Book Reviews

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Welcome to Burma

And enjoy the totalitarian experience

Timothy Syrota

2001. 192 pp., b & w pl. illustrations, bibliography, index. 23.5 x 12.7 cm., softbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-008-7 $23.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-008-7

BANNED from Burma

Why Canterbury local Timothy Syrota became a man with a mission.

(Melbourne Weekly Magazine, October 28- November 3, 2001)

He is softly spoken, polite to a fault, and lives in the leafy, genteel suburb of Canterbury—but looks, as they say, can be deceiving. Timothy Syrota has not had a genteel existence. Far from it. This 32-year-old has had his share of hair-raising, lucky-to-get-out-alive experiences during three trips to Burma. Contracting typhoid and subsequently losing 10 kilos in a week, eating grasshoppers and cubes of pork fat, attending the wedding of an insurgent general’s son and being mistaken for a CIA spy…he’s been there, done that.
   As a writer, photographer and filmmaker keen to capture the everyday life of Burmese people, Syrota was a target of the military regime which has run Burma for 39 years. Filming street kids and recording life in villages where there are very few old people because the life expectancy in Burma is about 45 years, could be seen as inflammatory and damaging for tourism.
   “I took a series of photos of street children—the-poorest-of-the-poor in one of the world’s poorest countries,” he says of his last trip to Burma in June. “They only come out once the streets of Rangoon become deserted -a barefoot rag-tag brigade. If the military catches them, they are put into orphanages which are often worse than the streets.
   “Taking photos attracted the attention of the military, who stopped in a car on the opposite side of the street at midnight and watched what I was doing. I did a runner. The children collect plastic bottles to earn money. If they can collect 20 in a day they will earn 40 kyat, about five cents a day.”
   Syrota claims the military saw him as a threat, and took action in June. “After almost two months of filming I was drugged by the military and had my recorded tapes removed from my camera bag.”
   The drugging incident happened on an overnight bus trip. Syrota believes the drugs were placed in his water bottle or in the curry he ate for dinner by one of the military on the bus. After eating, his legs buckled under him, he felt light-headed, and his head kept falling onto his chest. When the drugs wore off, he discovered six videotapes had been stolen from his bag—but not his passport and money. (He was lucky to have several videotapes smuggled out of the country beforehand by Western backpackers keen to help.)
   Before the drugging, Syrota says he had been followed for several days. What proof does he have? Military intelligence dress in Western clothes—jeans, aviator sunglasses and black leather jackets—a sure way to stand out from others in poor villages.
   Syrota is vice president of the International Society of Human Rights (ISHR). He says this was his “trump card”: “If taken into detention; that was the one I was holding back to reveal at the last minute if it looked like prison was on the Cards.”
   After three trips, Syrota says that he has been banned from Burma. That hasn’t silenced him. His activism continues through an exhibition of his photographs at FAD Gallery in Melbourne’s Chinatown from November 12 to 22; and in his book, Welcome to Burma (Orchid Press). Some profits from the exhibition will help fund ISHR projects on the Thai-Burmese border.
   So, how does a law student from Melbourne University wind up in such terrifying situations, sacrificing safety to document what is going on in Burma?
   Initially, he wanted to record “the life of normal people” working in factories, sowing rice using water buffalo-led ploughs and fishing off small boats. But now Syrota is also on a heartfelt mission to spotlight the country’s human rights dilemma.
   Scratch the tourism surface, he says, and the oppression in a nation of 48 million people becomes stark. He met people who told him about forced labour and about people being held in prisons and being killed for their religious beliefs. Syrota describes them as being some of the most warm, generous people on the planet, trusting him to live with them and film them in their threadbare surroundings.
   “People don’t know much about Burma,” he says. “It’s the second largest producer of heroin in the world and an estimated 45 per cent of the Burmese GDP is based on drugs.”
   Last year, the World Health Organisation rated the Burmese military as providing the world’s second worst standard of health care (after Sierra Leone, at the time in the midst of civil war.)
   Syrota took his first visit to Burma in 1997 after holidaying in Thailand, and what he saw appalled him. “About 45 per cent of the Burmese budget is spent on the 400,000 members of the Burmese military. If you buy entry into temples or museums or buy boat, plane or train tickets, that money goes directly to the military.”
   His advice for travellers to Burma ? “Be inquisitive, but don’t go there to continue your party holiday from Bangkok, because that’s an insult to people who are suffering.
   “Indonesia is the only South-East Asian country with a bigger army. Burma has no wars except against their own people. About 70 per cent of Burma is off limits to tourists.”
   “All tertiary education closed in the end of 1996 and reopened mid-2000 because students have a history of rising up against the military. In 1988, between 3000 and 10,000 students were killed by the military. I’d love to shoot a documentary on the level of education in Burma because it’s disgusting. I’d tell people to read Aung San Suu Kyi’s books. She knows a hell of a lot more about this than me.”
   But Syrota’s book, Welcome to Burma, ventures far beyond what you would read in guidebooks. Take the introduction: “Hello, this is your tour guide speaking. I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome you all to Burma. As you travel through our beautiful country please do not look beyond the glittering pagodas, do not talk about politics and please ensure that you do not leave the clearly defined trail.”

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