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Observation Post: The People Who Come and Ask a Lot of Questions and Then Go Away — Myanmar

By Philip C. Winslow

Wardan jetty, Yangon
Wardan jetty, Yangon. Photo credit: Philip C. Winslow

This is the last of three parts of a photo retrospective on three countries where Philip C. Winslow has worked since the mid-1990s: Angola, Sierra Leone, and Myanmar (Burma). All photos © Philip C. Winslow. Read part one and part two.

Thirty years ago when I was reporting the civil war in Angola, a Catholic nun needed to explain to people in a remote village what a journalist was, why I was there. With no word in the local language, she created one that translated as “the people who come and ask a lot of questions and then go away.” Her delightfully accurate description stayed with me for years as I interviewed people in other countries whose lives were in turmoil or about to get that way.

Looking back now at Angola, Sierra Leone, and Myanmar (Burma) is partly a late-in-life feeling that I owe people whose stories I wrote down before habitually leaving for somewhere else. My sense of benign debt follows the plea that I (and many reporters) frequently hear in troubled places: “We are alone. Please tell our stories.” Tell their stories I did. Some may find the notion that I “owe” highfalutin; it was a job, right? I reported, and moved on to other stories.

Memory and fondness (or loathing) are personal, and what we pick up along the way stays with us. Many of the people I’ve interviewed and photographed are displaced or dead. I’ve had the privilege, and the luck, of being able to go away, as the nun said. Most of these people had less opportunity. Many fled as terror descended. Or, they stayed put because wherever they were was home. Decades later, I want their lives, or at least their faces, seen through other eyes and remembered. That’s all they asked of me.


In February 2021, Myanmar’s long-dominant military overthrew the elected government and set about to crush the shoots of democracy once and for all. Some years before that, I traveled parts of the country: across Yangon, Bago and Mandalay divisions, through northern Kachin and the Shan states; through the plains, down south through Kayin and Mon states and back again. This was initial research for a planned book on the Irrawaddy River, which I was not able to finish. I moved around mostly unhindered through a country in fragile balance between partial peace and today’s savage war on civilians. Some people I met had already been displaced by the fighting or were being forcibly rehoused in “model villages.” Others knew what was coming and allowed me to document their stories. The documentation is not exhaustive: often just pictures of ordinary people whose lives had not yet been wrecked.


A-Wardan jettyWardan jetty, Yangon


B-  near Myitkyina L1000481 copyCrossing the Irrawaddy, near Myitkyina, Kachin State.


C- Yangon jetties L1000614 copyWaiting for cargo. Yangon docks.


D- Shwedagon L1010036 copyShwedagon Pagoda, Yangon. Her family runs a retail shop.


E- to Mawlamyine L1010634 copySouthbound train to Mawlamyine, formerly Moulmein.


E1- Mawlamyine Yangon L1000930 copyMawlamyine to Yangon


E2- Kachin State L1010638Kachin State


E3- between Yangon and Mawlamyine L1000900 copyBetween Yangon and Mawlamyine, Mon State.


E4- Kachin State Bhamo L1010633Bhamo Township, Kachin State


F- Merchant Rd L1000652 copyMerchant Road, Yangon


G- Confluence L1000557 copyConfluence of the Irrawaddy, Mali and N’Mai rivers, Myitsone, Kachin State.


H- Myitsone Pagoda L1000569 copy 2Myitsone Pagoda. A planned dam will leave the ancient pagoda and many villages under water.


H1- Confluence restaurant owner L1000546 copyA riverside restaurant owner and a friend’s daughter on the beach. The Irrawaddy confluence is a major national tourist attraction. Shops offer fresh grilled fish, cold beer and the smell of clean river water. Even in 2010 business had fallen off due to fighting in Kachin State. As the war intensified, most shops closed.


I- Thanbyuzayat L1000781 copyThanbyuzayat, Mon State. A father watches his son get a haircut before becoming a novice monk.


J- Shwedagon L1010007 copyShwedagon Pagoda


J1- Shwedagon L1010016 copyShwedagon Pagoda


J2- Shwedagon L1010028 copyShwedagon Pagoda


J3- Shwedagon L1010001Shwedagon Pagoda


J4- Shwedagon L1010062 copyShwedagon Pagoda


K- Yangon L1000452 copyThese backstreet Yangon kids asked me to take their picture. I didn’t pose them; this is how they arranged themselves.


L- Kachin State  L1000576 copyShe and her family have farmed along the Irrawaddy for generations. Many farmers have been forcibly displaced for the hydro dam projects. She served sliced pomelo dusted with fiery Kachin chilies, and anticipated my reaction.


M- Yangon sidecar L1000650 copy

Sidecar drivers wait for customers near the Yangon waterfront.


N- Yangon ribbon L1020100Downtown Yangon during monsoon.


O- Sittang River nr Waw L1000740 copyThe Sittang River, close to where British forces blew the original bridge in February 1942.


P- Yangon jetties L1020023 copyOffloading cargo at the Yangon jetties.


P1- Yangon jetties L1020036 copyThe barrels contained a tar product. It took four men to lift one.


P2- Yangon jetties L1020053 copy


P3- Yangon jetties L1020040 copy


P4- Yangon jetties  L1020047 copy


P5- Yangon ferry L1010924 copyOn board a Yangon River ferry.


P6- Yangon river L1010906 copyWaiting to cross the river after shopping in Yangon.


P7- Yangon River L1010148 copySnack sellers on the quay.


P8- Yangon river ferry  L1010100 copyThe ferry from Yangon to Dala.


Q- Near Waw L1000705 copyNear Waw, Bago district.


R- Mawlamyine YGN L1000909 copyMawlamyine to Yangon train, with his granddaughter.


S- nr Lashio NSS L1010671 copyFarmworkers near Lashio, Northern Shan State.


T-Kachin state L1000505 copyNorthern Kachin State


T1- Kachin State L1000510 copyNorthern Kachin State


U- Confluence L1000527 copyPanning for gold on the Irrawaddy, Kachin State.


U1- Confluence  L1000523Panning for gold on the Irrawaddy at Myitsone.


U2- Confluence L1000529 copyWashing ore on the Irrawaddy, standing in the river in the rain with a bad cold.


V- Waimaw L1010548 copy

Near Waimaw, Kachin State. The area is rich in gold, jade and poppies. Fighting continues between the Myanmar forces and the Kachin Independence Army, with regular casualties, destruction of villages and massive displacement of civilians.


W- nr Waimaw L1010531 copyCrossing a river east of Waimaw. Fighting and shelling have driven tens of thousands into camps for the displaced.


X- Northern Shan L1010797 copyThree generations of a family in Northern Shan State. They had been trying to finish their home but were repeatedly driven out by fighting in the area.


X1- Northern Shan L1010799


X2- Northern Shan L1010802


About the Author 

Philip C. Winslow has been a journalist for fifty years; he has worked for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto StarMaclean’s Magazine, ABC Radio News, CTV News, and CBC Radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and spent nearly three years living in the West Bank. He is the author of Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth.