(A long introductory post to Japan – but hopefully worth the read) – ed.
This is a trip that happened by chance and at the last minute – all thanks to the US immigration deciding not to grant us a visa. Their loss. Our gain. No doubt about it. ‘As close as you’ll come to landing on another planet’ is how someone described going to Tokyo and in many ways it’s right. It’s like ‘Blade Runner’ but without the authoritarian government (that’s the bit where Burma fits in nicely) – a post apocalyptic fusion of organisation and chaos.
After 12 hours in the air, the sight of Mount Fuji from the airplane window is a welcoming sight. A calming and serene influence to prepare you for the staggering metropolis that is Tokyo, it’s 35 million people and probably double that in neon signs. For me it was love at first sight. So many things in Tokyo upon first viewing seem complicated and impossible to comprehend, not just the language or the fact that people don’t live on roads with names but by numbered blocks and sections, but then you realise that first impressions deceive and actually just about everything has been thought through and is there to make life easier. There’s 35 million people yet the only people pushing you on the trains are the station guards who’s job it is to make sure you all get to work on time. Culture is society in this land where respect is paramount. It’s a great lesson that should be practiced and not just learnt about in western countries. Perhaps then we wouldn’t have to be reminded every second day about our ‘Broken society and yob culture’. Even the toilet seats are heated and play music.
The hour train journey from Narita airport to Tokyo Central station prepares you for the concrete jungle that lies ahead. Once again I’m lucky enough to have the Secretary General accompanying me on this trip and playing her usual vital role of basically making it all happen. We are also lucky enough to be staying with family who like many they were forced to flee Burma in the aftermath of the 1988 uprising and we haven’t seen since. Naturally this makes this trip all the more special. We arrive in Takodanababa, a suburb in central Tokyo that like Mae Sot could just as well be called Little Burma – there are around 10,000 Burmese living in Japan and judging by the fact that there are 5 Burmese shops in the same building that we are staying in reinforces the point. This trip is somewhat of a whirlwind tour as we are only here in Tokyo for 7 days and no sooner have we arrived than we are off to a demonstration outside the Burmese embassy (but not before some food at a Burmese restaurant of course!). Other than through the ongoing partnership with AAPP and DVB, much of this trip has been arranged with the help of Ko Thant Zin Oo, Chairman of the NLD-LA Japan branch and son of U Tin Oo, the Vice-Chairman of the NLD and currently detained under house arrest in Rangoon… but soon to be released (more about that later). This really is a great honour and like so many times before, it’s not just being in the company of such significant people but to be welcomed and trusted is what makes it so amazing to be involved in this whole thing. We meet up with Thant Zin Oo and make our way to the demonstration outside the Burmese embassy – a monthly event to mark the Depayin massacre where Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo both only just evaded assassination attempts on their lives. Well over 100 protesters line the manicured street facing the Burmese embassy, every other person holding a picture of either Aung San Suu Kyi or U Tin Oo as a mark of remembrance of this barbaric act of desperation by the SPDC that International governments around the world and the UN are still yet to take action against. We meet up with a number of people from NLD-LA Japan as well as others including Min Ko Naing’s cousin and as always our friends from DVB who once again will be part of this whole campaign as they film our journey around Tokyo over the following days – Zaw Zaw Hlaing and Aung Naing manning the cameras. But of course we are here to meet the men and women who wouldn’t be broken no matter what was thrown at them – Burma’s political prisoners.
I had always envisaged taking a portrait at a demonstration and the opportunity to do that here in Tokyo seemed perfect, even with the CCTV cameras of the embassy watching from on high. We would have to act quickly with this one as shooting in such a public place can bring about unwanted attention – especially when you are outside the embassy of the very regime you are campaigning against. The Secretary General got to work in preparing everyone with what we needed to do whilst at the same time we chatted with Phone Myint Tun, former political prisoner and representative for AAPP in Japan.
Phone Myint Tun was first involved in the democracy movement as a Tenth Standard student in 1988 during the mass uprisings of that year. In August 1988 he became a member of the Tri-Color student movement who were responsible for security for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and with his colleagues in Tri-Color he lived in the compound of her house on University Avenue. In 1989 he joined the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and was heavily involved in the underground student network of democracy activism against the regime, giving speeches, handing out leaflets and organising demonstrations. He was arrested on 14th January 1991 in the middle of the night, blindfolded and dragged off to MI-7 interrogation centre by military intelligence. Phone Myint Tun was brutally tortured like all who are arrested as opposers to the military machine and faced constant beatings, mental and physical abuse.
To gain a full understanding of exactly what it’s like to be arrested and face torture for simply wanting freedom you can read “No Escape”, Phone Myint Tun’s personal account of his experience at MI-7. After a week of being held captive he was transfered to Insein prison where he was quickly paraded in front of a military court and sentenced under 5J. He spent the next 4 years in Insein prison. He was released in February 1995 and immediately continued his political activities and in November 1995 smuggled out documents from political prisoners in Insein prison that were presented to the UN. Faced with the threat of imminent arrest he fled to Japan in January 1996 and has been here ever since.
With the demonstration over we made our way to a local coffee house and set about planning the coming week – sitting around a table with NLD-LA, DVB, former political prisoners and the Secretary General pulling the strings I just know that this is going to be a very special week. Pinching myself to see if this is all real no longer works. This is a responsibility to report. If only the UN would take the same attitude with a Responsibility to Protect. With plans set in place we headed back to Ikebekuro to have dinner with Thant Zin Oo and his wife. Without the guiding hand of more than just a local you’d miss the trick that the best places are a few floors up, more than often hidden away behind closed doors… but still lit up with enough neon to blind you!
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