Burma’s Former Political Prisoners Unite in Japan

The trip to Japan saw 7 former political prisoners unite in joining together to raise awareness about their colleagues currently detained in Burma’s notorious prisons.

Click here to view all the portraits in full size and go the ENIGMA IMAGES website

To read all the details of this trip to Japan please view the section on this website – Japan – February 2010

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Japan Day 7: The Final Curtain…

Our final day in Tokyo. It’s true that all good things must end, but it’s totally and utterly got me this city. I’m coming back, make no mistake. Yesterday we enjoyed another day of the Tokyo experience – a complete clash that sums up Tokyo; from the culture of Asakusa to the glitz and glamour of Ginza. A shopping paradise if you have a wallet the size of Bill Gates. Wall to wall with designer shops as big as Mount Fuji itself, we made do with just wandering around. With 6 former political prisoners already met, interviewed and photographed it was time to turn attention to a current political prisoner. On May 30th 2003 U Tin Oo, Vice-chairman of the NLD, was caught up in the Depayin incident along with Aung San Suu Kyi and placed under house arrest soon after. He is due for release next Saturday on 13th February having being detained illegally for almost 7 years. Last night I had dinner with his son Thant Zin Oo and interviewed him for The Irrawaddy – you can read the article here.

So as our final day unfolded to the sound of Takadanobaba metro station’s personal tune (see day 4 for details) our first stop was an early morning interview with journalist Ma Kyi Kyi Mya – who is actually half Burmese and is a staunch advocate and activist of the democracy movement in her own right. We meet with Phone Myint Tun and Ko Aung Thu and start what proves to be surely the most memorable interveiw ever… from English to Burmese to Japanese and back again. How the Secretary General and others kept up I’ll never know. But it was great as always and we all had much fun as well as most importantly getting the message across about the issues faced by both current and former political prisoners. I always try to stress this as much as I can when being interviewed – whilst people may be keen to understand what we are doing and where we are going, it’s all about the men and women who are inside and those who have been left on the outside – too often with as little hope as those on the inside albeit in a different context. Having wrapped up the interview we spent the day visiting Kamakura – sometimes considered a former de facto capital of Japan as the seat of the Shogunate and of the Regency during the Kamakura Period. A truely welcoming change to Tokyo, a day of serenity and calmness and the Great Buddha (a 13m high outdoor bronze statue of Amida Buddha) is a spectacular sight.

With the trip drawing to a close we had just one final person to meet – U Than Swe. U Than Swe was just a student at secondary school in Rangoon when he made the decision to become politically involved against Burma’s military regime. It was 7th July 1962 when more than 100 students were massacred at Rangoon University as soldiers opened fire on them whilst they were demonstrating against the Ne Win government. The following day the Student Union building was blown up whilst students were inside. U Than Swe witnessed the event and made the decision there and then that he would be… “involved in anything and everything against this government”.

(The site of the former Student Union building at Rangoon University that was blown up on 8th July 1962)

He became involved in political movements and demonstrations throughout his life as a student and throughout the 1970s – Golden Jubilee of Rangoon University demonstrations in 1970, U Thant uprising in 1974, further demonstrations in 1975 until in 1978 he was finally arrested by military intelligence and detained under 10(A). Khin Nyunt launched a massive investigation into the student movement and in obtaining a list of all members and leaders of the ‘Burma Student Union’ he ordered the arrest of more than 170 students between 1977-78. U Than Swe was one of those arrested and sent to Insein prison. In 1980 the SLORC announced a General Amnesty 2/80 releasing all political prisoners – many political prisoners were informed by the authorities that they were criminal prisoners and would only receive a reduced sentence and not be released. Along with his politiclal prisoner colleagues, U Than Swe could only watch as day by day prisoners were released but none of those who were detained under 10 (A) like him. Many started a hunger strike to protest against this treatment by the authorities. U Than Swe was one of the last 7 political prisoners to be released under Amnesty 2/80 at the end of 1980. After release from prison faced with the usual harassment and intimidation by the authorities he continued his political activities including through the 88 uprising, but faced with the threat of re-arrest he fled Burma in 1990 to Thailand, then on to Malaysia and Macao before finally settling in Japan in March 1991.

We met up with U Than Swe in a Shan restaurant in Takadanobaba just next to where we are staying and along with Zaw Zaw Hlaing filming we started to shoot inside the restaurant but ended up actually getting the final portrait when we walked outside. So with seven former political prisoners photographed its been a truly successful and memorable trip to Japan – friends made for life and hopefully some good material to campaign with and help further raise awareness about Burma’s political prisoners.

