8 Years In Prison For The Lawyer Who Questioned The Law

Finishing up the latest trip to the UK our final destination was a date with U Hkun Sa, Secretary of Constitutional Affairs Department of ENC and General Secretary of the Kachin National Council of the Kachin National Organization (KNO).

In 1988, Hkun Sa, a prominent lawyer, was actively involved in the Bar association in Mytkyina. He was one of the founder members of the Kachin State National Congress for Democracy KNCD, which had a very close working relationship with the NLD. He was elected as General Secretary and in the 1990 election the KNCD won 3 seats. In the aftermath of the election when the regime refused to hand over power, village leaders (under control of KIA/KIO) were interrogated by Military Intelligence (MI) about Hkun Sa. He was accused of having gone to their areas and meeting with KIA/KIO leaders. He was summoned and questioned by MI and answered in a written statement. He was asked about the 1962 coup by Ne Win and his answer was that it was against the 1947 constitution and was a misuse of the peoples’ trust in the Government and army. Again he was asked the same question about SLORC coup in 1988 and he replied that there was no provision in the 1974 constitution to allow for a military coup and thus, he was charged under section 5J and taken to Northern Common Division military court no 34 where he repeated his answers in cross questioning the prosecution. He was sentenced to 10 years with hard labour in prison and was transferred to Mandalay prison.

In prison he was appointed the leader in Mandalay prison of a programme of supporting the political prisoners set up by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was providing medicines, food, healthcare etc to political prisoners in prison. Upon release from prison his lawyer’s licence was revoked and he couldn’t practice law. He stayed at his cousin’s house in Hpa Kant but MI came after him, hassling his family and friends, monitoring his every move and demanding his every movement and travel is reported to the MI. His wife’s motorcycle rental business was shut down by the authorities as they took away his licence. Even his daughter was affected by the constant pressure from the regime – she had been elected on a youth exchange programme to Japan but the regime did not allow her to go.

Whilst Hkun Sa had been in prison, Duwa Bawmwang `La Raw, the president of the Kachin National Council of KNO in exile had heard about him and had constantly sent words of encouragement and when Hkun Sa was released from prison he asked him if he was interested in politics he would arrange to take Hkun Sa to exile in Thailand. Two years later it was arranged and Hkun Sa left for Thailand on 5th February 2002 arriving on 17th Feb. He joined the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) and was elected Chairman of the Kachin State Constitutional drafting committee (a role he still has today) and was handed the responsibility for drafting the constitution for a Kachin State within a Federal Burma. As he had also been the General Secretary of the KNCD inside Burma at the time of the 1990 election he was now also asked to form the KNCD-LA under the umbrella organization United Nationalities League for Democracy-Liberated Areas (UNLD-LA). He carried out these duties and in February 2003 was elected Vice Chairman of the UNLD-LA. In May 2003 along with 10 high ranking exiled leaders he travelled to Northern Ireland for a training programme in the peace building process. He claimed asylum in the UK and it was granted in September 2003. He continues to work tirelessly for democracy and freedom in Burma in his current role as Secretary of Constitutional Affairs Department of ENC and General Secretary of the Kachin National Council of the Kachin National Organization (KNO).

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From Rangoon to London. One Underground to Another.

Picking up from where we left off with Zaw Zaw Aung the other day we continued with shooting in London’s famously fashionable Shoreditch district, although this time we went underground. After all that is where political prisoners roots are and none more so than my friend Aung Gyi who it was a great pleasure to catch up with and take his portrait. Special thanks as always to DVB for filming and Jacqueline San for making this happen.

In 1988 Aung Gyi was a high school student at BEHS3 in South Okkalapa township in Rangoon. He was Secretary of the South Okkalapa division of the student organization the “Democratic Front” and was heavily involved in organizing and carrying out actions aagainst the regime such as leafleting and dropping pamphlets, putting up posters and banners and graffiti on walls in busy areas. Along with most of the colleagues in his group he was arrested at home one evening in August 1990 and ended up being charged under section 5J and was sentenced to 5 years in prison.  He spent two years in Insein and Taungoo prisons before being released in August 1992.

