Are the changes for real?

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Jim Pollard

Nic Dunlop has spent two decades documenting the dictatorship in Myanmar. His latest book will test the country's new "liberal" standards
Irish photographer and author Nic Dunlop - based in Thailand for more than 20 years - is set to launch a new book which gives a graphic insight into the ugly repression used by the Burmese military to maintain power for half a century.

"Brave New Burma" is a compelling and thoughtful expos? of the long-running dictatorship, with powerful images that linger in your mind. The images range from portraits of extraordinary ethnic mixes to dramatic scenes of troops parading under the giant statues of warrior kings in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Dunlop's famous profile of Aung San Suu Kyi is here, amid shots of tribal troops in their trenches in the far north and displaced people on all sides of the country.

But it is his images of rights abuses that stand out. These include scenes of forced labour (villagers building roads and working in quarries), a man led away by undercover police and child soldiers arrested after a harrowing flight to the border. He captures the despair of displaced Rohingya, landmine victims, and perhaps most damning of all, political prisoners shackled in folded-up positions designed to further punish those who dared to oppose the regime.

The overall impression is haunting - and begs the question of whether the book will be allowed on sale inside the country, despite the long-overdue strides it has made toward liberty. President Thein Sein has overseen major reforms, but Dunlop's book - a 200-page black-and-white pictorial illustrating how the generals suppress the people - will test the new government's commitment to openness.

It sounds bleak, but the text is clear, direct and cleverly told via anecdotes and several revealing personal accounts - from a former soldier, a political prisoner, a victim of the Depayin massacre, and a domestic servant who caught Aids.

These provide great insight into the military, its interaction with the people and the real core of Myanmar's problems - the military's reluctance to agree to a fair system of sharing power with ethnic groups and a political settlement to end insurgencies that have raged for 60 years.

Dunlop says that, on initial trips to the border and inside the country, he struggled to comprehend the "dark side" of a land that seemed so normal on the surface. An assignment for The Guardian in 1995, to provide photos for a feature by John Pilger on "The Burmese Gulag", convinced him that the country's crisis was beyond the scope of traditional media with their deadlines and limited funds.

"It was very hard to get the kinds of images that really spoke of the reality," he says. "It was these limitations that set me on my course to take photos for a book that I hoped would actually reveal something of what was going on.

"I began to see the dictatorship everywhere: in the clusters of children repairing roads, in dilapidated buildings, in the hum of generators compensating for power shortages, in the poverty of the countryside. The regime was so ubiquitous there was no need for troops on the streets. The very absence of the army was proof of its power."

Dunlop, 43, is sceptical about the recent changes. The title of his book aims to "question whether the new Burma that people talk about has really changed for the better". It is also a play on the title of Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World", "which describes a very different form of totalitarianism to Orwell's '1984' - one that is far more subtle but no less frightening".

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