It`s HUGE!!!

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Vanishing Tribes of Burma


 "I want to thank all of you who made this exhibition possible, and particularly, Mr. Richard K. Diran
for bringing beauty into my life at an unexpected time".

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
September 28, 2013

In 1980 I was only two years from having graduated from the Gemological Institute of America.
I decided to travel to the source of the world's finest colored gemstones, Burma. Burma produces the
finest rubies, sapphires, jade, pearls, peridot  and rare stones in the world. As I began doing business
in Rangoon, I thought that I would travel further afield upcountry, closer to the mining areas to increase
the selection of goods, and reduce the prices.

In 1983 I flew in to Heho Airport in Shan State in between Kalaw to the West and Taunggyi to the East.
Landing there I noticed a group of women standing outside the gates dressed in black tunics with coils of
brass rings around their ankles, and heads piled high with turbans. They were completely unlike the Burmese
I had encountered in Rangoon, or the tribes I had seen in Thailand. I discovered that they were called the Taungyo and had villages in the hills not so far from here.

I decided to find a guide who could lead me there and thus began my 25 year journey to record on film
and on tape all known tribal groups of the most ethnically diverse nation on earth, Burma. Nearby where
the Taungyo lived were villages of Palaung, Pa-o, Shan and Danu, along with the Intha leg rowers of Inlay Lake.

Researching the old literature of Lowis in 1919, Major C.M. Enriquez 1923 and Stevenson in 1944, I came across a British commissioner called Sir George Scott who was ordered to compile a list of all
known tribes, their customs, languages and traditions. His 5 volume series of thick books called "The
Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States" was published in Rangoon in 1900. His book became my
tribal bible, and I was determined to follow in his footsteps and  record all known tribal groups.

At that time only a 7 day visa was extended. Travel was difficult, roads scarce and turned to deep mud in
the rainy season. Communication was nearly impossible with crackling phone lines operated by red and black phone wires plugged into a switch board by hand, not having changed since the 1930's. Phones were
so scarce that a phone number may have been only 2 digits, like 45. I also communicated by telex machine which had a huge spool of yellow paper maybe an inch wide which you fed into a machine that punched holes for letters. This ribbon of paper was then fed in to the machine and came out on the receiving side in words.

Often I would have to use the 7 day visa to set up contacts for the next trip, return to Bangkok, obtain
another visa and go upcountry where my contacts would take me to the tribal groups I wanted to photograph .Lucky for me the gem business was lucrative and financed my ethnic journeys. I became
known as a purveyor of fine gem stones. At that time my wife and I lived in San Francisco, she running
a very successful Japanese restaurant called Fuki-Ya, a country style place that was the first robata-yaki
type eatery in America.

In March of 1988 I was in Rangoon when some local students clashed with local people over which
music was being played in a teashop. A fight ensued and one student was injured and the culprit arrested.
The next day March 13, the culprit was released and a few hundred students marched down to the People's Council office to protest. Riot police clashed with the students and one student Maung Phone Maw was shot dead. In the following days thousands of students were arrested and scores killed. This was the beginning of' the unrest. Soon thousands would be killed, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would return to Rangoon to attend  to her dying mother. I left Rangoon on March 17 1988 and did not re-enter until July 1989 when the visa period was extended for 14 days.

I rented a large colonial style house on Kaba Aye Road with a circular entry way, hardwood floors which
my staff polished with motor oil and coconut husks to a gleaming luster. There were only five colors of paint to choose from in the shops, so every one of the five bedrooms was painted a different color. Martial law was still in place with a curfew at 9pm. Anyone on the streets after that hour risked being shot. We set up a sound system with huge speakers and a Chinese amplifier playing Motor Head which could be heard 2 blocks away. Oh the parties. Anybody at the parties was compelled to stay over night. Somehow the authorities left me alone. My rent was $1,000 USD per year.

 My wife and I kept the Rangoon house for 3 years, 1989, 1990 and 1991.

We sold the restaurant in 1989 after 10 years of successful business just before the San Francisco
earthquake in October 1989. In 1993 we packed up nearly everything in the San Francisco house and
moved to Thailand. The commute was getting to be too long. I continued my travels to Burma and continued buying fine gemstones. I met a local businessman who was the son-in-law of the Burmese strong man U Ne Win who had ruled Burma for 25 years. He had married General Ne Win's favorite daughter became my direct sponsor. I was then allowed to obtain visas to Burma for one year after visiting the Embassy and raising my hand to swear that I was "free of political taint".

