So much for thinking there were only a handful of new arrivals since last being here in Mae Sot 6 months ago. The General Amnesty of September 2009 where 128 political prisoners were released had seen a signifcant number of people flee across the border since then – both those who had been released and others whose lives had become un-liveable as a former political prisoner inside Burma. In short the only difference is that once released from prison you are no longer in a cell. Almost everything else about your life remains the same but just in a different context. Constant monitoring, harrasement and mental torture by the regime and its thugs – for a former political prisoner life can so easily cease to exist as everything is taken from you – even your friends and family. Many are therefore forced to flee across the border into Thailand – this is not easy and is a trip faced with extreme danger. As a former political prisoner you are always watched and being caught trying to flee brings about an immediate return to jail.
So as the 10th Anniversary event came to a close in the mid-day sun, the first day of shooting got underway almost straight away. The next few days were going to be very busy – the initial estimates of 5 or so new faces were way off the mark. The next 5 hours saw us race around town on the back of bikes as we met , interviewed and photographed 11 new arrivals in Mae Sot since last being here: Daw Cho Mar Htwe (11 year), U Zawana (16 years), U Sandawbartha (16 years), U Thawbita (1 year), Soe Lwin (15 years), Moe Kalayar Oo (6 years), Soe Htike (8 years), San Lwin Oo (2 years), U Kyaw Kyaw (6 years), Sein Kyaw Oo (5 years), and Thwin Linn Aung (5 years). In one afternoon 11 people had spent almost 100 years in prison.
One of the first people I heard about that had recently arrived was Daw Cho Mar Htwe. She was arrested in 1998 as a member of the NLD and spent 11 years in Insein and Moulmein prisons before being released in the Amnesty of September 2009. The funny thing was that my good friend Ma Khin Cho Myint @ Zulu had written Cho Mar Htwe’s name on her hand when I took her portrait in Nupo camp last year. It was the second time I had had to take Zulu’s portrait as the original name she wrote on her hand had also been released… so with Cho Mar Htwe now having been released I needed to take yet another picture of Zulu… her hand was now quickly becoming known as the lucky hand! So first stop was to Lae Lae’s house where Daw Cho Mar Htwe was now living – in fact whilst we were there we also photographed Sein Kyaw Oo and Thwin Linn Aung – who was of particular interest to Jackie as he had been a prominent student leader at Rangoon university during the student uprisings in 1996 whilst she had been one of the many junior students who sat in the road at Hledan junction listening to their seniors speaking. Then it was a race across town to see Moe Kalayar Oo and her husband Soe Htike. Moe Kalayar Oo spent 6 years in jail because of her participation in the demonstration during the funeral ceremony of U Nu. During the Saffron Revolution she was a member of the 88 Generation Students but evaded arrest and went on to assist Nargis victims in 2008. But the authorities finally caught up with her so she fled with her family. Her husband Soe Htike had been involved in the All Burma Students Democratic Movement and was arrested in 1991 spending 8 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. Like his wife he then became a member of the 88 Generation Students and was one of the core group outside Insein prison every day whilst Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was on trial in summer of 2009.
Back across town again to Thiha’s home for a meeting with monks U Zawana and U Sandawbartha. Both had spent more than 16 years each in prison – much of it together in Insein and Tharawaddy. Both were from the same monastery in Rangoon – Shwe Pyi Thar learner’s monastery and U Sandawbartha being arrested 2 days earlier and both were finally released in September 2009. In 1992 U Zawana met with UN Special Rapporteur of human rights Mr. Yozo Yokota and gave evidence on the situation inside the country. He was subsequently sentenced to 29 years in jail – full interviews with both will be available soon. Staying in Thiha’s house temporarily is Soe Lwin – 15 years in 4 different prisons having been sentenced to 24 years in jail. It’s so hard to get your round being with someone so young who has spent half of their life in prison for absolutely no reason. It’s always a time to reflect on so many things whenever I meet a former political prisoner, but also it provides you with such an amazing sense of inspiration. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Just ask these people who have survived hell.
The final stop of the day was to visit the People’s Volunteer Association being run by former political prisoners San Lwin Oo arrested after Saffron Revolution in 2007 and U Kyaw Kyaw – a solo protester arrested in 2003 and who has been jailed for 6 years. The organisation was formerly known as the “Burma Volunteers Association” and is a non-profit association taking a leading role to solve the social conflicts in the migrant community in Thailand. We photographed both men in a dusty road where the office is located but also is the home to hundreds of Burmese migrants – as though stacked one on top each other like chickens in a battery farm. It may be a sense of freedom from the oppression behind the walls that is Burma but its a very long way from the world that most people are lucky enough to be able to enjoy.
As the last of the light disappeared we headed back to AAPP to join in the celebrations (see part one of this post). A completely unexpected start to have photographed so many in one afternoon and simply not possible without the ever present help from Thiha and also the Secretary General keeping me on the straight and narrow and concentrating on what I had to do. without them both doing all the real hard work in interviews and planning then most of this campaign just wouldn’t have the depth that it does.
100 years in prison in one day. There’s nothing to add to that sombre fact.
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