Picking up from where we left off with Zaw Zaw Aung the other day we continued with shooting in London’s famously fashionable Shoreditch district, although this time we went underground. After all that is where political prisoners roots are and none more so than my friend Aung Gyi who it was a great pleasure to catch up with and take his portrait. Special thanks as always to DVB for filming and Jacqueline San for making this happen.
In 1988 Aung Gyi was a high school student at BEHS3 in South Okkalapa township in Rangoon. He was Secretary of the South Okkalapa division of the student organization the “Democratic Front” and was heavily involved in organizing and carrying out actions aagainst the regime such as leafleting and dropping pamphlets, putting up posters and banners and graffiti on walls in busy areas. Along with most of the colleagues in his group he was arrested at home one evening in August 1990 and ended up being charged under section 5J and was sentenced to 5 years in prison. He spent two years in Insein and Taungoo prisons before being released in August 1992.
DVB VJ ‘Sam’ films whilst Jackie writes the name of a
Shwebo prison cellmate on Aung Gyi’s palm
After his release he rejoined his colleagues in the movement for underground activities. He was involved in the 1996 student demonstrations but he managed to escape being caught by the authorities, unlike many of his colleagues who were returned to prison. He spent 3 years in hiding in a poultry farm in an area just outside of Rangoon. Whilst he was in hiding he got married – a quiet, secretive wedding ceremony in a small monastery. In 2001 he started working as a reporter for a Rangoon sports journal “First Eleven”. He worked with Zaw Thet Htwe who was chief editor at that time. In 2003 Zaw Thet Htwe was arrested for an article that had been written about alleged corruption in the Burmese football association abusing money given to them by the world football governing body FIFA. Zaw Htet Thwe was arrested and sentenced to death and Aung Gyi was also arrested but this time was released after interrogation. In 2005 he was contacted again by some of his former collegues who had now been released from prison with the aim of starting up a network of undercover journalists inside the country and the first DVB networks were established. Aung Gyi left his sports journal job and set up his own advertising and film editing company, again helping to provide a cover for his secret activities now as an undercover video journalist.
In 2007 he was involved in the Saffron Revolution and with the footage that the world would see provided by the network of Burma VJs the authorities were hot on his trail and he was arrested again in November 2007. His arrest was a farcical story, but I cannot share that with you here. He was detained for a year before being sentenced to 2 years in prison. He was released in September 2009 from Shwebo prison. It was now too dangerous for him to stay in the country anymore and with his wife and young child he fled Burma on 1st January 2010. He has now been resettled to the UK but like so many former political activists who flee, he is left waiting for his family to join him.
One has to spare a thought and thank Than Shwe for disbanding Burma’s once famed intelligence network in 2004 which lead to the jailing of hundreds of intelligence officers (two of whom Aung Gyi was jailed with in Shwebo prison) and the detention of General Khin Nyunt under house arrest. If the intelligence services had been left with their previous powers then not only would Aung Gyi still be in prison today, but so would so many of his colleagues and no-one would have known anything about the ‘Saffron Revolution’.
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