Sad to be leaving this incredible city and I can’t wait to come back – I’d like to live here for sure. A final note is that we nearly missed our flight – the desk was closed when we got there with just under an hour before before take off but they still checked us in… I wish they hadn’t…

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Japan Day 5: Propaganda, Usokae and 11/92: From Lies to Truth at the Kameido Tenjin Shrine

Mixing business with pleasure is the best way to be, so yesterday afternoon and this morning was spent taking in the big city, bright lights atmosphere that Tokyo has to offer. From tea with Maids and the Otaku sub-culture to the total sensory overload of streets filled with neon, anime and a million people a day crossing the road in the same place; Akihabara, Shinjuku and Shibuya were our playground for 24 hours – plenty of shopping at Shibuya 109 for Miss J.San @ The Secretary General and funnily enough it was also the only place I found a free internet connection. Checking emails and uploading photos will never be the same again – standing outside a shop on the fourth floor that simply sold ‘anything and everything’ but only in pink is a moment to cherish.

You can enjoy these photos from Tokyo here.

In the afternoon, along with Zaw Zaw Hlaing and Aung Naing from DVB, we headed to Koto-Ku to meet former political prisoner Ma Kyu Kyu Win. Having already photographed in the streets earlier in the week, the idea this time was to go to a temple, so we made our way to the Kameido Tenjin Shrine and it was perfect if for nothing else because of its significance.

Best known for its arched drum bridges and purple wisteria hanging from overhead trellises (unfortunately not at this time of year) the shrine dates to 1662 and is dedicated to a 9th century scholar, poet, and politician named Sugawara no Michizane, familiarly referred to as Tenjin Sama. The Japanese tradition of ‘Usokae’ is practiced at shrines dedicated to him whereby people receive wooden dolls carved in the shape of Uso (bullfinch), known as a lucky bird, and pray for good fortune. Tenjin Sama was remembered as an honest man, never telling lies and some say that the origin of Usokae comes from the Japanese word uso meaning ‘lies’, which also corresponds with the name of this bird. Everyone tells lies, whether they intend to or not, and in order to exchange ‘lies’ told in the previous year for ‘truths’, people bring their old wooden Uso dolls to be exchanged for new ones. Photographing a former political prisoner jailed because of the lies of the military regime, perhaps we can we exchange it for the truth with what we are now doing.

Kyu Kyu Win was a first year student at Hlaing College RC2, Rangoon University when she first became involved in the student movement – it was 1987 and Burma had just been brought further to its knees overnight when Ne Win decided to demonetize the currency. Throughout the mass uprisings of 1988 through to 1991 she was part of the student underground network. In October 1991 when Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, students at Rangoon University held a ceremony in honour of her, demonstrating and demanding her immediate release. Kyu Kyu Win and twenty of her colleagues were arrested and taken to Insein prison. Soon after being detained and with no investigation or fair trial she was sentenced by Military court No:1 to 10 years imprisonment. Despite denying that there were any political prisoners at all (3,000 actually in jail), on 29th April 1992 the SLORC declared a General Amnesty and under Declaration 11/92 stated that all political prisoners not deemed a threat to national security would be released.The newspaper article above is from the “Workers People Daily” newspaper on 30th April 1992 – propaganda by the ruling SLORC about the release of prisoners in a General Amnesty under Declaration 11/92. Top left is Cho Cho Kyaw Nein (currently involved in setting up a political party to contest the elections of this year). Middle picture is of Mahn Nyunt Maung, General Secretary of the Karen National League Party. Kyu Kyu Win was released under Declaration 11/92 on 29th April 1992 havung served 4 months of her 10 year sentence. Pictured above, sitting second from left, along with her colleagues also due for release she was lectured by Dr Tun Maung from Rangoon University (under orders from the military regime) and ordered not to be involved in any further political activities. This newspaper article, as though sending a warning to the ordinary public, epitomises the propaganda that the regime consistently release, especially with regards to political prisoners. After her release, Kyu Kyu Win returned to her studies. She was constantly monitored, harassed and intimidated by military intelligence, often being offered bribes for information, being promised a job and money if she would become an informant. She ignored the regime at every turn instead continuing her previous political activities. By 2000 she became a tourist guide for Japanese visitors and in attempting to pass information through her visitors to the outside world, she once again feared for her arrest so she fled to Japan.

The light was fading fast when we finally got round to taking Kyu Kyu’s portrait and despite having to dodge passing visitors coming to pay their respects and a rapidly disappearing sun in the cold evening we just about managed to get the shot and also a full interview with her for DVB – it might have taken about 20 ‘takes’ but we got there in the end!

