On the road with President Obama in Myanmar
By Jason Reed
It was something you wouldn’t dream of ten years ago. Based then as a photographer in Bangkok, our forays into neighboring Myanmar consisted of clandestine treks across a slippery border into the jungle camps of Karen rebels. Rebels who were child soldiers brandishing impossibly heavy weapons in their fight against a military junta that had not only persecuted them but also banished Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi into years of house arrest – denying her a place in the political landscape following democratic general elections in May, 1990.
Journalist visas to Myanmar were almost impossible to obtain and the only visual fruit they bore was to strictly-controlled, officially-sanctioned photo opportunities at the ceremonial burning of illicit drugs intercepted from the golden triangle.
Fast forward to November 19, 2012 and the dream is now reality – a first embrace by the United States government to the new social and political reforms in Myanmar. We’re flying into Yangon in a plane bearing the seal of the President of the United States. As journalists we are privileged to have a front-row seat to history. In this case, it was the first visit by a U.S. president to this nation as it slowly reveals itself from behind a curtain of 50 years of strict military rule and international sanctions.
Yangon airport, where in a past life I smuggled memory cards of images out of the country concealed in my underwear, is now a flashy contrast of glass and steel. On the road to town is where the first true glimpse of social upheaval hits you – British colonial-era boulevards lined with thousands of flag-waving children and families, office workers craning their necks for a glimpse of President Obama as his entourage motorcades to a meeting with Myanmar’s President Thein Sein. At times the crowd were just inches from our vehicles as they sped past.
The second surprise was an internet connection at government house so fast that I could transmit a two-megabyte picture to our editors in Singapore within about three seconds, saving us the agonizing minutes spent wrestling with a spotty satellite phone connection we were all dreading but were prepared for. The constant pressure that wire photographers put themselves under to get the first pictures out of important events is very real, leaving butterflies in your stomach until that first image uploads with the reassuring phrase.. “transfer complete”. Only after then can you breathe a giant sigh of relief, ready to actually enjoy taking pictures.