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From the shadowlands

Book and photo exhibition exposes the glorious treasures and epic tragedy of Myanmar

Publication Date : 06-09-2012


It's a somewhat curious twist of fate that Thierry Falise - a Belgian correspondent known for his treks into areas of conflict and reports on dramatic events in strife-torn lands - got into journalism as a way to avoid military service.

That's because the quietly spoken but highly regarded writer and photographer, based in Bangkok since 1991, has ventured into more areas of turmoil than most correspondents would ever see. Indeed, his journeys into Myanmar - amid a quarter of a century reporting in Asia - have been extensive, taking him to places throughout the country open to most visitors, as well as many of the "black zones" in the ethnic border regions, where entry by foreigners is both forbidden and dangerous.

The fruit of his extraordinary legwork - treks up to five weeks long with groups such as the Free Burma Rangers, the "humanitarian commandos" providing healthcare to hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Karen State and other parts - is evident in a new book being launched in Bangkok today.

"Burmese Shadows" is a magnificent photographic record of this remarkable, troubled land. This is Falise's fourth book, and his first in English, after three written in French - a biography on Aung San Suu Kyi, a documentary account of the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, and a novel based on Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twin boys who led the ragtag God's Army of Karen rebels near the border at Ratchaburi a decade ago.

As many tourists are now learning, Myanmar is a pictorial smorgasbord with no shortage of rich material: a country with 135 recognised ethnic races and a vibrant Buddhist culture, before you even consider its turbulent recent history. For journalists and photographers, the challenge has long been the severe lack of access, censorship and avoiding officials long obsessed with secrecy and ill-disposed (still) to critical reportage of its repressive rule.

Falise has assembled a spectacular collection of pictures that few others could match - from portraits of democracy leader Suu Kyi to the notorious drug lord Khun Sa, Wa villagers tending opium fields in the far north, Shan troops training at mountain strongholds, thousands of monks protesting in central Yangon during the 2007 uprising and scenes of devastation after Cyclone Nargis to the deportation of migrant workers in Mae Sot, child soldiers, ethnic villagers sweating through bouts of malaria, backpack dentists at work in jungle clearings, refugees fording rivers with baskets of belongings and children on their backs, and more ordinary scenes from festivals and everyday life.

About the only thing missing are images of the senior generals, although that's something you could forgive a man who's used to writing under pseudonyms and hiding from the powers-that-be. Falise's greatest success is perhaps revealing the human face of the "shadowlands" - images from these border regions wracked by civil war, the homelands of the Karen, Shan, Wa and Kachin in the mountainous north.

Falise, 55, worked with the Associated Press in Paris in the mid-'80s before travelling to Bangkok to do freelance work during his holidays. He was quickly drawn to the Myanmar border and conflicts involving ethnic rebels.

There were trips to Manerplaw, the former headquarters of the Karen National Union, Three Pagodas Pass, and treks with the Karen and Mon rebels. In 1988 he was caught in an hour-long firefight when the Karen soldiers he was accompanying were ambushed by Burmese troops. He saw villagers in free-fire zones, mine victims and people dying of malaria.

Far from upsetting him, these adventures kept drawing him back. There were trips to Laos, the Philippines and the Cambodian border, to write about the refugee crisis and long-running saga of the Khmer Rouge.

"That's how I became entangled. I was spending three months on my own as a freelancer. But Bangkok was always the base," he says. "I got depressed every time I went back to Paris, after the wonderful adventures here."

In 1991 he resigned and moved to Thailand to cover Southeast Asia. "It was still a sort of golden age for journalism", he says of the pre-Internet era when newspapers and magazines in Europe paid good money for big news and strong pictures from the "exotic East".

The following year Falise was badly injured at the start of the protests in Bangkok against the Suchinda military regime while photographing a scene of anarchy near the Phanfa Bridge. A police station had been set on fire on the first night. "A police car exploded and I got shrapnel in my leg - a piece of metal."

He spent seven weeks in hospital and had four operations. The hospital was flooded with injured people, but he was given a private room. "Five foreigners died in the following days," he says.

Undeterred, he continued doing stories for papers and magazines, in Europe mainly. "I also did some radio news reports, but I gave priority to feature stories. It's difficult to compete against agencies [covering the big daily news]. I always prefer to be alone on a story, than to be with 100 other guys on a picture - I hate that."

In 2003 he and colleague Vincent Reynaud trekked into northern Laos to report about a large group of "jungle Hmong" hiding from the Lao military. On their way back they were caught in a drama in which a local security man was shot dead. They were jailed and tried in court before being freed after mounting appeals for them to be released by colleagues in Bangkok and Paris.

"Not many jobs allow us to do this. But I don't buy the word 'lucky', for being able to do this. It's my choice. It's certainly a way to be free. But it has a cost - sometimes you don't have a project for months."

Nation sub-editor Jim Pollard is on the executive committee of the Foreign Correspondents Club.

The book launch and opening of "Burmese Shadows: 25 Years of Life Reporting Behind the Bamboo Curtain" is at 8 tonight at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.


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