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Japan Day 4: NCUB, FTUB… and more Snow!

Despite looking like an upturned bowl of spaghetti when you are first faced with a map of it, Japan’s metro system so far wins the award for best thing about Tokyo. It’s way too early to be deciding the most memorable moment as we’ve only been here a few hours in this city that amazes you at every turn, but it’s atypical of quirky Tokyo and as we are living almost above the station here in Takadanobaba it’s doubling up as my early morning alarm call – the sound of Takadanobaba station when the doors are ready to close – you can hear it by clicking here: It seems that every station has its own tune. Brilliant. If you hear this sound anywhere else in the world other than at Takadanobaba station then it’s probably me – it’s now my ringtone.

Yesterday (Monday) was a well earned day off for us all after this hectic but enjoyable start to the trip which gave us a bit of time to wander around to sample the sights and sounds of Tokyo – Harajuku first but then it rained all day so we had to take refuge in shops which pleased the Secretary General! Unbelievably it snowed last night – it seems that ever since we were in Norway in December we’ve been blighted by snow. What chance it snows in Thailand when we’re there in April? We also managed some Karaoke last night – Burmese of course and reminding me of our time in Norway with Kyaw Soe Lin.

Today we had a meeting with Dr Min Nyo, representative of the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), leading member of the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB) and former political prisoner. We met at the Burma Office Japan. The meeting had been arranged thanks to U Nwe Aung the NCUB representative in Europe who deserves a very special mention of gratitude for being so supportive to me and to this campaign and for providing much help since day one. Dr Min Nyo was a second year Rangoon University student when he first became involved in political activities. Like so many at that time looking for a way to oppose the Ne Win regime he joined the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), but soon left realising it was as dictatorial as the military regime. He returned to Rangoon University to finish his studies and graduated in 1971. He returned to his home town in Mandalay and became more involved in the political activities that he had first started at University. At the time many of his colleagues were members of the CPB and he spent much time debating with them about the democracy movement. He was detained for two months in 1974 for his political activities and like many was under watch by the military intelligence. In 1976 when Brigadier General Kyaw Zaw went to liberated areas of the CPB headquarters the military regime started a long campaign of cracking down on the communist movement, arresting more than 1,000 people who they suspected as communists. In 1978 Dr Min Nyo a democracy activist and opposer to the communist movement was arrested through association to known communists as well as his own political activities. He was detained in Mandalay prison for sixth months before being transfered to Insein prison. He was released in 1980 where he returned to his home town of Mandalay, before fleeing to Japan the following year. With nothing more than the clothes on his back he started a new life in Japan, eventually enrolling in Nagoya University. When the democracy uprisings of 1988 happened, the sight of Sein Lwin becoming President of Burma sparked Dr Min Nyo to return to his previous political activities. When he had been in jail in Mandalay, he recalled a prison visit by Sein Lwin, then Minister for the Interior. Forced to sit for hours in excrutiating positions waiting to be inspected by Sein Lwin left an indelible mark on him. He gathered some fellow students at Nagoya University and established the Burma Association for Japan for the very first time and he was elected as Chairman. He returned to Thailand in 1989 to meet with student leaders to join in supporting the democracy movement and now more than 20 years later is NCUB representative for Japan.

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Japan Day 2: Stopping the Traffic in Tokyo

As we experienced in Norway, most meetings and opportunities to photograph people can only really happen at the weekend so the flying start to this trip continues at full speed. The first meeting of the day is with everybody. Not all 35 million people in Tokyo, but with a large gathering of representatives from many of the various Burma organisations here in Japan at a monthly meeting: NLD-LA; FWUBC; Burmese Women’s Union; Chin Nationality Community; Burmese Refugees Serving Association; People’s Forum on Burma; Karen, Mon and many other representatives to mention just a few. Getting an audience of important people like this doesn’t happen everyday and thankfully the Secretary General was able to translate my garbled explanation about this campaign for political prisoners and explain to everyone in a much more coherent fashion exactly what it is all about. It was warmly received and supported by all. Before heading of to lunch with everyone we managed to do some interviews with former political prisoners Phone Myint Tun and Htin Kyaw – and not to be left out I had one with DVB! There are not too many former political prisoners in Tokyo but we had 3 people lined up to photograph today – Htin Kyaw, Maw Gyi and Dr Aye Chan.

