Author, scholar and collector Thweep Rittinaphakorn, who is based in Bangkok, Thailand, has produced a book Unseen Burma (published by River Books) in which he tells the story of Burma from the early days of photography until 1962, when Burma’s post Independence government was overthrown by a military coup d’etat. The photographs are from his own large collection. Many have not been previously published and so offer new insights into Burma during this period.

He speaks exclusively about his book and his collecting with WorldArtNow. 

Q: People collect for all sorts of reasons – but how did you get your start as a collector? 

A: I’ve always loved history since I was a kid. Visiting old places has always given me a satisfying feeling. When I was very young, I was always excited by the chance to dig into the old cabinets at my relatives’ houses and discovering the things long kept there. I suppose it’s the sense of a ‘treasure hunt’ – it’s something that has always captivated me. Whatever I found – coins, stamps, stones, sea shell, even jars for seasonings – I would gather up, and set up a little display. This would transfix me and give me such a sense of satisfaction that as a kid, I couldn’t explain. Then when I started to work and earn income, visiting antique shops and flea markets became a regular pastime. Chinese trade ceramics for the Thai market, and Chinese vernacular furniture, were my early interests. However as time passed by, textiles and photographs began to appeal to me most. I suppose because these sorts of items are very personal. For me, the idea of the sartorial and self-image representation is fascinating. So many facets of history including social trends, fashion styles, trade, and social belief systems can be learned from such items.

Q: Why Burma? Why do you find Burma so fascinating?

A: Good question! It’s a question I’m often asked. Being based in Thailand, which has long been something of a hub for Southeast Asian antiques, I have long been exposed with a wide array of objects. Over time, I realised that artifacts from Burma seemed to resonate with me more than others. This interest evolved into more of a passion the more I delved into Burma’s extraordinary history, folklore, and belief systems. The more I looked, the more my curiosity was invigorated. The cosmopolitanism that swept through Burma during the colonial era; the allure of both the Burmese and the Shan royal families; the fusion of Indian, Chinese and Thai culture blended into the colourful and unique Burmese culture – these are the aspects of Burma that really fascinated me and fuelled my curiosity to learn more about the country and culture through my collecting.

Q: What is your favourite photograph in the book and what is the story behind it?

A: It’s not so easy to pick a favourite! However, if I can choose two, I would opt for the cabinet portrait of Kin Wun Min Kyi, and that of Panchet Wun, taken in Europe during their diplomatic missions. Apart from the rarity of the photos, their historical significance is unrivalled. Both portraits testify an attempt of the Burmese sovereigns and the court to mitigate the threat of colonialism. They reflect the vision of how Burma as a nation state strived to project its presence in the international arena and to obtain the endorsement of fellow nations. This was an important step and is something about which people in Myanmar can feel pride.

Q: How have you sourced the photographs in your collection?

A: Interestingly but perhaps not unexpectedly, most of colonial photographs in my collection were found in the West. They were brought back by the expats during early days. Today they find their way into the likes of antique fairs, book fairs and photography fairs. It’s from dealers at these sorts of fairs where I source them. I also look out for photos from 1940s onwards in Myanmar. I can often such photos in bric-a-brac stores.

Q: Burma or Myanmar has a lot of problems right now. How do you feel about your book being published now in this context?

A: I feel that the timing is right. Perhaps right now, it feels that the future of the country is uncertain but it’s crucial that history must be learned and passed on. My book offers a glimpse of Burma’s past spanning from the dynastic time till its brief independence. The photographs help to put all the jigsaw pieces in place with historical anecdotes and the stories of the people. The past should be learned and where possible, celebrated. The past can show us what stepping stones should be taken in future.

Q: Do you have a favourite book? What is it and why? Did it inspired you to write your own book?

A: I am often get inspired by the works of Noel F. Singer and Sylvia Fraser-Lu. Their works in Burmese arts, crafts, and culture are rich and full of insights. I have read them religiously since I embarked on my Burma-interest journey and still find new things. I also love ‘Burmese Family’ by Daw Mi Mi Khaing. All the details she described in this memoir of her childhood are just so compelling. The nitty-gritty details of Burmese culture offered by these authors truly inspire me to keep researching. My hope is that readers will find my book as insightful as I have found these.

Q: What is the one key message behind your book? If there is one thing that you hope that everyone would learn from your book, what is it?

A: I hope that the key takeaway from my book for readers is to be left with an impression of awe at Burma’s rich and glorious past. My wish is that Burma should become better known and recognised in a more positive way in international eyes. Yet, for the locals, particularly younger ones, this book should remind them of how great their country once was and they should take pride on that. They must never lose hope, no matter how bad the current situation seems.

Q: What next for you? Are you planning to write any more books?

A: Yes, definitely more books on Burma. In fact my original plan was to write a book about the iconic Burmese silk tapestry woven fabric known as Luntaya Acheik. That’s another subject that I’ve researched for years. There will be definitely one book dedicated to that. Then, who knows…perhaps Unseen Burma 2 – a sequel – after that!