Saving Burma by design
Nearly a decade on, Nyein Chan Aung revisited Burma, the country of his childhood. After seeing firsthand the destruction caused by the worst natural disaster in Burma’s recorded history, Cyclone Nargis inspired Aung to create his latest industrial design project. Lin Ma reports.
In a brown running jacket and baggy jeans, two tent poles clasped in his hand, Nyein Chan Aung makes a beeline past clusters of students loitering in the university foyer. Without much effort, Aung already stands out from his peers.
The 24-year-old industrial design student is in his fourth year at the University of Technology, Sydney. But unlike other young designers who dream of new furniture and cars, Aung’s current project is a portable surgical bed that folds away into a backpack; a prototype inspired by his recent trip to Burma, his homeland.
Pointing at an image on his laptop, Aung explains the backpack is designed to fit the contours of the male back, while his foldaway surgical bed is designed for smaller body frames.
Flying into the airport, Aung’s heart sank when he saw his hometown of Yangon, the former capital of Burma, coming into view.
“The most memorable thing was I didn’t want to get out of the airplane. I just felt really, really sad. These are my people.”
The recent presence of Cyclone Nargis was evident in the city, physically and emotionally. The sky was grey and the tropical heat was thick in the air. As he walked through Yangon, Aung felt he had stepped into a country that had not only ceased progressing, but was, to his despair, heading backwards.
“When I left Burma, it was not this bad. Not as many people were poverty-stricken. Life was actually getting better when I was leaving.”
In 1999, Aung, then 15, migrated to California to live with his uncle and aunt. After finishing high school, he moved north to study industrial design for two years at the Art Institute of Seattle.
“Living in Seattle, a new store opens up every few weeks,” Aung says in his thick American accent. “There’s a new Starbucks around the corner every time you look. And then – bam, shock – I was back in Burma.”
“Everything was going opposite. The new cars I saw when I left [Burma] are [still] the newest cars. Nothing changes.”
Burma slowly came to an economic standstill in 1987 when the World Bank stopped its lending program with the country because it was not repaying loans or enacting reforms. A year later, the military junta came into power. The economy hasn’t recovered.
When democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in a general election in 1990, the junta, now known as the State Peace and Development Council, placed her under house arrest. To this day, Kyi is still imprisoned and the junta, led by General Than Shwe, continues to rule Burma with a tight fist.
So when Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma’s south in May 2008, Aung was one of a lucky few who was granted immediate access into the country.
He arrived roughly three weeks after the cyclone made international headlines and travelled to the Irrawaddy Delta with a group commissioned by the Burmese government.
Steve Orlowski, a close friend of Aung, and also in his fourth year of industrial design, recalls the time when the cyclone hit. “It was literally three or four weeks before the end of semester and we had lots of work due.”
“And the only thing [Aung] could care about was, ‘OK, I need to get relief aid to Burma and I need to get over there. I need to help my family and the people there’.”
Accompanied by government officials, Burmese soldiers and a news crew, Aung began photographing structural damage for architectural research.
“Because they were government sponsored, they were able to go far deeper than anyone else,” Aung says. “That was like way deep into the delta area, so that was where the shit really went down.”
He left the delta region a few days later, unable to cope with what he saw around him.
“It’s a bit hard to talk about this,” Aung says quietly. His confident demeanour is suddenly gone.
“Basically, just bodies, a lot of bodies, like mass graves. I wasn’t supposed to be there, I wasn’t supposed to see it.”
He pauses again.
“I think they knew,” he says, referring to the soldiers. “I wandered off for an hour or so, I come back totally flushed – you can tell when someone’s just thrown up.”
Although on friendly terms, Aung remains apprehensive towards the Burmese soldiers who travelled with him.
“I didn’t go out for drinks with them,” he laughs. “If anything, I should be doing everything to stay away from these people, but I don’t think it quite works that way.”
“When I felt like I was in danger, I immediately called one of the soldiers. It was really weird because his buddy, with the same patch, a few months ago came into my house at midnight and took my sister and she’s still in jail.”
Aung is the youngest of three. His older brother, Thu Khan, is working overseas as an electrical engineer and his older sister is still under arrest for her pro-democratic views. Also living under the military regime are his parents, owners of a successful cookie factory in Yangon.
Aung is beaming as he speaks of his father. “Probably one of my biggest inspirations. To start with, he absolutely loves my mum and that matters to me beyond anything he’s ever accomplished.”
Aung is certainly his father son. They both have the same stocky, tanned-skinned build and cheeky sense of humour.
“[Aung] doesn’t take himself seriously,” says Orlowski. “But he is very serious with what he’s passionate about.
“We want to be the designers with the beautiful pieces of furniture and [Aung] comes along with his humanitarian design and we feel really guilty. You know, we should be trying to save the Burmese people.”
Aung glances at his two tent poles, potentially the base of his surgical bed. “I don’t know how cheap this material is,” he muses, “but it doesn’t look too bad.”
“They do really work, but can you see how much [effort] it takes to ship these in there?” he says, pointing to pictures of giant surgical tents onscreen.
He is hoping his foldaway surgical bed will reach people in disaster regions that makeshift medical shelters cannot.