So Prez Obama is visiting Burma, right now. He’s going to meet Thein Sein, the president.
He might also meet this guy, one of the two VPs, whom I shot earlier in January in a remote area:
Let me tell you a quick story about that one. This was shot in Nagaland, near the indian border, which is a “brown zone” which few people do visit.
Access is granted by authorities to groups, not individuals. Only company that’s allowed to take you there is government-owned (which I didn’t know).
So I joined a group that was going there for 5 days for the new year celebrations. The program was extremely vague, the organisation was real flaky, and I didn’t know what to expect before I ended up in Leshi.
Once there, I learned that some fo the Government’s big cheeses would come to attend the celebration. Cool beans, I thought – I came to photograph the local people, not anything else.
So the VP, some ministers and other apparatchiks flew in in army helicopters, people from the local tribes were more or less lined up to sing and dance.
There was a lot of military personnel, police, and TV crews to cover all that.
And they were really interested in us, those TV crews.
Most of us foreigners got interviewed and were given seats in the VIP tribune and were greeted by the authorities, VP included.
It became obvious that it was all a big PR show, so I stopped covering the event and went back to shoot the local tribe people inst
ead, it was way more interesting and that’s why I went there anyway.
The whole thing was big news on burmese TV, we discovered that later on as we saw ourselves on TV when we got back to “civilization” (as in: stranded in a place that has a bar with a TV set). The takeaway message from TV news was “look at that, we’re opening up and making good progress on reform.. even in really remote areas, the tourists are free to come here, etc”.
Well… free, my arse. We were essentially locked up in a village.
A friend and I tried to go visit another village than the one we were parked into. No way. The whole area was blocked by the army, from which we wouldn’t get clearance.
We tried to arrange two motorcycles and drivers to sneak through the net and go visit nearby villages, but it became clear that it was not really worth taking the risk of getting in trouble with the authorities in this part of the world.
So much for the evening news’ PR message.
Still with me?
The point is this: It’s great that Obama is visiting the country. The lady is now free, and it’s true that Burma is opening up. Great news, especially for business people.
But please, whenever Burmese authorities say they are taking big steps toward more freedom, take it with a pinch of salt. I hate to be a party pooper, but…
Things are improving, of course, but an awful lot remains to be done, especially when it comes to the people themselves.
How about the borders? How about the Brown and Black zones, the ones that are under control of the army to various degrees?
How about all those political prisoners?
How about the Rohingya and other minorities?
What’s going on in Kachin, Karen, and Rakhine states? In the golden triangle?
How is “reform” affecting the lives of ordinary people?
I’m sure president O will not only go there for Realpolitik and drop a few business cards, and will ask those questions too. Or not.