In mid-2013, I was living and working as a freelance correspondent in Southeast Asia. While I was based in the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand I met and worked with many of the economic and political refugees who had crossed the Dawna Range to seek refuge from the economic stagnation and military persecution they faced in Myanmar.
Their lot was not much better in Thailand, where they were confined to shantytowns no different from South African shack settlements, and forced to work on construction projects, perched on bamboo scaffolding to build condominiums for well-heeled Thais and expatriates who had converted their meagre savings in the West into small fortunes in Thailand’s baht.
The less fortunate found employment on the seafood trawlers in the Gulf of Thailand where they worked as modern slaves.
It was a heady time in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest just three years earlier and had finally been able to deliver her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize that she had received 20 years before. Tourists and political celebrities like Barack Obama were beginning to trickle into the isolated nation. The prospect of change loomed heavy in the air, like the wind that rolls off the Dawna Range in May and heralds the arrival of the monsoon.
A city of contrasts
That rainy season I visited Yangon (Rangoon) and met up with colleagues who had set up a photography collective in the backroom of a doctor’s surgery. Yangon is a mesmerising place: full of contradictions, fusions and mysteries. Its cuisine reflects its geography, an incredible coalescence of Indian, Chinese and Thai food cooked on open fires on the street side. Lazy dogs, all seemingly derived from a single genus, lie on pavements and in alleyways, too lethargic to even wag their tails when you pet them. At night, they form huge roving packs, hunting children and solitary adults if they stumble into the wrong alley. The government builings bewildered me, their red face-brick exteriors and Victorian clock towers making me think I was back in central Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.
Even then, the situation in Rakhine was a public secret. Greg Constantine’s photobook Exiled to Nowhere had been released in 2012 and had laid bare the brutality of the repression against the Rohingya. But opinions were divided within Myanmar. “Those people are Bengalis,” said a man who bought me a drink at a tavern not dissimilar to our shebeens. “They don’t belong here!” He wiped whisky off his moustache before asking me if I would help him transport weapons from Thailand with my South African passport. I politely declined and slipped back into the night, wary of the dogs I’d petted earlier.
Another colleague, a tall, swarthy Spanish photojournalist with a thick, slightly greying beard who insisted on using a medium-format film camera, warned me about trying to get into Rakhine. “They won’t let you in, amigo,” he told me, “and if you do get in, they’ll kill you for the way you look. They tried to kill me.”
Feed the birds
The early mornings in Yangon are quite beautiful, very still. Most people at that stage were still pedestrians and they have a beautiful habit as they make their way across the city. Vendors set up little stalls selling seeds. For small change, you can pick up a bag and feed the pigeons. It is a wonderful, calming way to start the day.
On my final morning in the city, I was still cursing my fortunes for not being able to get into the troubled state. After buying a bag of seeds, I turned a corner, stumbled over a dog and happened upon this scene.
Much like South Africa, it is Myanmar’s diversity, its position at the crossroads of history and empires and the dozens of unique cultures and languages contained within its borders that gives it its distinctive beauty.
How sad that in the 21st century, xenophobia is a global phenomenon, which robs us of our decency and replaces it with vitriol and hate.