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Meet The Adventurous Historian Searching For Hidden Stories

Delving deep into a nation’s past requires more than a study of textbooks, which is why Alex Bescoby has spent the past 10 years exploring every corner of Myanmar

For historian and documentary filmmaker Alex Bescoby, adventure is a necessary means to an educational end. His passion for Myanmar, and determination to reveal the hidden histories of a country often in the news for all the wrong reasons, has led him to being caught in the middle of a civil war – as well as travelling around the country with a future King.

Bescoby’s passion for the people and politics of places less travelled was forged at university, where he was awarded a scholarship to study Burmese and Thai history. Since then, his work has taken him to Sierra Leone and the remote Peruvian Andes. It’s the nation of Myanmar, though – with its convoluted past and controversial present – that he finds most captivating.

The art of good travel is all about being endlessly curious

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Q: Do you think all of us could benefit from broadening our horizons and gaining a better understanding of other cultures?
A:
‘Easy one – of course! The best thing about the job is having the excuse to dive into the history and culture of the place I’m exploring. I’m a huge nerd, so personally it’s debilitating if I find myself somewhere I haven’t read up on beforehand – you just don’t know what you could be missing in the great tapestry of human life! The art of good travel is all about being endlessly curious, and I believe being prepared with the right questions is one of the best things you can bring to the people you meet.’

Q: What drew you to Myanmar?
A:
‘It’s Myanmar’s history that first drew me there, but a lot of other things about this incredible country have made me call it home for most of the last 10 years. Back in 2008 I was studying politics and history at Cambridge University, and I was awarded a scholarship to take a deep dive into Burmese and Thai history. It changed my life. While Myanmar has a fascinating history in its own right, I became captivated by the interwoven national stories of Britain and Myanmar, and Britain’s role in seeding many of Myanmar’s modern-day crises. It eventually took me all the way back to London, on a treasure hunt that hit headlines all over the world. But it was that first visit to study history, which started the chain of quite unlikely events that saw me become a documentary filmmaker.’

Q: Is one aim of your work to provide alternative perspectives?
A:
‘Right now it’s become the aim of my work on Myanmar, whether I like it or not. Like any subject or place that you come to know well, the reality is always for more complex than a news bulletin or headline can express. The aim of my work in Myanmar is to provide the history behind the headlines – if that makes it more difficult to understand who are the angels and who the devils, then good! So much is written or spoken about Myanmar, but we rarely hear from people in Myanmar themselves – and that needs to change.’

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Q: Your work has taken you to some fairly dangerous places – is that element of risk something you’re drawn to?
A:
‘No, I certainly don’t go looking for trouble, but I seem to find myself in it a fair bit. I’m a historian first and foremost, and I’m just as happy buried in the British Library as I am running around in the Himalayas. But in a place like Myanmar, where you’ve had decades of civil wars and military dictatorship, discussing history is a risky pursuit.’

‘I learned that while travelling through Myanmar’s Kachin State in March this year to learn more about the roots of the Kachin independence movement, and instead I found myself trapped on a river between snipers in the trees and landmines on the banks. In 2016, while making We Were Kings, I found myself in a tiny room in India with the most powerful military man in Myanmar, who’s just been referred to the International Criminal Court on genocide charges. So no, I’m not drawn to trouble, but it does find me!’

Q: What’s the most extraordinary adventure you’ve been on?
A:
‘My time spent living and filming with the former royal family of Myanmar has to go down as one of the most extraordinary chapters in my life. We Were Kings was more than three years in the making, and it took me all across the world as I unravelled the incredible story of the last King of Myanmar and his descendants. It took me deeper into the history, culture and society of this fascinating country than I could have hoped, and I gained a surrogate Myanmar family in the process. U Soe Win (the heir to the throne) and I became incredibly close, and it was amazing to make history with him when we set in motion a special service in India to mark 100 years since the last king’s death in December 2016. Wherever life takes me next, that’s something I’ll always be proud of.’

Q: Could you explain your north to south ‘by any means’ journey across Myanmar?
A:
‘The Incredible Journey was something that I cooked up with my old mate Aung Sithu, who also happens to be one of the royal family! Sithu and his family are just normal people now, and Sithu – like most people in Myanmar – had never had the means or the opportunity to travel across his own country. For years Myanmar’s citizens have had their movement controlled, but that’s all been changing in recent years as the country has opened up.’

‘Sithu and I wanted to show the people of Myanmar and the world the incredible terrain, people and history contained within this country of more than 50 million people. So we’ve decided to undertake the first televised crossing from the furthest north (in the Himalayan foothills) to the furthest south (on the white sand beaches of the Megui Archipelago). Along the way we rely on the kindness of strangers, travelling by land, sea and air, to show Myanmar like you’ve never seen it before.’

Find out more about Alex’s documentaries and work in Myanmar at alexbescoby.co.uk. Follow him @AlexBescoby

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