essays and photographs from Yangon by Elizabeth Rush
with an introduction by Emma Larkin and afterward by Dr. Thant Thaw Kaung
In 2010, the tectonic plates beneath the junta-controlled Myanmar started to shift. As the military regime began to loosen its reigns on power it auctioned off 80% of the country’s state-owned assets and earmarked hundreds of buildings in downtown Yangon for demolition and redevelopment. This opaque but surely profitable fire sale would profoundly reshape the country’s economic landscape and the lives of those who had long called the former colonial capital of Yangon home.
Elizabeth Rush, a westerner who has been reporting on South East Asia for years, made good use of strange days just before Myanmar’s awakening to venture into the lost world of downtown Yangon, but it was not the large edifices of Empire that attracted her attention. Rather, she focused on the shop houses and private residences that line the alleyways and it is here, in these forgotten and secluded spaces, that the city’s real secrets have been kept. After all, it was not – in the bad old days of the Burmese regime – just those who were overtly political who had to succumb to the silence. In a world where anyone accused or perceived of being on the wrong side of the regime could end up in prison with no legal recourse, people turned inwards by necessity. Only behind closed doors was it safe to indulge in private obsessions and the day-to-day worries of making ends meet. Still Lifes from a Vanishing City celebrates and preserves the interior lives diligently maintained despite the dictatorship’s powerfully effacing reach.
Elizabeth Rush has crossed borders with Bangladeshi cattle smugglers, built homes with Lima’s squatters, and participated in the underground performance art scene in Yangon, Myanmar and Hanoi, Vietnam. Her work has appeared in Granta, Orion, Le Monde Diplomatique, Al Jazeera, Witness, the Huffington Post, Frieze, Nowhere and others. She is the editor and a contributor to Lost & Found Hanoi (ThingsAsian Press 2013), a collection of photographs that captures the essence of present-day North Vietnam. She currently teaches at the City University of New York and is at work on a non-fiction book about how marginalized people are responding to sea rise.
Emma Larkin is the author of two non-fiction books on Burma – Finding George Orwell in Burma (Penguin, 2005) and No Bad News for the King, also published under the title Everything is Broken (Penguin, 2010). She was born in Asia and lives in Bangkok, where she is working on a book about Thailand.
Dr Thant Thaw Kaung is founder and CEO of Myanmar Book Centre Co., Ltd which is the leading book importer and distributor of books on Myanmar and educational books since 1996. He received “Ching-lin Tien Fellowship” from The Asia Foundation and the “International Freedom to Publish Award” from American Publishers Association. In 2006 he founded Myanmar Book Aid and Preservation Foundation, which gives support to public libraries with books, internet service, tablets and training for librarians. He serves on the board of the Yangon Heritage Trust, whose aim is to preserve heritage buildings in Yangon.