Japan Day 7: The Final Curtain…

Our final day in Tokyo. It’s true that all good things must end, but it’s totally and utterly got me this city. I’m coming back, make no mistake. Yesterday we enjoyed another day of the Tokyo experience – a complete clash that sums up Tokyo; from the culture of Asakusa to the glitz and glamour of Ginza. A shopping paradise if you have a wallet the size of Bill Gates. Wall to wall with designer shops as big as Mount Fuji itself, we made do with just wandering around. With 6 former political prisoners already met, interviewed and photographed it was time to turn attention to a current political prisoner. On May 30th 2003 U Tin Oo, Vice-chairman of the NLD, was caught up in the Depayin incident along with Aung San Suu Kyi and placed under house arrest soon after. He is due for release next Saturday on 13th February having being detained illegally for almost 7 years. Last night I had dinner with his son Thant Zin Oo and interviewed him for The Irrawaddy – you can read the article here.

So as our final day unfolded to the sound of Takadanobaba metro station’s personal tune (see day 4 for details) our first stop was an early morning interview with journalist Ma Kyi Kyi Mya – who is actually half Burmese and is a staunch advocate and activist of the democracy movement in her own right. We meet with Phone Myint Tun and Ko Aung Thu and start what proves to be surely the most memorable interveiw ever… from English to Burmese to Japanese and back again. How the Secretary General and others kept up I’ll never know. But it was great as always and we all had much fun as well as most importantly getting the message across about the issues faced by both current and former political prisoners. I always try to stress this as much as I can when being interviewed – whilst people may be keen to understand what we are doing and where we are going, it’s all about the men and women who are inside and those who have been left on the outside – too often with as little hope as those on the inside albeit in a different context. Having wrapped up the interview we spent the day visiting Kamakura – sometimes considered a former de facto capital of Japan as the seat of the Shogunate and of the Regency during the Kamakura Period. A truely welcoming change to Tokyo, a day of serenity and calmness and the Great Buddha (a 13m high outdoor bronze statue of Amida Buddha) is a spectacular sight.

With the trip drawing to a close we had just one final person to meet – U Than Swe. U Than Swe was just a student at secondary school in Rangoon when he made the decision to become politically involved against Burma’s military regime. It was 7th July 1962 when more than 100 students were massacred at Rangoon University as soldiers opened fire on them whilst they were demonstrating against the Ne Win government. The following day the Student Union building was blown up whilst students were inside. U Than Swe witnessed the event and made the decision there and then that he would be… “involved in anything and everything against this government”.

(The site of the former Student Union building at Rangoon University that was blown up on 8th July 1962)

He became involved in political movements and demonstrations throughout his life as a student and throughout the 1970s – Golden Jubilee of Rangoon University demonstrations in 1970, U Thant uprising in 1974, further demonstrations in 1975 until in 1978 he was finally arrested by military intelligence and detained under 10(A). Khin Nyunt launched a massive investigation into the student movement and in obtaining a list of all members and leaders of the ‘Burma Student Union’ he ordered the arrest of more than 170 students between 1977-78. U Than Swe was one of those arrested and sent to Insein prison. In 1980 the SLORC announced a General Amnesty 2/80 releasing all political prisoners – many political prisoners were informed by the authorities that they were criminal prisoners and would only receive a reduced sentence and not be released. Along with his politiclal prisoner colleagues, U Than Swe could only watch as day by day prisoners were released but none of those who were detained under 10 (A) like him. Many started a hunger strike to protest against this treatment by the authorities. U Than Swe was one of the last 7 political prisoners to be released under Amnesty 2/80 at the end of 1980. After release from prison faced with the usual harassment and intimidation by the authorities he continued his political activities including through the 88 uprising, but faced with the threat of re-arrest he fled Burma in 1990 to Thailand, then on to Malaysia and Macao before finally settling in Japan in March 1991.

We met up with U Than Swe in a Shan restaurant in Takadanobaba just next to where we are staying and along with Zaw Zaw Hlaing filming we started to shoot inside the restaurant but ended up actually getting the final portrait when we walked outside. So with seven former political prisoners photographed its been a truly successful and memorable trip to Japan – friends made for life and hopefully some good material to campaign with and help further raise awareness about Burma’s political prisoners.

Sad to be leaving this incredible city and I can’t wait to come back – I’d like to live here for sure. A final note is that we nearly missed our flight – the desk was closed when we got there with just under an hour before before take off but they still checked us in… I wish they hadn’t…

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