Brief background… This was a trip that came from nowhere and was totally unexpected. Wednesday evening I get an email from a certain person (who you’ll hear about soon…) asking me to come to New York to meet on Monday. The opportunity simply can’t be missed so everything gets dropped and cue frantic phone calls and emails to various contacts in USA to try to arrange as many former political prisoners as possible in New York. 24 hours later we are on the plane. Before I go any further I’d like to thank everyone who helped pull this together and in particular the unbelievable efforts of Nickie Sekera, Tim Aye-Hardy and Ko Myint Hlaing.
Touchdown USA at last. After our aborted efforts last year it’s very important that we are finally here. If this truely is the ‘…home of the brave’ then there are no people more brave than those whom I am going to meet on this trip. It’s freezing cold and yet again snow welcomes us as we embark on another leg of this mission. The sprawling gargantuan metropolis that is Manhattan awaits and there’s no time to lose as we are only here for a few days and of course there’s lots to see as well as to do! Customs at JFK was surprisingly quick and left me wondering what all the fuss was about – we had a harder time getting into Norway and Japan. The remainder of our day was spent wandering around taking in the sights and size of Manhattan as well as trying to come up with a few ideas for locations, but unfortunately the bitter cold would mean that shooting outdoors would be almost impossible. We touch base with our man on the ground Tim Aye-Hardy and it’s confirmed that tomorrow we will have 3 maybe 4 people to shoot. (This day will now be split into 3 seperate postings for each person – ed).
Saturday morning and we head straight to Times Square as there’s no time to lose – not only is it minus 2 but it’s going to be a long day traversing across New York City. If only one shot was going to be done outside I decided that this had to be the one – standing in the middle of a scene epitomising western freedom with a gaudy shine that glosses over the darkness that lies underneath – a darkness that has been experienced to it’s fullest degree by Burma’s political prisoners. We scout for a few positions to try to get as much in the background as possible, the ever present model Jackie San standing on every corner and picture postcard spot of Times Square until we decide that the top of the red stairs of TKTS provides the perfect position aloft of all the madness that this world has to offer. The walk up what symbolises a red carpet is more than deserved by Ko Thet Mhu, and the first shot of the day is underway with both Jackie and Tim taking it in turn to film as the bitter cold makes it a real challenge to keep your hands out of your pockets let alone hold them aloft for Burma or try to take pictures.
Thet Mhu former member of the student organisation Ba Ka Tha
was jailed in Insein prison for 6 years
Thet Mhu played an active role in student demonstrations in the 1988 uprisings but as the army cracked down he fled to the Thai-Burma border with his colleague Moe Thee Zun. Whilst many students stayed on the border and formed the ABSDF to take up the armed struggle against the regime, Thet Mhu decided to return to Rangoon to continue the non-violent struggle and when he returned he played a role in the reforming of the Ba Ka Tha organisation of the ABFSU. He travelled to Mandalay to help build up the movement and spent time with a number of other activists in the Masoe Yain monastery – a secret refuge for student and other activists. He returned to Rangoon where he was now actively working for the ABSDF as well as Ba Ka Tha in an attempt to unite student organisations. On 22nd November 1990 he was due to meet a contact from the border at Rangoon Central Railway Station, but as he was waiting he was aware that Military Intelligence were on to him and were waiting. Upon meeting his contact they both fled from the station with MI in hot pursuit – Thet Mhu stopped to pick up his slipper which had fallen off his foot as he was running and he was pounced on by 3 MI officers. A fight then ensued in the middle of the street but he fought them off before fleeing again. However, both men were eventually caught and arrested and sentenced to 7 years in prison. He was just 19 years old at the time. He spent 5 and half years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons before being released in April 1996 and as the warden was signing his release papers he was asked what his plans were for the future. Thet Mhu simply replied “I will keep fighting. I will be back here”. He returned to his political activities immediately and played a role in the student demonstrations that happened just 8 months later in December 1996. Along with his colleague Thar Nyunt Oo (photographed in May 2010) he evaded arrest and hid in the offices of several organisations that had signed ceasefire agreements with the regime. In a bizarre twist of fate the authorities found themselves in an awkward situation knowing that wanted student activists were hiding out in buildings that they could not raid for fear of upsetting the tense ceasefire agreements. He finally fled Rangoon in 1997 and made for Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border where in 2000 he helped found the AAPP along with Bo Kyi and other former political prisoners. In 2002 he decided to try to resettle to USA as he wanted to support his then girlfriend who was studying in the UK, however he was rejected due to his association to the ABSDF which was registered as an ‘outlawed terrorist organisation’. He eventually made it to America some years later and the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ had welcomed someone who was just that but he spent more one and a half years with no status or permit and life was incredibly tough. He eventually gained status as a political refugee and continues the flight.
With the shot in the bag and thanks to filming by both Jackie and Tim we made our way back across the supersize neon virtual world of Times Square and headed underground on the subway to Queens where we were due to meet with Ko Nay Tin Myint and Ko Myint Soe. There was also something of a surprise in store for me with our final meeting but more about that later…
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