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On the frontlines of a ‘Brave New Burma’

Editor’s note: The United Nations, most major news organizations, including CNN, and the government of the country itself all use Myanmar as the name of the country formerly known as Burma. The people of Myanmar are still referred to as Burmese unless they are a stated ethnic minority. Photographer Nic Dunlop calls the nation by its former name, which remains in popular usage.

Nic Dunlop has spent the past 20 years documenting one of the world’s most divisive and unstable countries.

Myanmar, a southeast Asian nation, has been plagued by civil wars and has been under military control since a coup d'état in 1962.

When Dunlop first arrived in the country as a young, energetic photographer in 1992, he visited a refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border and was struck by those he met and photographed.

“There in the compound, I met Burmese students who had fled the bloody crackdown of 1988 when the army opened fire on protesters in Rangoon (now known as Yangon), killing thousands,” the Bangkok-based photographer says. “I remember thinking, had I been born in Burma, I may well have been among them; we were the same age and became friends.”

Dunlop says that was the starting point for his decades-long project in Myanmar. He realized the situation was extremely complex and knew it would take time to tell.

Over many visits to the impoverished country, he began to gradually build up an archive of material and increase his knowledge of the place with the goal of producing an in-depth book.

“The reason I kept going back is because I wanted to get strong images of difficult subjects,” Dunlop says. “It was both a quest to document the ongoing oppression and provide context to the images.

“And in Burma, which was a mature military dictatorship, the signs of oppression were subtle and in turn more sinister.”

Upon his arrival to the former capital city of Yangon in 1995, he says he expected coils of razor wire everywhere and a soldier on every corner. Instead, he found a picture-postcard image of a reclusive country steeped in tradition.

The brutal army he’d heard so much about was conspicuous by its absence, he says. This presented a unique problem.

“How do you photograph an invisible dictatorship?” Dunlop says. “It became clear to me when I realized just how afraid people were. There were spies and military intelligence was everywhere. There was no need for soldiers on the streets.

“I realized that there was a degree of collusion between people and the regime that complicated matters. For most people, it was a question of survival.”

His latest trip to Myanmar was in May 2012. In recent years the country has made steps toward democracy with far-reaching political and economic reforms. Although the military still holds great sway, a nominally civilian government was sworn in in 2011.

U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton both paid visits to the country late last year, signaling a change in relations. Western governments, including the United States, have lifted sanctions against Myanmar in response to signs of progress.

After years of military dictatorship, Dunlop says he witnessed the rise of hope in political activist and Nobel peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi, along with many others, had been calling for democracy in her country since the 1980s. After spending 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest, she was finally released in 2010.

Many people have put great trust in her ability to affect change, Dunlop says. In April 2012 she won a seat in parliament in the country’s first multi-party elections since 1990. But the country’s future remains unclear.

Although the military appears to have loosened its grip on the country, Suu Kyi says most people are not seeing the benefits of reform.

“If you talk to the man on the street, if you talk to people in villages, the great majority of them would say that their lives have not changed since 2010,” she told a panel at the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw on Thursday, June 6.

Dunlop says he finds his greatest inspiration for Myanmar in the ordinary Burmese people who are working and committed to improving the lives of their fellow countrymen and women.

But he says many of them remain skeptical of the recent transformations.

“In the areas where civil war has been a reality for decades, there is hope, but it is tempered by years of raw experience,” Dunlop says. “There is no trust between the ethnic minorities and the government.”

- Raymond McCrea Jones, CNN

Nic Dunlop’s book “Brave New Burma” has been published in the UK by Dewi Lewis Publishing. It is available for pre-order in the U.S.