(c) Nick Danziger

ESSAY Rory Maclean & Nick Danziger

NWR Issue 104

Truth and Reconciliation in Burma

‘Please feel free to interview the children,’ boomed the owner of a Rangoon ‘recycling factory’, nodding at a dozen barefoot labourers, adding in a theatrical whisper, ‘apart from the ones who are younger than twelve.’ In a nearby field back-bent girls paused from planting rice, stretched their stooped spines and giggled for the camera: ‘Photograph me, sir, not her. I am the beautiful one.’ Across town in a busy tea shop, a waiter served two would-be German investors with the words, ‘Welcome to Burma. Do you know about the massacres which followed the 1988 uprising?’

Twenty-six years ago the Burmese people rose up against their military government. The unarmed demonstrators were cut down, leaving more than 5000 dead. Today betrayed, golden Burma – now officially called Myanmar – is strutting on to the world stage. Soldiers have been withdrawn from cities, political prisoners released and censorship eased. David Cameron and Barack Obama have made cameo appearances. But how sincere are the play’s leading actors? And how safe are those voices who are now so boldly, so eagerly speaking out?

Yu Ya was three years old when her father was arrested for publishing a poem that criticised the government. Her mother told her that he had gone abroad for work. Yu Ya wasn’t disappointed for she knew that when working parents returned to Burma they brought chocolate, and she loved chocolate.

Two years into the sentence, Yu Ya’s grandfather died. As both men were famous writers – Min Lu and Thar Du – the authorities decide to release Yu Ya’s father for the day of the funeral. She was happy to see him but she couldn’t understand why he didn’t bring her any chocolate. After the funeral the family took him back to prison. Yu Ya was told that he had to return to his work overseas. She thought that the low, discoloured concrete building was an airport. Long after her father had vanished into its dark doorway, she waited for his aeroplane to take off from behind it.

Now, at the age of twenty-five, Yu Ya – a writer herself – has told the story for the first time. ‘I think my father was right to publish the poem,’ she said without hesitation in the softest voice tinged with an edge of vulnerability. ‘I believe that today to make our freedom last we must seize every chance to speak out, to debate, to interact, all of us.’

Last year, the photojournalist Nick Danziger and I invited young writers like Yu Ya, along with a dozen teachers, social workers, dog lovers and professionals, people from many walks of life, to tell a true story – one that they had never before had the chance to tell. Our aim was to help to empower the individual by example, to ingrain the habit of truth-telling, and – paraphrasing Aung San Suu Kyi – to break the lingering habit of fear. Through words and images, we hoped to show how powerfully ideas can be communicated if heart and mind are engaged in one’s work...

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