Htin Kyaw was a second year Physics student at Hlaing College Rangoon when he became involved in the democracy movement in 1988. Like so many of his colleagues at that time it was the events of March 13th that we now remember as Phone Maw day that proved the final straw. In August 1988 at Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous speech at the West Gate of the Shwedagon Pagoda he became a member of the Tri-Colour student movement that provided security for her (pictured here standing far right second from Daw Suu in Kachin State April 1989).

Htin Kyaw was arrested in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound on 20th July 1989 with many of his Tri-Color colleagues including Moe Myat Thu (previously photographed in Mae Sot last year) and Maw Min Lwin @ Maw Gyi (who we photograph here in Tokyo shortly after Htin Kyaw). They were all detained under 10 (A) of the infamous State Protection Law 1975 of which Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained under Section 10 (B) for much of her time under house arrest – “The law to safeguard the state against the danger of those desiring to cause subversive acts”. In total about 40 people were arrested that day in the compound and Htin Kyaw was detained in solitary confinement in Insein prison. He spent almost 1 year in Insein before being released. In 1991 he fled Burma to Thailand where he stayed for 2 years before moving to Japan where he is currently the Vice Chairman of NLD-LA Japan. Maw Gyi remained in Insein for a further 2 years until in March 1992 he was taken to the martial court and sentenced to 8 years imprisonment with hard labour. However, he was released a month later according to the General Amnesty 11/92 in April 1992.

Yesterday was the first time we had really photographed someone outside in a public place and as this trip was all about trying to capture the essence of Tokyo there’s no better place to do that than on the streets amongst everyone. We tried some tests at the Hachiko crossing the day before but it was just too busy so we found some other locations. Despite shooting in the thick of it the final pictures have managed to capture an essence of isolation that I wanted to show.

Having had a great lunch with everyone and got two great portraits of Htin Kyaw and Maw Gyi in the bag we made our way from Ikebekuro to Takadanobaba to meet up with Dr Aye Chan, former political prisoner and currently Professor of Southeast Asian History at Kanda University of International studies here in Tokyo. He became a student at Rangoon University in 1968 and became involved in the pro-democracy movement and was first arrested when handing out leaflets in an underground movement during the college’s 50th anniversary celebration. He managed to graduate and became a teacher and moved to Japan in 1993 being awarded a scholarship – he became friends with Aung San Suu Kyi who was also studying there at that time. He returned to Burma in 1988 and resumed his teaching at Rangoon University. He was sympathetic to the student movement, regularly serving as an advisor to the young men and women pushing to have democracy replace the military government. Many student leaders fled to Thailand, and Aye Chan had planned to join them. But he was arrested May 17,1990 when two student leaders came to his house to seek refuge – they had been followed by Military Intelligence. He was sentenced under section 17a to 15 years imprisonment. He spent 7 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. You can read full details about Dr Aye Chan’s experience here.

The final event of a very long day was a brief visit to Mon National Day celebrations in Itabashi-Ku. It was also Karen Revolution day as well but unfortunately time was running short and when we got there it was finished. Still, last year I was in Karen State at Brigade 7 headquarters enjoying it so I’m lucky enough to have experienced it then.

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Japan Day 1: A Post Apocalyptic Fusion of Organisation and Chaos

(A long introductory post to Japan – but hopefully worth the read) – ed.

This is a trip that happened by chance and at the last minute – all thanks to the US immigration deciding not to grant us a visa. Their loss. Our gain. No doubt about it. ‘As close as you’ll come to landing on another planet’ is how someone described going to Tokyo and in many ways it’s right. It’s like ‘Blade Runner’ but without the authoritarian government (that’s the bit where Burma fits in nicely) – a post apocalyptic fusion of organisation and chaos.

After 12 hours in the air, the sight of Mount Fuji from the airplane window is a welcoming sight. A calming and serene influence to prepare you for the staggering metropolis that is Tokyo, it’s 35 million people and probably double that in neon signs. For me it was love at first sight. So many things in Tokyo upon first viewing seem complicated and impossible to comprehend, not just the language or the fact that people don’t live on roads with names but by numbered blocks and sections, but then you realise that first impressions deceive and actually just about everything has been thought through and is there to make life easier. There’s 35 million people yet the only people pushing you on the trains are the station guards who’s job it is to make sure you all get to work on time. Culture is society in this land where respect is paramount. It’s a great lesson that should be practiced and not just learnt about in western countries. Perhaps then we wouldn’t have to be reminded every second day about our ‘Broken society and yob culture’. Even the toilet seats are heated and play music.

