Land of Shadows: National Geographic Takes A Look At Myanmar [Big Picture]

As it emerges from isolation, the nation of Myanmar is caught between repression and reform, dark and light.

The cover of August 2011 issue of National Geographic. Photo: National Geographic

The August 2011 issue of National Geographic draws a fascinating portrait of Myanmar, as its currently experiencing its first taste of a nominally civilian government in half a century.

National Geographic reporter Brooke Larmer and photographer Chien-Chi Chang take an in-depth look at a nation emerging from its isolation (take a look at some of the breathtaking photos above). As they report:

Myanmar is a land of shadows, a place where even the most innocent question can seem loaded with hidden intent. For most of the past half century this largely Buddhist nation of some 50 million has been shaped by the power—and paranoia—of its military leaders.

The tatmadaw, as the national military is known, was the only institution capable of imposing its authority on a fractured country in the wake of independence from Britain. It did so, in part, by pulling Myanmar into a fearful isolation, from which it is only starting to emerge.

This isolation, deepened by two decades of Western economic sanctions, may have preserved the nostalgic image of Myanmar as a country frozen in time, with its mist-shrouded lakes, ancient temples, and blend of traditional cultures largely unspoiled by the modern world.

But it also helped accelerate the decline of what was once referred to as “the jewel of Asia.” Myanmar’s health and education systems have been gutted, while the military—with some 400,000 soldiers—drains nearly a quarter of the national budget. Most notoriously, the tatmadaw’s brutal suppression of ethnic insurgencies and civil opposition has made Myanmar a pariah nation, a distinction it now seems eager to shed.

Out of this tableau of darkness have come some fleeting rays of light. The country’s first parliamentary election in 20 years, held last November, heralded the advent of what military leaders call “discipline-flourishing democracy.” Though marred by widespread fraud and intimidation, the elections have given Myanmar its first nominally civilian government in half a century.

The full article by Brooke Larmer appears in the August 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands now. See the full gallery by photographer Chien-Chi Chang here.

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