Burma Photo Essay


The world’s attention focussed on Burma over the weekend when Nobel peace prizewinner and elected leader of Burma Aung San Suu Kyi was released after spending most of the past 20 years under house arrest. Greeted by thousands of supporters outside her home in the former capital Rangoon, she told her supporters to "eat rice to be strong for the challenges ahead."

Suu Kyi addresses the crowd in 1988 before starting her period of house arrest. Photo: Alex Lewis

The daughter of independence hero Aung San, Suu Kyi’s release has been welcomed by world leaders, supporters of Burma and by a jubilant Burmese public.


Paper planes with a clear message are thrown over the Burmese embassy fence in Thailand. Photo: Alex Lewis

In 1988, tens of thousands took to the streets to protest the rule of the junta. The military opened fire on the crowd and killed thousands. While many fled into exile to fight from abroad, many members of the so-called “88 generation” were held as political prisoners. For over 20 years the “88 generation” has maintained their fight against the regime.

Burmese graffitti crew Silent Hood Crew spread the message. Photo: Alex Lewis

The release of Suu Kyi is a significant turning point for the older generation who have found an unlikely ally in their democracy struggle. Hip Hopping B-Boys and B-Girls are the vanguard of a new youth movement inside Burma. Challenging the regime with their songs and awareness, they are determined to change the country while facing the same threats as their predecessors. In the words of prominent Hip Hop artist JME “Political problems over here can get you f*cked up – like BOOM”.


Burma’s newly elected leaders have been declared little more than puppets of the military. Photo: Alex Lewis

Burma went to the polls the weekend before Suu Kyi’s release. In this, the first election since 1988, one journalist in the country told me that in one constituency in Kachin state alone there were 4000 eligible voters — and 6000 votes cast. Made up almost exclusively of former military, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDA) organised a massive majority to take power in an election that to many was nothing more than a uniform change from Khaki to Armani.

The Golden Land. Burma is a wealthy nation but years of economic mismanagement have turned the country on its head. Photo: Alex Lewis

Once South East Asia’s most wealthy country, Burma is now the region’s basketcase. Despite an abundance of natural resources, chronic economic mismanagement by the military regime has left most of the country in poverty. With Suu Kyi softening her stance on sanctions in the wake of her release, analysts have suggested that China’s current economic grip may be challenged in a new resources grab.  With serious questions around human rights and profit distribution still unanswered, it is unclear whether or not the Australian government will support groups like Western Australian group Twinza Oil as they expand their business interests in Burma?

A man lays his pots out to dry. The majority of people in Burma live on less than a dollar a day. Photo: Alex Lewis

While a new resources rush may trigger profits for the powerful, the average Burmese struggles to survive on a daily basis.  While it is true that many will be ecstatic that Suu Kyi has been released, most were aware the election was rigged. “The election will not bring democracy to the people of Burma and equality for ethnic minorities. It is not real democracy. The regime only shed their skin,” said one member of an armed ethnic group in Karen State to the Irrawaddy magazine. Across the country people were not surprised by the election result but remain optimistic that Suu Kyi can bring some change.


Refugee children play in the refugee camp Mae La. Without Thai papers and fearing repercussions if they return to Burma, these children face an unclear future. Photo: Alex Lewis

As the world focussed on bogus elections and the subsequent release of “The Lady” as she is affectionately known, fighting on the Thai Burma border broke out between the Burmese military and several armed Karen groups. According to border NGO’s some 20,000 mostly Karen people have fled from the areas around Myawaddy to these jungle refugee camps. This new influx will add enormous pressure on the already full camps.  For any true national reconciliation to occur Suu Kyi, the new government and these ethnic groups will need to discuss a satisfactory ceasefire in what is the world’s longest running civil war – 60 years.


Satellite dishes line the rooftops of an apartment building in downtown Rangoon. Photo: Alex Lewis

With Suu Kyi’s release timed so closely after the elections, much of the international media were not present in the country. The media is tightly controlled inside Burma and prior to the internet; the only source of non-controlled news was via these satellites dishes. During the election the regime stopped the internet to prevent the movement of information. Local journalists found to be working against the regime are often imprisoned and 48 currently join some 2200 political prisoners inside Burma.  While the country’s most famous political prisoner Suu Kyi has been released, doubts remain for the release of the others and any improvements in press freedom.


With nothing but handsaws monks help clean up after Cyclone Nargis as the military look on. Photo: Alex Lewis

“I think it’s quite obvious what the people want; the people just want better lives based on security and on freedom,” said Suu kyi in her first press conference after release. For years the Burmese have remained resilient, despite the odds, and hoped for a better future.  In the time ‘The Lady” has been under house arrest, the people have often turned to their spiritual leaders, the Burmese Monks for help. Leading calls for change in the 2007 Saffron Uprising, many monks were killed or beaten for daring to question the regimes rule. Similarly in the wake of Cyclone Nargis the monks were the first to offer help to the devastated population. Will Suu Kyi be able to negotiate with a more sensitive government or will the people still rely on the monks for support? Only time will tell.

A child looks nervously into the unknown. Photo: Alex Lewis

"Our thoughts are with this remarkable and courageous woman at this time," Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said. "She has been an amazing and resilient fighter for democracy in Burma." This is clear to the international community. What is not clear is how those who have run Burma for decades by an iron fist will work with this figure of hope. It is not the first time Suu Kyi has been released before a new charge has seen her detained again. She has declared her intentions to move forward, to work with her former oppressors in the best interest of the Burmese people. Her release is a major step forward but all eyes are on the new government to see just how serious they are about change. As the Burmese would say pye pye — slowly slowly.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.