I had well-founded doubts about going to Myanmar (Burma). Warnings from travelers and journalists cannot be ignored. If you photograph a certain building, the wrong bridge, or anyone in uniform, you lose your film. People get detained. Then there were further misgivings about putting more U.S. dollars in the coffers of the military junta. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning activist and thorn in the side of the military regime even while under house arrest, was saying: “Don’t come.”
Had I heeded the warnings and shied away, I might never have seen the Shwedagon Paya, its spires burnished by the setting sun; not visited old Bagan and its ancient pagodas at sunrise, or floated among the flower gardens of Inle Lake. Nor would I have traveled the Irrawaddy, the famous “road to Mandalay,” on an ancient white river-boat, its hold filled with rice and its lower deck packed with families and groups returning to their villages after shopping in Yangon.
Most of all I would not have met Khin, a young Kayan ethnic minority whose tribe was from the mountains. For two weeks, Khin took me where I could take photographs without feeling a rush of paranoia—even within sight of one or two officers on foot. The people we encountered were gracious, although suffering from poverty, repression, and isolation. In his own village, four generations turned out to greet us. They wanted proof that Khin had been the first in his village to swim in the sea. Nobody had believed him. They didn’t believe that there was a sea. Friends of mine (whom Khin had guided previously) and I were there to testify. Yes, Khin had swum in the sea.
In turn, Khin wanted people to see Burmese, spirited, enterprising, happy in their work and family lives, living the Buddhist belief that it is up to each to work out his or her fate. Khin, for one, wanted me to be there, with my camera, to show that they were simply living out their hope that in their reincarnation they would be reborn beyond the reach of the current regime.
From the November December 2006 Life After Bush issue of California.