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Nic Dunlop: ‘It is no longer useful to view Burma through the prism of Suu Kyi’

Following the publication of his newest book Brave New Burma, Jack Goodman spoke with Bangkok-based photographer and journalist Nic Dunlop about ongoing reforms in the country, Aung San Suu Kyi and his experiences documenting Burma for the past 20 years.

Your new book, ‘Brave New Burma’, is a 20-year photographic portrait of the dictatorship. Why was it important for you to produce something of such depth?

I felt Burma was simplified by the media and activists to such an extent that it didn’t foster a degree of understanding as to how a military regime that is universally despised can hold onto power for so long. So I set off and I thought: I’ll bide my time to really make sense of all of this. I wanted people to see what a military dictatorship really is. When people talked of oppression I wanted to show people what it looked like.

How would you characterise the dictatorship?

I’ve got a chapter in the book called the invisible dictatorship and in a sense the dictatorship was invisible. It was almost as though it occupied a place in the mind with paranoia and fear. With the visual medium you have to translate it somehow. It presented me with a unique challenge.

Was there anything that you felt was problematic about the way that the media traditionally portrayed Burma?

We want everything to be simplified into polar opposites of great moral simplicity. I think Burma was a classic case of that. It wasn’t that that was necessarily wrong because that is where I started from too. I feel that the more I learnt the less I knew. You have Aung San Suu Kyi representing the ordinary Burmese pitted against the vile and brutal regime and that was it.

Where does the civil war fit in? How is it that the military was so big if they were hated? These questions were never answered by the media. It’s just the same idea of evil and good over and over again and that’s so unhelpful and actually so simplistic to be divisive.

Since the military government ‘stepped down’ in 2010, what has been the most significant change for the Burmese people?

It’s the fact that people are no longer afraid to talk and express their opinions openly – that has to be the major thing because before it was fraught and people really were afraid. The lifting of that fear so they can actually take control of their own opinions. That’s a massive step and very different to put back in the bottle if that’s what the powers that be wanted to do.

Why did the military step down?

We haven’t actually heard why the military decided that they would step aside. Why has this military reform programme been tolerated? What were the pressures that they were facing? Yes, you have to look at self-interest – that’s the first thing you start from isn’t it? Questioning why this happened. The generals didn’t just wake up one morning and think you’ve got it right we were wrong all along, we must do something! Everyone has just accepted that change happens and that the sanctions worked, well did it? I’m not saying it didn’t I’m just asking the question. It seems like a question that no longer seems relevant.

Have you been surprised by the recent spates of sectarian violence?

I think the degree of the violence is surprising, but I don’t think it is surprising that it has happened. But what I think is indicative and what hasn’t been said enough and hasn’t been said by people who should be speaking out, like the Western governments and Aung San Suu Kyi, is the fact that this is orchestrated. This is organised and it’s playing on racism that was already there.

What are your views on how the police and security forces have dealt with the recent outbreaks of violence?

From what I have read, at best the police have been watching the violence taking place, at worst they were actually participating. And this whole idea that they couldn’t control it is complete nonsense. It begs the question, what is really behind all of this? We have heard about Wirathu the Monk projecting a virulent strain of nationalist Buddhism, but remember this is an identity that has been cultivated ever since Ne Win took over in 1962. There has always been that feeling of resentment of the Indian/Muslim communities coming in with the British to run the country as a colony.

Is the criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to speak out against the violence justified?

Everyone wants to believe in her and, in a messy world, everyone wants to hear a voice of moral clarity and everyone believed in that. She remains steadfast and she is incredibly courageous and admirable. But she has made a transition from being an icon to being a political figure so therefore she should be treated as one and she will come under attack and be criticised.

She has failed, but then we have also built her up into something that she was never in the first place. The expectations of her ability are impossibly high; she can only fall. I have to say I think she has fallen far further than I thought she would. Not coming to condemn violence as a pacifist and a Buddhist is striking. But it’s also wrong to place so much on her, it is no longer useful to view Burma through the prism of Suu Kyi as your starting rod.

How do foresee the impact of the 2015 elections?

My only feeling is that elections are a hook, to make a country democratic takes much more than an election. I view elections anywhere in the world with deep cynicism because they grab headlines and that’s it. I expect the civil war will continue if not get worse, there will probably be more sectarian violence.

What do you perceive to be the most important aspect of the reform process?

The great question in all of this is the military. Before there was no room for understanding, only shrill condemnation, which is unhelpful and doesn’t help us in our understanding of the situation. Remember the Burmese military is the single biggest employer in Burma – when you know that you tend to think away from a monolithic organization that is hated by the vast majority of the population suddenly becomes a bit more complicated.

They are the one institution in the country that is yet to be touched by the reform programme and there is no sign that it will change at all and already the Americans are talking about direct contact for training. This is the military that was being universally condemned by the Americans over and over again and in the loudest possible voice. That’s all fallen away and nobody has thought now hang on a minute what about the military? You put people in civilian clothing and instantly they’re a complete democrat?

Nic Dunlop will be appearing at the Front Line Club on 15 May as part of the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature 


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