USA Day 1: Standing Either Side of Daw Suu

We bid farewell to Myint Soe and head off for our fourth and final stop of the day a few blocks away in Queens to meet Ko Aung. By now it’s dark and snowing as well, so unfortunately no chance of another shot outside. Ko Aung greets us at his front door with a warm smile and welcomes us in to his home, but suddenly I am filled with feelings of deja vu. Not because of where we are but because there’s something extraordinarily familiar about Ko Aung and I’m left feeling we’ve met before somehow. Like almost every person we have visited in the past two years where their homes or places of work have walls adorned with pictures of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s long struggle for freedom, Ko Aung’s home is no different. Except upon closer inspection of many of the photos on the wall, the young man proudly standing at Daw Suu’s side in numerous different locations and times of Burma’s forlorn past is actually the very person standing right next to me.

Ko Aung standing on Aung San Suu Kyi’s right hand side during the tour of Burma in 1989

Ko Aung @ Aung Gyi Lwin was one of the many young students who became the ‘Tricolor’ students organization who provided security for Aung San Suu Kyi. Wherever she went they were at her side and they lived in her compound at 54 University Avenue with her. Ko Aung’s name was on the household list and his parents were only too happy that he lived with and looked after his ‘sister’. Ko Aung’s father had been a bodyguard for General Aung San so it was only natural that his son should follow in his footsteps. Their families were very close, whenever Aung San Suu Kyi or her family visited it was Ko Aung who would drive them around and it was he who collected Aung San Suu Kyi when she returned to Burma on the 3rd April 1988 to care for her dieing mother. It was Ko Aung’s father (with Aung Gyi) who broke the news to Daw Suu that her mother was ill. But there was something else familiar about him that was niggling away at me but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. We started looking through old photos from 1988/89, reminiscing and recognising so many of the people I have had the privilege to meet and come to know over the past years and then it hit me. As Ko Aung was naming the different people in each photo, more often than not the young man standing the other side of Daw Suu was Maw Lwin… Ko Aung’s younger brother also known as Maw Gyi who I had met and photographed in Japan!

Maw Gyi @ Maw Min Lwin, elder brother of Ko Aung and former Tricolor member
photographed in Japan in 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi with Ko Aung (left) and his brother Maw Gyi (right), in Upper Burma July 1989

For me this is the beautiful part of this long journey. Whilst photos taken at face value can be used to raise awareness, to empower people or in campaigns, the real story and meaning to all of this lies in these people, brothers and sisters all over the world, together even though so very far apart. Tracing the footsteps of Burma’s political prisoners is an emotional journey at the best of times, but it’s little moments like this when links are discovered, entwining Burma’s bravest to one another that provide inspiration, if indeed any more inspiration is be needed. Burma’s political prisoners provide it in abundance. Whether it be the moment just now in linking two brothers a world apart, or photographing Myint Soe when he was in Mae Sot and now meeting him again at his new home in New York or even the act of writing the name of Cho Mar Htwe, imprisoned in Moulmein, on the palm of Khin Cho Myint and then six months later photographing Cho Mar Htwe herself. These are just some of the hidden stories these photos can tell.

Ko Aung was detained in Insein prison for 9 months under section 10(A)

Four days after the military coup on 18th September 1988, Ko Aung was arrested for the first time. Along with 5 of his colleagues he was detained under the order given by Mandalay Division Commander-in-Chief General Tun Kyi. The reasons were simply through their association with the NLD as they were campaigning in Mandalay. He was detained in Mandalay Palace jail for 3 months but was eventually released without charge. Upon his release, in January 1989, he joined Aung San Suu Kyi and the rest on the campaign trail in Pakkoku as they were embarking on their tour of Upper Burma (see photos above). Throughout 1989 the tour continued across Burma as Aung San Suu Kyi campaigned against Ne Win and the military rule that had brought the country to its knees. But back in Rangoon on Martyrs Day, the anniversary of her father General Aung San’s death the net was starting to close in on Aung San Suu Kyi and those surrounding her. The SLORC authorities had laid on a football field to host a huge ceremony, however it was clear that celebrations were not the order of the day as it was filled with hundreds of armed troops and Suu Kyi told the public to boycott it, later that day stating on VOA that… “we decided that it was best to boycott the whole arrangement since they had prepared a killing field for the people. They have said that the people could gather in a football field in order to go up and pay their respects, but that football field was filled with armed troops and armed vehicles…. the people are urged not to support the Martyrs Day ceremony being staged by the SLORC today and to remain inside their homes to let the world know that the people of Burma are like prisoners in their own country deprived of all freedom under military rule.”

The next day, the 20th July 1989, at 7pm in the evening the military drove their trucks into the compound of 54 University Avenue and along with 48 others including Aung San Suu Kyi, Ko Aung was arrested and taken to Insein prison where he was detained under section 10(A). He was detained until April 1990 when along with six others he was released. The rest stayed in prison, some for a few months more, some for years. Upon his release he returned to University Avenue where he lived until Aung San Suu Kyi was herself released in July 1995.

As the harrasment from the authorities commenced again he confided in Daw Suu that he could not face being sent back to prison again and decided he had to flee Burma. He was granted a US Visa and made his way to Bangkok, but trouble was waiting once again as he was pulled aside in immigration for questioning. He knew from the style of questioning that it was not the Thai authorities who were really asking the questions. He knew that behind the screen it was Burma’s Special Branch. After more than 4 hours of interrogation he refused to answer any more questions and a stand off ensued. Eventually he was allowed to go and he arrived in New York on 31st November 1997 where he has lived ever since.

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