Think Burma is a democracy now? Think again.

 

When I found out that I had the opportunity to travel to Burma in December 2011 along with several fellow student photojournalists under the mentorship of Gary Knight, I struggled to connect the name "Burma" to images in my head. At the time, Burma was just beginning to fill the headlines with the possibility of elections for democracy. When my flight was booked, I purchased a Lonely Planet Myanmar guidebook characterized by images taken by travel writers who'd been able to gain a visa to travel there.

It wasn't so much the meditating monks and sunset pagodas over Bagan that inspired me, but the faces of the Burmese, golden painted circles on their cheeks, often smiling. I wanted to find out who these people really were, living under a corrupt and dysfunctional dictatorship while the world seemingly carried on just over the border, smiling for visitors' photographs. Descriptions that life in Burma was almost frozen in time were rampant - it was a cliché deeply reminded me of similar descriptions to my mother's birthplace: Cuba. 

Life in a Changing Burma is a collection of photographs profiling the typical working-class family in the outskirts of Yangon, Burma in contrast with images of life and living from around the city.

This project was completed over a two-week trip in May and June of 2012. I spent the majority of my time there with one family, who lived in the farthest outskirts of the capital and lived off the railway tracks. Despite the continuous political shifts in government and the movement towards more democratic policies, life goes on in Burma. The photographs are an attempt to share the the
hope, anxiety, and life in a changing Burma.

 

Farmers pick watercress in one of the small fields between the train station and the village. The village is part of the Sann Gyi Wa quarter of Mingaladon Township outside Yangon. Although their homes are removed from city life, many people in the community travel to downtown Yangon every day in order to sell goods and produce that they purchase from wholesale markets in the early mornings.

Tahn Win sneaks a read from a Burmese magazine in front of the window to catch the occasional breeze and escape from the chaos of his household. For the working class in Myanmar, it can be difficult to find the time to enjoy life outside of work, as the day never stops. The adults work selling fruits and vegetables at the marketplace from the late night until the next morning. After they return home, they must manage the children and sleep before beginning again.

In the afternoon, Kyi Win sits in his home surrounded by family members afer a morning of selling produce at the market. His family is able to enjoy small luxuries, such as several fans to cool the perpetual-lyhot air, a stereo, and a television. Although the price of electricity is relative low, cable television is not possible due to their rural location. They instead rent movies from the next village over for several hundred kyat.

Po Bo struggles with his fourth grade reading homework after the first day of school. When the older children get back from the local elementary school, they immediately drop their bags and begin their work so they have time to play outside and watch television. Most children in the family stop school after the fifth grade, as attending middle and high school is much more expensive and the costs of the school, stationary, books, and uniforms can be a burden on funds.

Thin Htet Aung practices his English letters and Burmese penmanship in one of his exercise books that are provided by the government. Since the civilian government came to power, education throughout Myanmar has begun to undergo change. The children’s old, condemned school was abandoned in favor of a new school built during the summer. Additionally, Aung San Suu Kyi instituted that all public education must be free, and schools could not ask for donations from parents to help compensate the cost of public education.

A boy’s backpack and a girl’s backpack hang side-by-side on a recently repaired wall in the home. When Cyclone Nargis hit in 2007, two pieces of their corrugated tin roof blew away and they had to move into an abandoned hut down the road for refuge from the storm. Four days after the hurricane passed, Daw Than Yi’s husband, the head of the household, become ill and died. Since his death, it has been difficult for Than Yi to support her children through school and she had to learn her husband’s trade of selling groceries. Every day, she says, is a “struggle.”

Lin Lin Tun shows off photographs of herself taken at a photo studio before she was married. In Myanmar, it’s quite popular for young people to get professional photos taken at a studio in Yangon before big life events, such as moving away or getting married. Backdrops include pagodas, cityscapes, and beaches - these images are a visual way to transport the Burmese from their restricted lives in Myanmar to the outside world.

At the onset of a heavy rainstorm, Pyae Paing Paing raises the family’s moth-holed tarp to protect the second floor of the home from rain. During the monsoon season in Burma, rain lasts from only a few minutes to hours. Storms create numerous problems for the people in the rural areas surrounding Yangon, as many people have open homes without windows or proper walls. 

Kyi Win shares an intimate moment with his daughter after she returns home from her first day at the new local elementary school. Kyi Win works every day of the week as a produce seller at the markets so that he’ll be able to put his children through middle school and possibly high school. Business, however, has been bad for him this year because of the growth in popularity of cheap packaged noodles, the 2-3 digit daily lottery, and the opening of school. If people need to or want to spend money on other goods, they won’t buy the fresh produce that he sells and it is
difficult for him to make a profit.

Win Maw and Htet Htet Hling hold their young sons after feeding them. The two women became very close after Htet Htet Hling married Win Maw’s brother. They stay at the house while their husbands and other family members go to sell produce at the markets. They often sit quietly together, holding their children, not speaking.

Thin Htet Aung laughs beside his younger cousin, Kyi Khine, in an attempt to cheer him up. A toddler, Kyi Khine, suffers from intestinal issues and is often restless and crying, despite his mother’s efforts using traditional medicine. In the township that they live in, there are several clinics run by well-qualified doctors. The quality of health care in their area is not a problem, the problem for the family is that they are not able to afford treatment.

Thin Htet Aung and his cousin, Lau Lau, watch an episode of Tom and Jerry with Burmese subtitles. The two cartoon characters can be seen all over around the home - on backpacks, notebooks, pens, shirts, pajamas. Every night, both the children and the adults gather around the television to watch the cartoon on one of Myanmar’s public television stations.

After eating their daily dinner of white rice and broiled chicken, the kids lie around the television to watch Tom and Jerry. Although they’ve had the TV for over a year, they still use its box as a mat for sleeping. The television continues to sit in the styrofoam container that it came in.

Ar Kwae naps next to a puddle of spilled yogurt. The adults often feed the younger children small cups of plain yogurt mixed with coffee for lunch. This simple is cheap, and helps save the rice, meat, and fish paste for the older children and adults.

At dusk, Pyae Paing Paing sits on the wall surrounding the train station. Every night, he and his uncle travel to a nearby wholesale marketplace to begin buying the different goods they need in order to sell in the morning at the market. The buying process lasts until two or three in the morning. Afterwards, they travel to the market on the 4:20 AM train. Pyae Paing Paing stopped attending school after the fifth grade in order to help provide money for the family.