The photo that defined Burma at its modern-day worst

November 20, 2012

This September 2007 photo from Burma's protests went on to win the Pulitzer prize.  (Adrees Latif/Reuters via Associated Press)

On Sept. 25, 2007, Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai traveled to Burma's capital city to document the rising pro-democracy protests there, led by a number of the country's Buddhist monks in a challenge the brutal military dictatorship that had ruled for half a century. What happened that week in the city of Rangoon — and what happened to Nagai — are reminders of how and why the world so reviled and isolated Burma's government, and of how far that government has come in only a few years to attract President Obama's visit this week as part of a rapprochement with the United States.

The 2007 protests began when the government removed fuel subsidies, but escalated as more citizens seized on their anger at the regime. On Sept. 5, a few hundred monks chanted in the streets of a small town, and were beaten by security forces. Some Buddhist leaders met in secret to draft a demand for an apology from the regime, as well as freedom for key political prisoners and other concessions, and to plan peaceful protests for when their requests were inevitably ignored. The first march was Sept. 18, and the demonstrations quickly drew students, activistsand sympathetic onlookers.

Kenji Nagai, a contract photographer with Tokyo's AFP News, arrived in Rangoon the same day as two Burmese light infantry divisions. Two days later, on Sept. 27, they opened fire, shattering the would-be "saffron revolution" and, in the process, a culturally weighty taboo against harming Burma's monks. The number of Burmese deaths is unknown, but the number of foreigners killed is believed to be exactly one.

There is probably no way to know for sure whether or not the Burmese soldier meant to shoot Nagai, who appears to have been standing on a sidewalk among a crowd of civilians, and who is said to have continued snapping photos even from the ground. Video footage, released later, appears to show soldiers standing over him, picking up his camera, and carrying him away.

Pakistani-born American photographer Andrees Latif managed to take the photo of Nagai's death that appears at the top of this page, for which he later won a Pulitzer. Latif had traveled there undercover, without media credentials, because journalists were not allowed into the country.

The photo quickly became an icon of the failed 2007 demonstrations and of the violent dictatorship they opposed. For many outside of the country, the tragedy of Nagai's death came to represent Burma's tragedy, and the panic of the nearby crowd a symbol of the country's terror. 

The image is a remarkable contrast to this week's photos from the same city, of locals rejoicing at Obama's visit, of Obama standing with the long-imprisoned democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi (whose freedom was one of the monks' demands), and of the president walking alongside his Burmese counterpart, Thein Sein, who was acting prime minister during the 2007 crackdown. The photo is both a sign of how far Burma has come in only five years and a reminder that this dark past is not so distant as it might seem.

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Max Fisher | November 19, 2012