It was this I suppose that kept the authorities from preventing my travel to remote areas of the country, the fact that they knew I had no interest whatsoever in their politics. On one trip to Kayah State or Karrini State as those who live there call it, my airplane landed in Loikaw the capital. I was there to meet a friend who was arranging to bring some of  the ethnic minorities closer to where I could freely photograph them since Karrini State was clearly an insurgent area. Even being allowed to fly there was highly unusual. Everyone on the plane, all of whom were Burmese were ordered to disembark. The seats were bent over horizontal and the aircraft was loaded with wounded soldiers fresh from the battle field, some missing limbs, some with half a face missing from shrapnel. They would be transported to Taunggyi Hospital only 97 miles away.
I dared not even take a photograph.

By 1996 I had nearly completed my list of tribes in nearly every corner of the country. I returned to Rakine
State or Arakan State, Kachin State, for more photos, and then to the Naga Hills when the government for the first time allowed foreigners to witness Naga New Year. Walking into the hills around Khamti I heard in the distance cries of warriors who were running, screaming carrying ox hide shields and long spears wearing woven cane hats with monkey fur, hornbill feathers, wild boar tusks, strands of human hair and chins ringed with tiger claws. They wore belts and aprons of cowery shells. Some of these men had certainly taken human heads as trophies in the not too distant past.

In 1997 Lord Weidenfield and Nicholson agreed to publish my book, "The Vanishing Tribes of Burma"
which was launched at the United Nations London for "The Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples".
It was widely recognized to be the most complete and comprehensive ethnographic study of the tribes
of Burma since Scott nearly one hundred years ago. The book was later published in New York by Amphoto and then in France by Grund. In 2000 Vanishing Tribes came out in paperback.

In 2000 a journalist who was working for Time Magazine called me and asked
if I would like to go find a mysterious lake called Nawng Hkeo in the Wa Autonomous Region in Burma near the Chinese border together with him. This lake was in Wa folklore the place where the Wa people emerged as tadpoles and had not been seen since V.C Pitchford in 1937. Although we were unable to find that fabled lake, we did see where it was, shrouded in clouds. Later he did return and was successful. I did
however get some pictures of Wa women with long silver drums in their ears looking exactly as Scott had seen them 100 years earlier.

By 2001 I took a trip up the Kaladan River to Mrauk-U in Arakan State. From there I rode a jungle boat up the Lemro River to its source where I had read accounts of another group of tattoo faced women called the M'Gan. Although listed in literature there were no photographs. I believe that I was the first to photograph them.

Earlier this year my wife had a vivid dream about holding an exhibition of my photographs in a huge room where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be in attendance. The room was completely packed with spectators and media. When she woke up she suggested that I do the exhibition.  I spoke to one good friend who like me has spent many years in Burma. Currently he was working with a major oil corporation who it seemed were willing to sponsor such an exhibition. The funding was contingent upon them completing a deal in what is now Myanmar for oil terminal facilities. I spoke to another Burmese lady who knew Daw Suu personally. I asked if it was possible to have Daw Aung San Suu Kyi commit to attending the event. She was. Years earlier, in 1998 when Daw Suu was still under house arrest I asked a certain embassy to bring her a copy of my book "Vanishing Tribes". Daw Suu wrote me a beautiful letter saying that she hoped someday that we could meet.

Unfortunately the oil company could not finalize their business at that time, and the exhibition date was cancelled. Another dear friend from Sweden, put together a proposal for the exhibition which was submitted to the Swedish Postcode Lottery who funds humanitarian and artistic endeavours. They in turn funded the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, the oldest peace organization in the world established by another Nobel Prize winner in an organizer of this event.  I would have preferred to hold the event in November, but as Parliament would be in session,  Daw Suu would have to be in the new capital. We asked for a firm date.
I received word that she would be available on September 28th 2013.

Preparation time was very short. We selected 70 photographs on Kodachrome 64 slide film and I had them scanned to disk at 100mb. I found a publisher here in Bangkok who did quality work and sat down with them day after day to lay the new book out. We found an event coordinator who did award winning events like MTV Asia, Mercedes Benz etc... The only venue for the event was the Ballroom at the Inya lake Hotel since it was opulent and monumentally huge, with 50 foot tall ceilings and a fluted cupola in the top. The room is circular with a raised and lower area. Built by the Russians in 1958, it was perfect. The event coordinators walked in to the ballroom and instantly had the complete vision of design concept.  In the center of the ballroom a big tree would be erected and painted white. The tree would link to the ceiling. Fog machines would be installed, music, lights dimmers, not just a gallery show, this would be drama.

