Thailand Day 22: Bangkok

Ma Suu Mon AyeBack in the ‘City of Angels’ for final preparations for the trip into Burma tomorrow – despite MBKs best efforts there’s no way my iPhone can be unblocked to work in Burma! The first of two meetings sees an early morning catch up with Ma Suu Mon Aye, the youngest female political prisoner who was jailed in 2000 at the age of 18. We manage to grab a few moments to chat early in the day in a park by Mo Chit station before heading to work – so often this is the case with this project. She spent 1 year in Insein Prison. Like so many she was forced to flee Burma after her release from jail and she currently lives in Bangkok where she is a journalist for Radio Free Asia. On her hand is written the name of her friend, a 25 year old fellow journalist, who was arrested on June 10th 2008 for photographing a demonstration of Cyclone Nargis victims outside the UN Development program office in Rangoon. Eine Khine Oo is the inaugural winner of the Kenji Nagai Award which Ma Suu Mon Aye collected on her friend’s behalf. Courage runs deep no matter how old or young. The afternoon was set aside for a meeting and interview with U Zin Linn, the veteran journalist, former political prisoner, vice-president of the Burma Media Association and Director of Media and Information for the NCGUB… amongst many other things. An incredible meeting. This was a real honour to be able to spend time with him and to hear first hand details of not only his own personal experience in Insein prison (including time spent with his colleague U Win Tin) but a hugely informative insight into the world of political prisoners. You can read the interview on this blog in the Interview section.

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Thailand Day 20: Chiang Mai

Time for the PR machine to move into overdrive as its meetings today with the exiled media organisations The Irrawaddy magazine and Democratic Voice of Burma. Khin Maung Soe and Than Win Htut from DVBAlso there’s the opportunity to photograph 3 more former political prisoners – Wai Moe and Kyaw Zwa at The Irrawaddy and Khin Maung Soe at Democratic Voice of Burma. Hugely successful meetings and some major promotional work both print and broadcast is in the pipeline from both organisations… keep posted as all will be revealed very soon.

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Thailand Day 18: Mae La Refugee Camp

Due to recent attacks by the Burmese army just a couple of hours drive north of the camp, the security is extremely tight with curfews in place. Life has become even more tense than normal in the past few weeks. Sneaking in to the camp through a small secret entrance, I met my contact and we hurriedly made our way to our rendezvous with the political prisoners currently living here. This was not the first time we had been in the camp and yet it got more difficult each time. It was only possible to photograph 3 former prisoners as it was not safe for many others to leave their house or be seen outside of their zone within the camp. Checkpoint at Mae La refugee campMae La, the largest refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border, is home to 32,000 refugees. That’s the official UNHCR number, however in reality there are closer to 45,000+ people living in the camp as many go un-registered as they do not meet the UNHCR classification for refugee status. For example, victims of Cyclone Nargis, that tore through the Irrawaddy delta in May 2008 will not be registered as refugees and since the Saffron Revolution in 2007 thousands more have fled from all over Burma including from the ongoing attacks in Karen state and entered the camp illegally in hope of seeking their salvation.

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Thailand Day 17: Mae Sot – From Fleeing Lawyers to Coco Island

Another day spent racing round Mae Sot on the back of the bike as Ko Thiha took me from one place to the next. In total a further 8 former prisoners were photographed, including a re-shoot with Ma Thida Htway when we bumped into her at the Burma Lawyers Council – it was a good idea of hers to take another photo as the new one is simply a classic and quite possibly may be the book cover. We were at The Burma Lawyer’s Council to photograph Saw Kyaw Kyaw Min, the young lawyer who fled Burma in 2008 when defending a number of political activists. He was charged with contempt of court and sentenced to jail himself. Luckily he managed to go into hiding and fled to the border where he now continues his work as a lawyer with the Burma Lawyer’s Council. I had already made the decision to photograph certain people who whilst not actually former prisoners themselves, they are inextricably linked in one way or another and Kyaw Kyaw Min was one of those people who its important is part of this project. It adds another dimension.

Next up we went to one of the offices of the National League for Democracy (NLD) to meet no fewer than four former political prisoners who between them had spent 42 years in jail. This gives you some idea of just how much the members of the opposition party, but winners of the 1990 general elections have been victimised by the regime – a regime that is holding on to power illegitimately. I was warmly welcomed by Ko Myint Soe (14 years); Ko Moe Myat Thu (9 years) Ko Zaw Aung (10 years); Ko Moe Zaw Oo (9 years) and it was my honour to be able to take their photograph and spend time in their company. It’s too hard to explain in this blog just how you feel when you meet these people – they are so humble in light of what they have been through, yet steely determined that they will one day overcome… it gives me such determination to push this project all the way to the limit at whatever cost.

