Photographers' Blog

The first embrace

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.

Voices of Myanmar refugees

By Damir Sagolj

“It was raining for days before she came, then rain stopped. She has super powers,” Poe Suter Toe, an ethnic Karen refugee said. Indeed, the monsoon rain started again the moment Aung San Suu Kyi left Mae La, the biggest refugee camp at the Thailand-Myanmar border. Its 50,000 people, refugees from all across the country, better known as Burma, remain behind razor wire surrounding the camp in mountains.

A day after, I crossed inside the camp one more time to ask people about Mother Suu’s visit. What do they think about it? Can she change the country? Can she help them?

SLIDESHOW: VOICES OF MYANMAR REFUGEES

As expected, I heard many different opinions; from no hope to big hope, from “she is my inspiration” to “she can’t do anything”, from fears of another “failed revolution” to excitement that the misery of these poor people could be coming to its end. Many were just being very cautious about their expectations.

The magic of the crop

That first day was history in the making. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the icon of the democracy movement in Myanmar and daughter of an independence hero of the country, was appearing in public for the first time in many years. I knew these were not going to be ordinary images. Leave them big and don’t try to improve the perfect. If I could only make the frame wider to show the whole country celebrating her freedom… but to crop – no, no, no…

MYANMAR-SUU KYI/

Aung San Suu Kyi smiles as she walks with National League for Democracy party members after being released from house arrest in Yangon November 13, 2010. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Euphoria continued the following day, as Suu Kyi gave her first speech after being released from house arrest before tens of thousands supporters packed on a street in front of her party’s headquarters.

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