Thailand Day 3: Touchdown in Mae Sot

Another night bus from Bangkok… another night in the freezer. At least this time my contact in Bangkok bought the tickets so we had front row seats as opposed to the usual place for Farangs at the back right – just above the engine. The excitement of being back so close to home for the first time in years must have proved too much for The Secretary Generals teeth as Day 2 was spent undergoing emergency root canal surgery in Bangkok. Thanks to Bumrungrad International hospital in Bangkok it was a relatively pain-free experience – an amazing hospital. We also had dinner last night with some very special friends indeed (who cannot be identified due to their profile) and continued in accompanying us for a very quick low profile trip to Mae Sot – something that had been planned for some time and was pulled off without anyone knowing or realising… other than of course the people they had come to meet.

First stop was naturally to swing by the AAPP office to check in and catch up with everyone. The 10th Anniversary is tomorrow and final preparations and practice of the performance was underway. Also the new museum has been finished and it looks great (more photos available soon).

It was also great to see Thiha again (pictured above with the 10th anniversary t-shirts) – our close friend and former political prisoner of 17 and a half years and very much an integral part of the team on the ground here in Mae Sot. Initially we had plans to photograph about 5 or so new arrivals in Mae Sot plus trips back to both Umpiem Mai and also Nupo refugee camps to also photograph about 20 new arrivals but also to start work on documenting the current situation for former political prisoners and the mess that is the resettlement programme. But it’s way more than a mess and will be a whole blog entry on its own at some point in the coming weeks once we have got some of the work done – in a nutshell the situation is perilous for many former political prisoners who basically aren’t recognised as refugees and so are left in a state of flux faced with the very real danger of being returned to Burma… where of course the regime know exactly who they are and would send them straight back to jail for very lengthy prison terms.

The late afternoon and evening was spent with our special friends who accompanied us for a 24 hour visit – we visited the places and met the people we needed to. I’m hopefully it will be very fruitful for the future for all concerned – we have some great plans but above all it was a real honour and wonderful experience.

So here we are back in Mae Sot for the 3rd time in just over a year, but this trip is by far the most important to date. There’s a trip in to Burma planned for this project… Months of planning now lie in the hands of fate and the ever changing daily situation inside the country. Silence is Golden but now the silence can start to be broken and in part will be revealed in a UK newspaper on Saturday 24th April (full details to follow).

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Thailand Day 1: Breaking The Silence

On March 20th we touched down in Bangkok and only now, one month on from this trip starting, can the details start to surface.
Breaking The Silence from the Border and Burma…

We were in the queue at Heathrow at about 5am when I got a call from Rachel – “The report’s being launched on Tuesday… the photos are all over it”. The new report from Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) “The Role of Political Prisoners in the National Reconciliation Process” is being launched on Tuesday at the 10th Anniversary of AAPP in Mae Sot and the cover features all of the photos from this campaign to date. I knew they were going to use some on the cover and in the book but I didn’t realise it would be the whole front cover and back as well!! Final motivation to get us ready for the month ahead, not that any is really needed. Once again the most important person who keeps the ship sailing smoothly is on board – Miss J San @ The Secretary General. So with last minute revelations and itinerary changes including a cancelled cross-border trip (we wouldn’t have made it anyway so was thankfully no loss) we were finally off – I was actually due to leave 24 hours earlier – if only I had because then I could have met Nyi Nyi Aung at Bangkok airport and taken his photo… now that would have given the Generals something to think about. So we’re back in Bangkok but just for one night before heading to Mae Sot for several weeks of fairly intense work and most importantly to kick things off the 10th Anniversary of the AAPP. A bizarre concept greets us – thousands upon thousands of Red shirt protesters demonstrating peacefully for democracy – no sign of a policeman or soldier in sight – it’s almost a carnival atmosphere. How different it would be a few hundred miles away across the border in Burma if the same happened there, red shirts ‘n’ all. The only people we have booked to see in Bangkok are U Zin Linn and Ma Suu Mon Aye – both to re-take their photos as their original prisoners have now been released. Unfortunately only U Zin Linn is available today and we’ll catch up with Ma later, so we head over to his office and spend the whole afternoon catching up with him and his daughter Nai Nai who works for SEAPA. U Zin Linn was jailed twice for a total of 9 years. The former journalist and close friend and prison inmate of U Win Tin is currently Director of Media & Information for the NCGUB and also Vice President of the BMA.

U Zin Linn became an activist in the High School Union after the students’ massacre on 7th July 1962 taking on a role as an active member in the Rangoon Division Students’ Union. He Participated in a poster-and-pamphlet campaign on the 4th anniversary of 7 July movement and went into hiding to keep away from the military police. He was still able to carry out underground pamphlet campaigns against the Burmese Socialist Programme Party ( BSPP). However, in 1982, he fell into the hands of MI and served two years imprisonment in the notorious Insein prison. In 1988 he took part, together with his old students’ union members, in the People’s Democracy Uprising. In November of that year, he became an NLD Executive Committee Member for the Thingangyun Township and later became superintendent of the NLD Rangoon Division Office. In 1991, he was arrested because of his connections with the exiled government, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment in the notorious Insein Prison. In December 1997 he was released. Zin Linn was an editor and columnist and contributed articles to various publications, especially on international affairs, while in Burma. He fled Burma in 2001 and currently lives and works in Bangkok.

We re-took his portrait in his office before heading out to spend the afternoon in a Burmese tea shop talking politics whilst being  surrounded by red shirted protesters… it was a very surreal way to start the trip.

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