Possibly the most extraordinary moment of all came when we went back to Ko Thiha’s house where we met U Mya Sein. The oldest former political prisoner I had met yet, U Mya Sein was first jailed in 1965 in Insein prison and then he was transfered in 1969 where he was sent to Coco Island. In 1959 General Ne Win established a penal colony on Great Coco Island. After he seized power in 1962 the prison gained the reputation of being a Burmese ‘Devil’s Island’ and in 1969 it was enlarged to cater to an increased number of political prisoners. The prison was closed in 1971 after a strike by all of the prisoners and the island was transfered to the Burmese Navy. U Mya Sein spent a total of 13 years in jail.

In the background to this portrait of U Mya Sein is another landmark in the struggle for democracy in Burma. On 14th February 2008, Pado Mahn Shah La Phan was assassinated by agents from the Burmese military regime who had sneaked across the border. He was shot in cold blood, in broad daylight, whilst sitting on the veranda of his house. The very house and veranda that is in the background to this portrait. Mahn Sha was an enigmatic leader, one of few who was able to bring together the many different factions and groups fighting for democracy and freedom in Burma. He was respected by everybody and feared by the regime. A loss of great magnitude but a reminder that at every corner there is nothing that the SPDC will stop at to eradicate all those who oppose them.

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Thailand Day 16: Mae Sot… and lunch with U Hla Oo

Many former prisoners live in Mae Sot quite literally under-cover of darkness, often barely able to venture outside of their friends’ houses in which they are currently being kept – often new arrivals from across the border; often more simply just because they have no paperwork and of course are not recognised as refugees by the Thai authorities. Without the help of my friends and contacts here in Mae Sot, of course getting to meet and photograph these former prisoners would be impossible. The biggest thanks of course once again goes to my guide for the past week and good friend, Ko Thiha, plus the motorbike which has covered virtually every Ko Thihasquare inch of Mae Sot in tracking down everyone. Ko Thiha spent 17 years, 6 months and 16 days in 5 different prisons. he was released in September 2008 at the same time as U Win Tin – one of only 7 political prisoners to be released at that time.

A busy day, 8 former prisoners photographed, but the most remarkable aspect of this project and Mae Sot in general is the people you are likely to meet at any point either in passing or just suddenly planned. No sooner had we just raced past U Chit Tin (NLD MP) who was cycling home on his bike, than Ko Thiha made a call and a quick diversion to stop for lunch with U Hla Oo who was in town visiting from Australia where he currently lives. A wonderful man who welcomed me into his house, gave me lunch and ended up chatting for ages as though I was an old friend. Words can’t begin to express this at all. It’s not every day you get these kind of opportunities, and also are welcomed in such fashion everywhere you go. I guess these things happen for a reason, so its nice to feel this project is growing stronger by the day. An open invitation to visit him in Australia next year where he will help me with the project says it all.

U Hla Oo fled to the Thai-Burma border and co-founded the NCGUB in December 1990. He was appointed Minister for Labor. The SLORC declared Hla Oo a fugitive for joining the NCGUB and charged him under Penal Code Article 512 and the 1950 Emergency Provision Act, Articles 5 (a), (b) and (j). The Election Commission subsequently dismissed him from Parliament on 30 April 1991. He left Burma and joined the NCGUB on the Thai-Burma border. He was appointed Labor Minister in 1991. U Hla Oo is also the Chairman of the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB).

Thailand Day 15: Noh Boh and Mae Usu Temporary Shelters

A sideline from daily events with political prisoners involved several trips north of Mae Sot to take supplies to the new refugee arrivals at Noh Boh and Mae Usu. On 6th June the Burmese army and the DKBA launched a major military offensive against the KNLA in Papun District near the Thai Burma border. More than 4,000 refugees were forced to flee across the Moei river to safety in Thailand by the Burmese army and the DKBA have relocated to a new temporary shelter in Noh Boh village, Thailand on 11th July. Food, medicines and other supplies are in desperate need. The Thai military provide security to the camp in case of attack by the DKBA or Burmese army.

Karen refugees at Noh Boh


Villagers from Ler Per Her IDP camp and surrounding villages were forced to flee from their homes on June 6th as the Burmese military launched a major offensive against the KNLA. The villagers fled across the Moei river into Thailand and sought refuge in Noh Boh village in monasteries and local orphanages. They have now been re-located once again to this area where they have been allowed to form a temporary shelter – unofficially it has become the tenth refugee camp on the Thai Burma border.
But they do not want to become refugees.
All they want to do is go home.

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Thailand Day 12: Nu Po Refugee Camp

Six hours drive south of Mae Sot lies Nu Po refugee camp. Noh Poe as it is also often called, means “small lake” in Karen and is home to almost 15,000 people who have fled their native Burma. Many former political prisoners are sent here when they escape across the border in Thailand and the most of the refugees in the POC/PAB sector are political activists who have been involved in the democracy movement since 1988.