DVB VJ ‘Sam’ films whilst Jackie writes the name of a
Shwebo prison cellmate on Aung Gyi’s palm

After his release he rejoined his colleagues in the movement for underground activities. He was involved in the 1996 student demonstrations but he managed to escape being caught by the authorities, unlike many of his colleagues who were returned to prison. He spent 3 years in hiding in a poultry farm in an area just outside of Rangoon. Whilst he was in hiding he got married – a quiet, secretive wedding ceremony in a small monastery. In 2001 he started working as a reporter for a Rangoon sports journal “First Eleven”. He worked with Zaw Thet Htwe who was chief editor at that time. In 2003 Zaw Thet Htwe was arrested for an article that had been written about alleged corruption in the Burmese football association abusing money given to them by the world football governing body FIFA. Zaw Htet Thwe was arrested and sentenced to death and Aung Gyi was also arrested but this time was released after interrogation. In 2005 he was contacted again by some of his former collegues who had now been released from prison with the aim of starting up a network of undercover journalists inside the country and the first DVB networks were established. Aung Gyi left his sports journal job and set up his own advertising and film editing company, again helping to provide a cover for his secret activities now as an undercover video journalist.
In 2007 he was involved in the Saffron Revolution and with the footage that the world would see provided by the network of Burma VJs the authorities were hot on his trail and he was arrested again in November 2007. His arrest was a farcical story, but I cannot share that with you here. He was detained for a year before being sentenced to 2 years in prison. He was released in September 2009 from Shwebo prison. It was now too dangerous for him to stay in the country anymore and with his wife and young child he fled Burma on 1st January 2010.  He has now been resettled to the UK but like so many former political activists who flee, he is left waiting for his family to join him.

One has to spare a thought and thank Than Shwe for disbanding Burma’s once famed intelligence network in 2004 which lead to the jailing of hundreds of intelligence officers (two of whom Aung Gyi was jailed with in Shwebo prison) and the detention of General Khin Nyunt under house arrest. If the intelligence services had been left with their previous powers then not only would Aung Gyi still be in prison today, but so would so many of his colleagues and no-one would have known anything about the ‘Saffron Revolution’.

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The Cobbled Streets of London Hide 10 Years In Hell

Dateline London once again and despite knowing Ko Zaw Zaw Aung for some time, finally we manage to meet to chat and take his portrait. That’s the problem with constantly being on the move. Zaw Zaw Aung was a Rangoon University student when he was first arrested in March 1988 at the Phone Maw incident when he was detained for one week. Along with his colleagues, Htay Kywe, Min Zeya and others from the 88 Generation Students they re-formed the outlawed ‘BaKaTha’ student movement in the build up to the 1988 mass uprisings – and now it’s re-forming saw the birth of the ABFSU with Min Ko Naing installed as it’s president. The ABFSU or BaKaTha was formed in the 1920s and subsequently led by General Aung San. It has been at the forefront of the independence and pro-democracy struggles in Burma.

Zaw Zaw Aung

Along with his colleagues as one of the students leading the demonstrations he was arrested on 27th July 1989 and under sections 5(J) and 17(1) he was sentenced to 10 years in prison on 5th November 1989. He spent 2 years in Insein prison before being transferred to Tharawaddy prison where he served his full 10 year sentence before being released in November 1999.

