Thailand Day 5: More Mae Sot

A slow start to the day after the celebrations of yesterday that ended up late on with karaoke in MyMaesot – Ko Tate Naing flexing his vocal chords and keeping everyone entertained. Rachel had made it down from Chiang Mai as well and it was great to catch up with her now that she’s back out here. First stop today was a meeting about the Burma trip – naturally I can’t go into details but at least some of it will be revealed very soon indeed in the international media. The idea to photograph former political prisoners inside Burma is obviously the most challenging part of this campaign yet – for my part there is obviously the risk that I will get caught with someone or somewhere I shouldn’t be and most likely get deported (maybe worse… we’ll have to wait and see) but the biggest risk is obviously for those former political prisoners who i’ll be meeting and photographing. They are watched the whole time by military intelligence, so meeting isn’t easy which is why we’ve been planning this for many months now. Then there’s the contacts working on the underground who can’t risk being exposed. If they are, then its 20 years inside. No questions asked. The risks are huge but everyone is willing to take them. A sign if ever one was needed of belief in what the message of this campaign is all about. All we have to hope for now is that we have the platform for this work should it all go to plan.

After the rush around town photographing 11 people yesterday, you could be excused for wanting a few hours off to check progress, but there’s no time for that. After our morning meetings its straight back on the bikes and first stop to see Daw San San, National League for Democracy elected Member of Parliament and former political prisoner at her home in the back streets of Mae Sot.

(Daw San San – NLD MP for Seik Kan Township, Rangoon)

During the 1988 uprising the Workers Union was formed and she was duely elected chairman but as the military cracked down she was forced to retire. Having previously worked at the Labour department of the government, it was her expertise in this field that was to lead to her playing a prominent role in the NLD and in 1988 she joined the NLD becoming secretary of the Central Labor Working Committee. In 1990 she was elected as member of parliament for Seik Kan Township in Rangoon but as the military refused to hand over power she fled along with many of her MP colleagues to Mandalay. It was here that the regime arrested 35 MPs accusing them of meeting to form a parallel government. Daw San San was one of those arrested. Charged with high treason she was sentenced to 25 years and sent to Insein prison. In 1993 under the General Amnesty 1/93, Daw San San was released from prison – like many her sentenced commuted on condition of non involvement in politics in the future. In 1997 Daw San San was interviewed by the BBC via telephone and despite knowing that her answers and by identifying herself would result in her arrest she spoke with them, outlining the current situation and providing details of MPs currently in prison. Eventually as she expected, the authorities arrested her and she was returned to Insein to serve the remaining part of her sentence. She was finally freed in 2001 and forced to sign 401/1 (agreeing not to partake in politics in the future). She was given back her title of vice-chairman of NLD Rangoon Division and continued working in her role. Faced with the ever present threat from the military and having been arrested several times in 2003 around the time of the Depayin Massacre she finally fled to Thailand where she continues working as an elected member of parliament for the NLD and as vice president of the MPPU.

As luck would have it and is so often the way out here, you end up bumping into someone you need to meet and Eai Shwe Sinn was here at Daw San San’s house so we re-took her photo – as always when she’s not filming or doing interviews, my beautiful assistant acts as stand in – this time even managing to wear the same colour top to make my life as easy as possible! There is no end to her skills. The rest of the day like yesterday is spent going from one place to the next and a further 5 newly arrived former PPs are photographed. Saw Mo Shay was sentenced to 10 years at the age of 15 in 1994 and spent 11 years in Insein, Tharawaddy and Moulmein – he received a further 2 year sentence for his alleged role in a prison break to which he took no part. Back at AAPP office we hook up with new member of staff Aung Khaing Min who has been living and studying in USA. He was jailed for 5 years in 1997 in Insein and Taungoo prisons and many of his family including his brothers are still detained in Burma’s jails. On his hand is written the name of his brother Chit Ko Lin – when he was in Rangoon as a student activists between him and his brothers they all knew they would be arrested so they took it in turns to cover each others tracks until they had all been caught.

(Chit Ko Lin is currently serving a 7 year sentence in Pakokku prison)

Family links are so common for those who are detained or have been – so many brothers, sisters, cousins are jailed, if not for their direct involvement then because their family members are at large so the authorities arrest anyone they can find. We met Thet Naing at the ‘Knowledge Zone Vocational Training Centre’ that he set up last year. He had arrived in Mae Sot in 2005 but until now I had not had the chance to meet him. He had spent 8 years in 4 different prisons – arrested in 1988, again in 1997, he fled to the border in 2005 with his nephew… so the SPDC arrested his niece and sentenced her to 11 years in jail. She is currently in Umpiem Mai camp and we will meet her tomorrow. Next up was Thet Khaing who we met at the ABSFU headquarters – he had been sentenced to a mind numbing 38 years in 1998. Thankfully he only had to serve 4. Our final stop of the day was to meet Yi Yi Win who spent 3 years in Insein prison in 2004. Her husband is also a former political prisoner but is currently living in Norway, having had success on the resettlement programme. Yi Yi Win is waiting to join them but like so many currently living in a state of statelessness here in Mae Sot. With the light fading fast I ran up and down the road desperately trying to find a spot to take her portrait. Sometimes you need look no further than right in front of your eyes and we took it on her doorstep.

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