Thailand Day 17: Mae Sot – From Fleeing Lawyers to Coco Island

Another day spent racing round Mae Sot on the back of the bike as Ko Thiha took me from one place to the next. In total a further 8 former prisoners were photographed, including a re-shoot with Ma Thida Htway when we bumped into her at the Burma Lawyers Council – it was a good idea of hers to take another photo as the new one is simply a classic and quite possibly may be the book cover. We were at The Burma Lawyer’s Council to photograph Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, the young lawyer who fled Burma in 2008 when defending a number of political activists. He was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to jail himself. Luckily he managed to go into hiding and fled to the border where he now continues his work as a lawyer with the Burma Lawyer’s Council. I had already made the decision to photograph certain people who whilst not actually former prisoners themselves, they are inextricably linked in one way or another and Kyaw Kyaw Min was one of those people who its important is part of this project. It adds another dimension.

Next up we went to one of the offices of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to meet no fewer than four former political prisoners who between them had spent 42 years in jail. This gives you some idea of just how much the members of the opposition party, but winners of the 1990 general elections have been victimised by the regime – a regime that is holding on to power illegitimately. I was warmly welcomed by Ko Myint Soe (14 years); Ko Moe Myat Thu (9 years) Ko Zaw Aung (10 years); Ko Moe Zaw Oo (9 years) and it was my honour to be able to take their photograph and spend time in their company. It’s too hard to explain in this blog just how you feel when you meet these people – they are so humble in light of what they have been through, yet steely determined that they will one day overcome… it gives me such determination to push this project all the way to the limit at whatever cost.

Possibly the most extraordinary moment of all came when we went back to Ko Thiha’s house where we met U Mya Sein. The oldest former political prisoner I had met yet, U Mya Sein was first jailed in 1965 in Insein prison and then he was transfered in 1969 where he was sent to Coco Island. In 1959 General Ne Win established a penal colony on Great Coco Island. After he seized power in 1962 the prison gained the reputation of being a Burmese ‘Devil’s Island’ and in 1969 it was enlarged to cater to an increased number of political prisoners. The prison was closed in 1971 after a strike by all of the prisoners and the island was transfered to the Burmese Navy. U Mya Sein spent a total of 13 years in jail.

In the background to this portrait of U Mya Sein is another landmark in the struggle for democracy in Burma. On 14th February 2008, Pado Mahn Shah La Phan was assassinated by agents from the Burmese military regime who had sneaked across the border. He was shot in cold blood, in broad daylight, whilst sitting on the veranda of his house. The very house and veranda that is in the background to this portrait. Mahn Sha was an enigmatic leader, one of few who was able to bring together the many different factions and groups fighting for democracy and freedom in Burma. He was respected by everybody and feared by the regime. A loss of great magnitude but a reminder that at every corner there is nothing that the SPDC will stop at to eradicate all those who oppose them.

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