After his release from prison all he knew about were his previous political activities, but continuing them was virtually impossible due to constant surveillance and harassment from MI. He started working with his colleagues doing welfare, health and social programmes for political prisoners’ families. He was a founder of Pyinnyar Ahlin Yaung school in 17th District in South Dagon which provided education and welfare to 400 students including 150 orphans. In 2004 when Min Ko Naing and other student leaders from the 1988 movement were released he was able to join up with his colleagues in forming the 88 Generation Students which was officially formed in 2006. He worked alongside Ma Phyu Phyu Tin (NLD) providing care and assistance to HIV sufferers for more than 18 months. But faced with the ever-growing threat of being arrested once again he was forced to flee Burma – having already spent 10 years in jail he couldn’t face suffering the torture, abuse and mental and physical suffering he previously endured in jail so was forced to flee to the Thai-Burma border in November 2005. Like so many before him and so many still today, the inhumane treatment of political prisoners by the SPDC is in clear breach of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights in so many ways. Article 9 clearly states that “No-one shall be subjected to arbitrary detention, arrest or exile.” Yet again the case of Zaw Zaw Aung shows clear abuse of his human rights for all of these three things.

At Mae Sot he worked at AAPP before applying to join the UNHCR re-settlement programme. He spent over 1 year in Nupo refugee camp before being re-settled to the UK on 19th October 2007.

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One Year On: Revolution and Evolution

Sometimes you can only move forward by going back to the beginning – and one year on that’s exactly what I’m doing in preparation for taking this campaign to the next level. With exciting developments on the horizon, where better than to gather your creative thoughts and ideas than with one of Burma’s most famous exports – world renowned artist Htein Lin. You can read all about Htein Lin here on this blog when I first took his portrait almost exactly a year ago to the day.

One year on and 117 former political prisoners later we are back in his studio discussing ideas and plotting a collaboration of sorts. With oppression ramped up to maximum by the SPDC with ludicrous election laws, worsening situations in ethnic states and more political prisoners in jail now than ever before, it’s time to start the fight back. Stay tuned…

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17(1) and Burma’s Women take Centre Stage

‘Back in the USSR’ as the song goes… (well ok, the UK really) and a chance meeting lead to another former political prisoner joining the campaign. Monday March 8th was International Women’s Day – a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. No such celebrations in Burma where there are currently 177 women political prisoners, from various sectors of society, who are imprisoned for their political beliefs. There are women in prison as young as 21 and as old as 68. Many women have been separated from their husbands and children.

Full details on Women political prisoners in Burma is available on the AAPP website.

In Oxford, UK, International Women’s Day was celebrated with an event dedicated to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – “Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Burma”. It was at this event that I had planned to photograph another former political prisoner who was helping to organize it and to do so in Oxford with all it’s connections to Daw Suu made it very poignant. In fact we had first tried to meet up with Kaung Myat Thu when we were in Norway as he was living in Oslo but were never able to track him down. So it was great to have finally met – in fact our first meeting came about completely by chance when a group of us met up and it wasn’t until someone called him by his name that I asked if he was in fact Kaung Myat Thu, former political prisoner who lived in Oslo! he was and here we are now in Oxford taking his portrait to add to the other 116.

In 1988 Kaung Myat Thu was a student, like his colleagues, doing all he could to stand up to the regime. He was part of a small underground organisation and in 1989 he was arrested and jailed under Section 17(1) of the notorious “Unlawful Association Act” whereby…

“Whoever is a member of an unlawful association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association or in any way assists the operations of any such association, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term (which shall not be less than two years and more than three years and shall also be liable to fine).

He was detained in Insein prison form 1989 to 1991 where he was then transferred to Tharawaddy prison. He was released on 23rd December 1992. He remained in Burma for the next 10 years, still working secretly in his organisation before finally fleeing to the Thai border in 2003. He spent two years in Mae Sot and Nu Po camp before being resettled in Norway. Where he lives now… just not when I went there looking for him!

The event in Oxford was a huge success with the main highlights being some superb traditional dancing from Miss J.San – the Secretary General herself – and a rousing speech from Mya Aye’s daughter Waihnin Pwint Thon, both worthy of the ovations they both received. Both reminding us on this day of celebration of women of the very different lives that women face inside Burma.

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