Thanks to my good friends at ESC Nupo I managed to photograph almost 30 former political prisoners whilst here. The total now photographed for the project is up to 76. All images are available for viewing here. My personal connections with Nu Po go back several years due to a friendship established with John Glenn, a former political prisoner and founding member of the English Speaking Course (ESC Nupo). The school was formed in 2007 out of the huge demand for English classes in particular for adults. The programme relies almost solely upon private donations and funds that can be raised by those who work and live there. Foreign teachers have been recruited and an incredible school building that contains classrooms, a computer room, sleeping quarters, school office and much more. It is a truly remarkable place, run by truly remarkable people – a real home from home. Pictured here is Ma Lwin Lwin Myint, younger sister of U Ashin Gambira the prominent monk and leader of the Saffron Revolution in 2007. Since her brother was detained in 2007 and due to his high profile activism, Ma Lwin and all of her family members have suffered continual harassment and persecution from the military junta and its thugs in the USDA and Swan Arr Shin. Many of them have been subsequently detained and jailed but she managed to evade capture.
Along with her husband, Ko Lu Maw Naing, she played a prominent role in delivering aid and providing assistance to victims of Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy Delta. This was the final straw for the junta who literally put out a warrant for her arrest. She fled to the border with her husband in 2008 and they are currently living in Nu Po refugee camp and studying at ESC Nupo. Her brother U Gambira was sentenced in November 2008 to 65 years imprisonment and in january 2009 was transfered to the remote Khandee prison in Sagaing Division. Ma Lwin told me that despite suffering torture and persecution as a political prisoner in jail, her brother is in good health and above all in good spirits. Both Ma Lwin and Ko Maw are journalists for the Burma Student Post which is produced by ESC Nupo and to which I am very proud to be the sponsor.

Below are a selection of former political prisoners photographed in Nu Po camp – visit ENIGMA IMAGES website to see all 24.

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Thailand Day 11: Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp

The second major phase of photographing former prisoners involves getting into the refugee camps – in particluar Nupo but also Umpiem Mai and Mae La. The next few days will take in Umpiem and Nupo and potentially another 30+ former prisoners. Access to the camps is strictly controlled with checkpoints not only at the entry points but also along the surrounding roads. The highway from Mae Sot down to Umphang is littered with checkpoints – some that seem to spring up whenever tensions rise over the border in Burma or if there is a sudden clampdown by the Thai authorities. The problem for former political prisoners (and many others fleeing Burma) is that they may have no proper documents to show the Thai police if they are stopped. Without proper documents they will be arrested, deported and in the case of the former political prisoner that will mean straight back to jail. So many organisations will help them become registered with the UNHCR as ‘persons of concern’ (POC). Whilst this document will grant them refuge in Thailand, in 2006 Thai policy for refugees changed and then stated that all POCs had to live and remain only within the camps. Former political prisoners in Umpiang refugee campMany former political prisoners were forced to go to the camps and this had a damaging effect on their ability to continue their activist work for exiled opposition groups and organisations. One might wonder how much the Burmese military junta leaned on the Thai government to implement this change. So living and travelling around Mae Sot and outside the refugee camps is often very risky for former political prisoners (and other refugees). Many literally still remain as prisoners in their homes or in hiding in Mae Sot and the surrounding areas just so they can continue their activism. They have become stateless people.

