by the Tatmadaw in 2007.
Brave New Burma is structured as a series of essays accompanied by photos, dealing in turn with Burma’s internal conflicts, the invisibility of the totalitarian regime, imprisonment, torture and forced labour and the military regime. Brave New Burma is gripping, chilling and unflinching in its examination of the ethnic divisions and conflicts that have riven Burma and been exploited by the dictatorship, the plight of refugees and the humiliations, rapes, mutilations, psychological scars and privations inflicted on the country’s population.
What makes Brave New Burma particularly powerful is its mixture of political and historical background interwoven with portraits and personal accounts from those he has interviewed, which make it an intimate and compassionate portrait of the country’s people.
Brave New Burma is not just a record of a repressive regime that will hopefully soon be consigned to history books but also an excellent introduction to Burma and valuable for anyone wanting to gain an insight following last November’s historic elections.
In the final chapter, Dunlop examines the possibility of change and potential freedom from the fear that pervades both civilian and military life. Dunlop seems more hopeful than optimistic. Avoiding the simplistic view of freedom versus a totalitarian regime, his view is nuanced and highlights the difficulties that will accompany real change in the country from ethnic tensions, the weight of expectation on Aung Sang Suu Kyi, to the risk of future exploitation as external forces eye economic opportunities in Burma. It is perhaps for that reason that the last photo bears the cautious caption, ‘No end in sight’.
Nic Dunlop is a Bangkok-based, award winning photographer with photo agency Panos Pictures. Panos specialises in global social issues, “recognising that photography is more than pictures on a page” and believing “in the photography of ideas…with the aim of interpreting rather than simply recording.”
Watch Nic Dunlop introduce Brave New Burma at the Frontline Club launch in May 2013: