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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Lost Riches

What began as photographs for friends has turned into a magnificent record of Myanmar's cultures -- some of which may be on the brink of extinction

By Michele Zack


HE'S NO INDIANA JONES. But it's easy to see Richard Diran as a latter-day American adventurer, regaling a bar full of desk-bound suits with his latest exploits. Intense, opinionated and an indefatigable story-teller, the international gem dealer has always had a passion for color and travel. That's why he went into the business.

Which also explains how Diran, 50, came to produce his book of photographs, The Vanishing Tribes of Burma (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 236 pages, 40). Taken over 17 years, the pictures form the most comprehensive visual record ever of Myanmar's many ethnic groups. Business often took Diran to Yangon in search of precious stones. He became fascinated with the tribes, many from the hill country where sapphires and rubies are mined, almost from his first visit in 1980.

The photography began as a hobby. "I wanted to prove to friends back home that I wasn't making it all up," says Diran. The tribal areas were usually closed to foreigners. But through his network of friends and business associates, Diran was able to penetrate deep into the rugged terrain. Local officials, knowing of Diran's interest, closed an eye to his activities.

Still, it's a tribute to his chutzpah and resourcefulness that Diran managed to snap his subjects in the remote, disputed areas where most of them live. It was physically arduous, often dangerous. Traveling by river boat, on elephants and on foot, he would came across the horrific casualties of clashes between insurgent groups and the Myanmar junta. More than once, he was caught in the middle of skirmishes himself.

But the businessman stuck to his plan; he was not there to document conflict. "I realized there was a window of opportunity for me to meet these incredible people and record them and their culture before they were all gone," says Diran. Sometimes, that meant trucking his subjects out of active war zones to safer territory. "I don't have any background or academic credentials in this area. I'm just the guy who went out and did it," he says.

Though based in San Francisco, Diran started to spend more and more time with the tribes. "I'd go back and forth, just stopping long enough in Bangkok to get a new visa [to enter Myanmar]," Diran recalls. At the time visitors could only get seven-day visas, and only 3,000 or 4,000 were issued each year. Through it all, Diran never felt at risk from the tribal peoples, not even the Wa and the Naga, once fierce head-hunters. "These are very proud people; they would be ashamed to hurt someone alone and unarmed," explains Diran, who was accompanied only by a local guide. "When they understood why I was there, some were moved to tears that anyone would come so far to see them. Not that they had any idea of where, or how far America is. Some did not even have any concept that they were in Burma."

Vanishing Tribes is a deeply satisfying coffee table book -- rare among the superficial, if lush offerings today. Not only are Diran's images magnificent -- the combined finery of 35 ethnic groups could provide Paris fashion houses with enough inspiration for seasons to come -- they are accompanied by pithy commentary. And fortifying the whole is a section with archival photographs and a short ethnographic history by Diran and collaborators Gillian Cribbs and Martin Smith.

As might be expected of a book on ethnic groupings in Myanmar, the photographs cover major tribes such as the Jinghpaw, the Karen and the Shan. But Diran has also managed to reach lesser-known peoples such as the Thet, the Bre, the Laytoo Chin and the Lahta. In several cases, that was the first time that color photographs had been taken of these people. There have been no field studies to follow Edmund Leach's pioneering ethnographic work on the minorities during the 1940s and 1950s -- a direct result of Myanmar's decades of isolation and internal conflict.

Diran's work has been a race with oblivion. Many of the tribes pictured are, along with their way of life, going the way suggested in the book title -- vanishing. "I was amazed that people who had changed so little in hundreds of years, could lose the outward markings of culture so quickly," says Diran. In the early 1980s, the tribes were dressed almost exactly as they were in historical photographs, from fabric to forest products. Then within one generation, this started to change. When the hill tribes begin to buy cloth instead of weaving it themselves, says Diran, chances are that within a few years they will stop wearing traditional garb altogether.

The seemingly magical results of a Polaroid camera had helped Diran open the doors to many homes. He visited a number of his subjects more than once. On their second meeting, sometimes years later, the painstaking photographer would often be greeted as a long-lost friend. Diran worked to befriend the people and gain their trust. A good example is the picture of a young Lisu girl on the cover of his book. Her mother had sold her silver to the photographer. But seeing the girl's long face, he returned the jewelry, asking only to photograph her in her reclaimed finery in return. His reward: a smile of genuine happiness.

Portraits dominate the book. Diran clearly chose to focus on faces and costumes rather than customs or environment. More candid shots showing how the people live would have strengthened this collection. Nonetheless, the images reveal a broad range of human expression: joyful, amused, grave. The gem dealer's magnificent obsession -- capturing images of this astonishing mixture of humanity -- has produced a work that, despite its omissions, is a major contribution to our knowledge of the tribes. Diran has now moved to Bangkok, where the gem trade continues to support his new ventures: another book, and more adventures in the hill country of Myanmar.


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