The journey to Umpiem Mai is about 4 hours in the line car. We had arranged to photograph about 8 people in Umpiem Mai before heading off to Nupo the next morning. I was being taken there by Ko Thiha who had arranged the trip with his colleagues in the camps. Ko Thiha spent 17 years, 6 months and 16 days in 5 different prisons (Insein, Taungoo, Kalay, Taunglaylone and Maisatt) having been jailed in 1990 for his political activities. He was freed along with U Win Tin in September 2008 and soon after he fled to the border. He shared his prison experiences with me and no matter how many times you hear these horrendous stories of torture and suffering, you always sit listening completely transfixed, because they always resonate so much inside. We passed through 7 checkpoints on the way – more than I have ever encountered before and it was nervous times for many of the people on board as the Thai police were stopping and searching every vehicle. A quick phone call to a contact and we discovered that the Thai police had stopped a car further up the border near Mae Hong Son and found guns and ammunitions. The people they arrested were ‘Red Shirts’ of the Thai political movement and the police suspected the weapons had been given to them by the KNLA (which of course was not true). This naturally meant that security was tightened up all along the border. We got to Umpiang camp without too many problems, met our contact and sneaked into the camp without being seen. Again due to recent fighting in Burma there are strict curfews in the camps at the moment, especially for westerners working there… and even more so for westerners who shouldn’t even be there. Release card from Insein prisonWe made our way up to the Burmese section way up the hill at the back of the camp up by the pagoda. A great view but for all the wrong reasons. Life in the camps is not easy by any means. Rations are limited and there are all the usual social problems once finds in the outside world that are only heightened in the closeted environment of a refugee camp where so many people are living in cramped conditions often in a state of flux, often having just escaped horrendous situations back home in Burma. We met up with everyone and as always the warmest welcome was bestowed on me and yet again superb Burmese food prepared. We had to be careful not to draw too much attention so stayed inside huts most of the time, but had to shoot outside due to the light. It was great to spend so much time in the company of these former political prisoners inside the camp – watching and listening to them sharing their stories and experiences. They even showed me their release cards (pictured above) and joked about what they said to the guards once they were released. We only had a couple of hours in the camp as we had to catch the line car down to Umphang were we had to stay the night before travelling on to Nupo the following morning. We made our way back across the camp to meet up with one former political prisoner in particular who I wanted to meet and photograph. Saw Than Hla was sent to prison in 1983 for his political and human rights activities. A member of the KNU, Saw Than Hla lived in a small village in the Irrawaddy Delta. He spent 24 years in Insein and Thayet prisons before being released in 2007. When I asked him what the real reason was for him being sent to prison for such a long time he simply replied… “because I am Karen”. This is not hard to believe based on what is happening just miles away from where we are – ethnic cleansing and genocide as the military junta are trying to wipe out the Karen people. Swa than Hla was probably the most inspiring person I have met to date. He was suffering badly from hypertension and low blood pressure – so we went to the market and bought him some limes and sweet biscuits. He showed me his letter from the ICRC that recognized him as a former prisoner in Insein prison and therefore as a person of concern… however he is still waiting to achieve that status from the UNHCR… bureaucracy gone mad. Here is a man who has spent 24 years in jail as a political prisoner and the UN can’t see fit to award him full refugee status and ensure he gets food rations and is looked after. He proudly put on his traditional Karen clothes for the photograph. It was an honour to be able to take that photograph.



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Thailand Day 9: Mae Tao Clinic

The Mae Tao Clinic is something of an institution in Mae Sot and the surrounding border areas. Without it, you start to wonder just how many people might have died over the years. It is a truely remarkable place run by truely remarkable people – there is really no other way to describe it. Founded and directed by Dr. Cynthia Maung, it provides free health care for refugees, migrant workers, and other individuals who cross the border from Burma to Thailand. It was established in the aftermath of the mass demonstrations in 1988 when thousands fled to the border to begin their fight for democracy. I have had the honour of visiting many times and thanks to my friend Eh Thwa (a manager at the clinic) I have been given unrestricted access throughout the clinic to document and photograph accordingly. But this time the visit was different – I was here to photograph Dr Tun Thu, a former political prisoner who has been working at the clinic for many years. Dr Tun Thu was detained for 8 years in Insein prison and Tharawaddy prison for his political activities. He fled to teh border like many of his colleagues and has been working at the Mae Tao clinic ever since.

Dr Tun Thu

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Thailand Day 7: U Chit Tin, NLD Member of Parliament

With almost everybody who works at the office already photographed either back in January or last weekend, the only person left to do was Ko Tate Naing, joint-secretary of AAPP. As luck would have it, not only was he in the office today but he was meeting with former political prisoner and National League for Democracy (NLD) Member of Parliament for Minhla, Magwe Division, U Chit Tin. It’s really quite extraordinary to find yourself standing there, chatting to an MP whilst writing on his hand. But I guess, that simple act sums up so much – the interest and belief in the project, but also acceptance of and trust in me and my involvement in the movement (so to speak). Somehow I can’t see myself standing next to Gordon Brown or Barrack Obama, chatting about life in Insein prison whilst writing the name of one of their colleagues, who is still detained there, on the palm of their hand. God knows I’d like to… and will do everything possible to do so. It brings a total sense of reality to the situation, but at the same time a complete sense of farce in that the junta have simply been allowed to get away with everything for so long. United Nations, you have so many unanswered questions.U Chit Tin, NLD MPU Chit Tin, was elected as a member of parliament for the NLD in the general election of 1990. He never took his seat. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison under ‘Section 122 (1)’ for being involved in the formation of a parallel government. He spent 2 years in Insein prison. The NLD won a resounding victory in the 1990 general election, winning over 80 percent of the Parliamentary seats. The military junta refused to honour the election results and instead started arresting NLD leaders and elected representatives throughout the country. The NLD caucus held a series of secret meetings and decided to send some of its MPs to the liberated areas to form a provisional government with it’s main task to help restore democracy and human rights in Burma. The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) was formed in Manerplaw on 18th December 1990.

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