A short boat ride from Sittwe in Myanmar’s Rakhine State lies Wabo village. The settlement is known as the “weaving village” and here you’ll see women working hard at looms in the sheltered areas located below the ground floors of their stilted homes. Wabo is famous for the design and quality of its longyis, the traditional, wrap-around garment still worn by a majority of Myanmar’s inhabitants. While walking around the village—it was in 2008—I came upon this school, and the kids had just been let out for a short spell. There was something about the school’s wooden structure and the children with their smiles, framed within a break in the surrounding lush foliage, that made this, for me, a memorable shot.
Mrauk-U differs from the older, regional temple-complex centers it’s sometimes compared to. Unlike Angkor Wat, it was never completely abandoned to the elements as it hosts a rural population who live amongst the remains of the past. And unlike Bagan, those local people weren’t booted out to make way for what Myanmar’s military junta thought a potential UNESCO world heritage site and tourist attraction should look like. Successive Myanmar governments have wanted World Heritage status for Mrauk-U and a decision was to be rendered this year. However in light of the current coup and violence against anti-junta demonstrators, that might well be on hold. Mrauk-U and this building (Shittaung Temple) are located within Rakhine State, a region that’s been in turmoil for some time. In 1977, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims living in the state were forced to flee for their lives after a brutal military campaign that targeted their villages. Thousands were murdered.
Not just a shirt
Myanmar is a land of beauty but also one of turmoil. Aside from an over-mighty, unaccountable military, one big reason has been the inability of the majority Burman population and the myriad ethnic minorities to agree on an equitable division of political power and national resources, as well as on access to security and other basic human needs. The flag shown here represents Kawthoolei, a putative independent Karen nation and shows that the man wearing this shirt is himself a Karen, one of Myanmar’s largest ethnic minorities. The bearded figure is that of the late Saw Ba U Gyi, a British-trained lawyer who went on to lead the Karen revolution before being killed in an an encounter with Burmese soldiers in 1950. After his death, those soldiers took his body to the coast and tossed it into the sea in an attempt to forestall his supporters making him a martyr. But that’s exactly how many Karen view Saw Ba U Gyi. At a Karen Revolution Day ceremony inside Karen-controlled territory, I once listened to Ba U Gyi’s daughter speak about the need for educating young Karen students so their people as a whole could go forward.