The hour train journey from Narita airport to Tokyo Central station prepares you for the concrete jungle that lies ahead. Once again I’m lucky enough to have the Secretary General accompanying me on this trip and playing her usual vital role of basically making it all happen. We are also lucky enough to be staying with family who like many they were forced to flee Burma in the aftermath of the 1988 uprising and we haven’t seen since. Naturally this makes this trip all the more special. We arrive in Takodanababa, a suburb in central Tokyo that like Mae Sot could just as well be called Little Burma – there are around 10,000 Burmese living in Japan and judging by the fact that there are 5 Burmese shops in the same building that we are staying in reinforces the point. This trip is somewhat of a whirlwind tour as we are only here in Tokyo for 7 days and no sooner have we arrived than we are off to a demonstration outside the Burmese embassy (but not before some food at a Burmese restaurant of course!). Other than through the ongoing partnership with AAPP and DVB, much of this trip has been arranged with the help of Ko Thant Zin Oo, Chairman of the NLD-LA Japan branch and son of U Tin Oo, the Vice-Chairman of the NLD and currently detained under house arrest in Rangoon… but soon to be released (more about that later). This really is a great honour and like so many times before, it’s not just  being in the company of such significant people but to be welcomed and trusted is what makes it so amazing to be involved in this whole thing. We meet up with Thant Zin Oo and make our way to the demonstration outside the Burmese embassy – a monthly event to mark the Depayin massacre where Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo both only just evaded assassination attempts on their lives. Well over 100 protesters line the manicured street facing the Burmese embassy, every other person holding a picture of either Aung San Suu Kyi or U Tin Oo as a mark of remembrance of this barbaric act of desperation by the SPDC that International governments around the world and the UN are still yet to take action against. We meet up with a number of people from NLD-LA Japan as well as others including Min Ko Naing’s cousin and as always our friends from DVB who once again will be part of this whole campaign as they film our journey around Tokyo over the following days – Zaw Zaw Hlaing and Aung Naing manning the cameras. But of course we are here to meet the men and women who wouldn’t be broken no matter what was thrown at them – Burma’s political prisoners.

I had always envisaged taking a portrait at a demonstration and the opportunity to do that here in Tokyo seemed perfect, even with the CCTV cameras of the embassy watching from on high. We would have to act quickly with this one as shooting in such a public place can bring about unwanted attention – especially when you are outside the embassy of the very regime you are campaigning against. The Secretary General got to work in preparing everyone with what we needed to do whilst at the same time we chatted with Phone Myint Tun, former political prisoner and representative for AAPP in Japan.

Phone Myint Tun was first involved in the democracy movement as a Tenth Standard student in 1988 during the mass uprisings of that year. In August 1988 he became a member of the Tri-Color student movement who were responsible for security for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and with his colleagues in Tri-Color he lived in the compound of her house on University Avenue. In 1989 he joined the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and was heavily involved in the underground student network of democracy activism against the regime, giving speeches, handing out leaflets and organising demonstrations. He was arrested on 14th January 1991 in the middle of the night, blindfolded and dragged off to MI-7 interrogation centre by military intelligence. Phone Myint Tun was brutally tortured like all who are arrested as opposers to the military machine and faced constant beatings, mental and physical abuse.
To gain a full understanding of exactly what it’s like to be arrested and face torture for simply wanting freedom you can read “No Escape”, Phone Myint Tun’s personal account of his experience at MI-7. After a week of being held captive he was transfered to Insein prison where he was quickly paraded in front of a military court and sentenced under 5J. He spent the next 4 years in Insein prison. He was released in February 1995 and immediately continued his political activities and in November 1995 smuggled out documents from political prisoners in Insein prison that were presented to the UN. Faced with the threat of imminent arrest he fled to Japan in January 1996 and has been here ever since.

With the demonstration over we made our way to a local coffee house and set about planning the coming week – sitting around a table with NLD-LA, DVB, former political prisoners and the Secretary General pulling the strings I just know that this is going to be a very special week. Pinching myself to see if this is all real no longer works. This is a responsibility to report. If only the UN would take the same attitude with a Responsibility to Protect. With plans set in place we headed back to Ikebekuro to have dinner with Thant Zin Oo and his wife. Without the guiding hand of more than just a local you’d miss the trick that the best places are a few floors up, more than often hidden away behind closed doors… but still lit up with enough neon to blind you!

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From the Midnight to the Rising Sun

Next week (if all goes well with technology) will see an exclusive LIVE webcast as we move half way around the world from the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ to the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. We will be taking the campaign to the Far East and meeting former political prisoners in Tokyo.

Full details will be posted shortly to confirm the LIVE webcast in Full HD  broadcast at USTREAM – click HERE

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