The 70 images were printed on the highest quality paper 100cm X 65cm and hung on grey panels. Each image would have its separate light. Invitations were printed, emails sent to embassies, ambassadors, business people both local and foreign. The media was notified trough press conference television, newspapers, magazines.....
Two full days were spent setting up the event. Billboards were erected on Prome Road and on Kaba Aye Road. "The Vanishing Tribes of Burma" with the image of an Akha girl on a black background. A striking image, it was the same one used by the United Nations in London, but this one was huge!

We walked through the event with Daw Suu's cousin and security team. It was agreed that rather than having her walk down the long hallway from the hotel's front entrance, her car could be taken around to the back near the lake and she could enter the waiting room. On the morning of September 28th at 11:30am, Daw Suu's convoy drove up to the entrance of the waiting room.  Outside the guests were packed in the hallways, and outside at the terrace, many dressed elegantly for the opening.  My wife and I were in the waiting room with Swedish Peace people and organizing staff. Some of them had flown in just for the occasion.  Daw Suu entered the room and walked directly over to my wife and I.. She was radiant. Holding both of my hands and looking in to my eyes, I said, "Well it has been 15 years since you said that you hoped one day we would meet, and now that day has come". "Ah so you got my letter", she said. Until then she had not even known that I had received her letter.

I, along with Daw Suu and the chairwoman from the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society walked through the curtain and around the room to the front. Crowd of film media were already assembled in the ballroom. Each of us were given a pair of gold scissors, and on queue, held a section of ribbon and cut, opening the exhibition. People flooded into the ballroom, cameras flashed and the crowds jostled for space. The three of us then walked up to the podium. Chairwoman was the first to speak, and then introduced me. I gave my speech and she again stepped up to the podium and introduced Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  Daw Suu Kyi gave a speech about peace and national reconciliation. She also said "Thank you to Mr. Diran for bringing beauty into my life when it was least expected". My hair stood up!. I then presented her with a new copy of "Vanishing Tribes" and my wife presented her with a bouque of yellow and red roses. My wife wore yellow silk as did Daw Suu.

When the speeches were finished I led the way around the exhibition with Daw Suu holding my wife's hand. Daw Suu's security team tried to keep the photographers and spectators from crushing us, but it was a mad scrum with everyone wanting to be close to her. Who could blame them. A congressional gold medal recipient who was also a Nobel Prize winner. Perhaps the most widely recognized woman in the world.......

At one point the panels holding the photos almost came over with three people pushing from the other side to keep the wall from going over. Daw Suu was completely composed. As we walked around the event, she commenting on each photograph, asking details about which English King was portrayed on a silver coin around a girl's neck, about the long years of wear of a yellowing tiger tooth worn by a Naga warrior.

The crowd continued the crush as there were perhaps 500 people all trying to get close to Daw Suu.
At one point near a portrait of a young girl with extraordinarily long hair nearly sweeping the ground. Daw Suu turned to my wife and I and said that when she was young she used to have hair down to about here, marking a place near her knee. At that she looked down and said, "Oh somebody lost their shoe".. Indeed somebody had, there were that many people scrumming.  I got lost twice and found my bearings only by remembering which picture was in which part of the ballroom.

In all Daw Suu Kyi spent a full hour with us walking around the exhibition looking at and commenting on each and every picture. When we had completed walking around both levels of panels, looking at each of the 70 images, Daw Suu, my wife and I walked her through the curtains to her convoy of three vehicles, and entering, she sped away.

The next day and the day after the event was open to the public for free, and the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society through their local staff arranged for bus loads of school children, hundreds of monks, deaf kids and college students to be brought in. Some of the students sat on the carpet taking notes of the names of the tribal groups and in which part of the country they lived. So many people both young and old thanked me for showing them the diverse people who lived here within the borders of Myanmar.
They had never seen them.

At the conclusion of the exhibition on the third day, the Minister of Culture and the Director of the National Museum were presented with the entire set of the 70 photographs for their permanent collection in a hand over ceremony. The photographs will be displayed in the National Museum on Yangon for the Myanmar people to study the ethnic groups and their traditional culture comprising this country for future generations.



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  26. Interestingly, Richard does not mention how he got the representatives of the Wa and who managed to assist him with the last 5 hilltribes, in Burma he says? Hmmm, he forgot to give any credit to Kobra Jo, married to a Wa and sister-in-law is in a photo in the beginning of the book, I introduced himi to the Wa! I admit there are some great photos taken, and the one of the Akha lady, I took him to that village to capture that moment, and I have the same photos in my scrap book. Good job Richard!