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Burmese Spring

Even by the standards of hermit regimes, Burma lives in a world of its own, a shadow of the country that was once the world's largest rice producer. Rangoon, once so alive with diversity and people from across the region is today a place of deprivation and haunting beauty. The banyan trees reach out from the mouldering remains of villas and colonial offices. Ancient buses, cast off by Japan decades ago, wheeze through canyons in the broken macadam. Outside the law courts, men in crisp white shirts and longyis, Burma's traditional ankle-length sarong, sit hunched over ancient typewriters, feeding the maw of the bureaucracy. Gaping sinkholes in the pavement reveal the sewer beneath, exhaling into the tropical air. In the countryside, Burma lives by candlelight; three-quarters of the population has no electricity, though the nation has vast oil, gas and hydropower resources. Mobile phone penetration ranks 215 out of 217 countries, behind Bhutan and North Korea. Less than one per cent of the population is connected to the internet. Behind these textures of contemporary Burma lies a turbulent and bloody history of mass demonstrations and a popular struggle by a population seeking democratic representation instead of the iron grip of military rule.

The elections in April 2012 were an overwhelming victory for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). The sense of hope and transformation was initially so profound that it was easy to lose sight of how fragile this new opening in Burmese politics still is.

The prospect of military intervention to reassert its primary role in the country still very much hangs over the celebrations that have followed the NLD's electoral success. The single greatest obstacle to democratisation is a provision in the constitution which guarantees a quarter of parliamentary seats to the military. The NLD has vowed to amend the constitution to change that.

In contrast, Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital, is still under construction and is one of the ten fastest growing cities in the world. It is more centrally and strategically located than the old capital, Rangoon. Nay Pyi Taw is desolate, a vast new urban development carved out of a rural landscape. But it is also a strategic repositioning of the seat of power away from the population out of fear of political unrest.

Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, who visited Nay Pyi Taw in January 2007, described the vastness of the new capital as "the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative 'colour revolution' not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography".

There is no memorial for Rangoon's bloody history. The demonstrations and the massacres by the government live in the collective memory. My work explores Rangoon. In particular it records its vibrant daily life in locations that in the past were also scenes of brutality and public protest. This contrasts with the sterility of the new capital, a creation of the regime. Nay Pyi Taw's international airport, all shiny and new, is empty but for a few cleaners. As yet, nobody is flying into this new city in the interior. This photographic journey is a snapshot of a country poised in the middle of a major transformation.
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