BOOK REVIEW Images of a dark era The Face of Resistance: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Fight for Freedom by Aung Zaw. Brave New Burma by Nic Dunlop
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI - Following a brutal crackdown on a pro-democracy uprising in August and September 1988, thousands of activists fled Myanmar's border areas to link up with various insurgent forces to fight against the military junta that had seized power in the then capital Yangon.
The armed struggle never really got off the ground; few of the urban activists were able to endure the hardships of life in the jungle. Most of them eventually ended up in exile in neighboring
India and Thailand, while others managed to receive political asylum further afield in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and various European countries.
There were a few from the beginning who did not believe in the viability of armed struggle and thought that publicity and advocacy would be a stronger weapon to advance their democratic cause. Aung Zaw, a former botany student from Yangon, was among them. In September 1993, he began publishing from Thailand a stenciled monthly newsletter known as The Irrawaddy, named after the mighty river that flows through nearly the entirety of his home country, then known as Burma.
Aung Zaw was not a complete novice. Before he fled Myanmar, he belonged to a group which consisted mostly of elder intellectuals known as the Insein Sarpay Wine, or the Insein Literary Circle (Insein was the Yangon suburb where Aung Zaw and the others lived). He had also joined an underground student network set up to resist the authoritarian rule of then military dictator General Ne Win. Aung Zaw was briefly detained by authorities after the first round of student unrest in Myanmar in March 1988.
Based first in Bangkok and later in Chiang Mai, Aung Zaw oversaw the growth of The Irrawaddy from its modest beginnings to becoming one of the best respected English-language publications produced by Myanmar exiles. In January 2012, Aung Zaw was finally given a journalist visa to re-enter Myanmar. Today, The Irrawaddy is sold in newsstands in Myanmar and has working bureau in downtown Yangon. As the blurb on the back of his first book says, "The Face of Resistance is a timely and succinct reminder that despite international accolades, Burma [Myanmar] is far from free."
The Face of Resistance is Aung Zaw's autobiography - and the struggle for freedom that he has been part and parcel of since 1988. It is in places quite personal, as it should be, but also gives important historical insight into Myanmar's pro-democracy movement and the role of its various players: the National League for Democracy, the "88 generation students", various ethnic groups, the media, the Buddhist sangha, social activists - and, above all, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
To be sure, Aung Zaw's account is not a celebration of the pro-democracy icon; on the contrary, he references the criticism against her, some of which has grown scathing since her accommodation with President Thein Sein's quasi-civilian, military-backed regime. "She has become silent on the issue of sanctions and is no longer increasing pressure on the generals, or speaking out about current and past abuses and allegations of crimes against humanity. Some of her recent decisions have, in fact, harmed those she claims to represent," he writes.
Irish photojournalist and accomplished author Nic Dunlop has spent more than two decades covering the conflict that Aung Zaw describes - mostly through his camera lens. Dunlop is a world-class photographer and his new book Brave New Burma contains some of his most striking black-and-white images, many of which were first published in The Irrawaddy. Like Aung Zaw, Dunlop views recent developments in Myanmar with utmost circumspection.
Dunlop notes in his accompanying text that there is still a civil war raging in Myanmar's frontier areas, and that despite less censorship and more freedom of expression the country is still effectively controlled by the powerful military. He writes that "the danger is that the cause of human and democratic rights will be side-lined, or ignored", as the West re-engages with Myanmar "in pursuit of its own economic and strategic interests. But the problems that have plagued ordinary people under military rule - poverty, forced labor, land grabs, harassment and intimidation - continue."
Dunlop pays homage to Myanmar's ordinary people through his striking photographs, taken variously over the years in the backstreets of Yangon, in the countryside, and in some of the country's least developed areas where marginalized ethnic minorities reside. There are pictures of people in teashops and pagodas, shots of prisoners in chains working on construction sites, ethnic insurgents in their jungle redoubts, and of the mighty Myanmar army flexing its armaments in parades in the new capital Naypyidaw.
Dunlop's volume stands apart from the various coffee-table books with the customary images of golden pagodas and smiling people. Brave New Burma shines insightful light on some of Myanmar's darkest days, an era when media access to foreigners was limited and strict censorship the rule. As Dunlop writes about his own pictures, they "represent the antithesis of the national conformity that the regime has tried to impose ... for now, the army has withdrawn from direct rule, but the generals are still there, watching. They remain a law unto themselves."
The Face of Resistance: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Fight for Freedom> by Aung Zaw. Silkworm Books Publishing (2013). ISBN: 6162150666. Price: 525 Thai Baht (US$16.67); 160 pages.
Brave New Burma by Nic Dunlop. Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport, England (August 2013). ISBN-10: 1907893318. Price: 19.20 pounds (US$31); 200 pages.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of several books on Myanmar, including Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Struggle for Democracy, and Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948. He is currently a writer with Asia Pacific Media Services.
(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)