Burma’s Political Prisoners book: ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’ with foreword by Aung San Suu Kyi

After 3 long years of  hard work and over 100,000 miles travelled, finally the book of our long term project documenting Burma’s political prisoners will be published in November 2011 by River Books. Hopefully all political prisoners will also be released by then as well.

Featuring a foreword written by Aung San Suu Kyi and portraits of more than 250 former political prisoners in exile around the world (as well as over 50 from inside Burma, including leaders of the National League for Democracy), ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’ captures a moment in time in Burma’s history, dated October 2011, with more than 2,000 political prisoners incarcerated.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK:

The Abhaya mudrā (“mudrā of fear-not”) represents protection, peace and the dispelling of fear.

In 1962 a military coup lead by General Ne Win saw Burma, an isolated Buddhist country in South-East Asia, come under the power of one of the world’s most brutal regimes. For the past five decades, thousands of people have been arrested, tortured and given long prison sentences for openly expressing their beliefs and for daring to defy dictators who tolerate no form of dissent or opposition to their rule.

Today, more than 2,000 political prisoners including monks, students, journalists, lawyers, elected Members of Parliament and over 300 members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, The National League for Democracy, are incarcerated in Burma’s notorious prisons.

In Burma and across the world, almost 300 hundred former political prisoners have come together to raise awareness of the tragic plight of their colleagues still detained in jail. Photographed standing with their right hand raised, palm out-turned facing the camera, the name of a current political prisoner is shown written on their hand. The sacred Buddhist gesture of Abhaya, “Fear Not”, is not only an act of silent protest, but also one of remembrance and fearlessness.

“The people featured in this book have all had to learn to face their fears squarely during the decades they have passed in the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. Their commitment has been their courage. It is important that they and what they stand for should not be forgotten, that their sufferings as well as their aspirations should be remembered.”

“I hope that all who read this book will be encouraged to do everything they can to gain the freedom of political prisoners in Burma and to create a world where there are no political prisoners” Aung San Suu Kyi

View the project in its entirety at www.enigmaimages.net

 

 

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Brothers in Arms: The Moustaches and Ko Mya Aye

Meeting Burma’s dissidents inside the country holds great risks for everyone involved. For many it is too dangerous whilst others are able to do so under different guises or because they have in some way formed an uneasy alliance of sorts with the regime, but whoever and however these risks are taken with the overwhelming desire to inform the outside world about the situation in Burma. Defying and countering the state propaganda with the truth is the risk that dissidents, journalists, opposition groups and often ordinary people take every day in Burma. Staying silent is not an option for many. That’s what the regime want them to do. Whilst some leading opposition voices, including Aung San Suu Kyi, are often able to quietly and ‘unofficially’ meet with foreigners without much cause for retribution from the authorities (thankfully so far anyway), almost every other dissident and even ordinary person in Burma runs the very real risk of interrogation and even prison if caught or even suspected of meeting foreign journalists and the like. A simple journey to the NLD offices can strike fear into the heart of many a taxi-driver in Rangoon. To be able to meet and photograph the people that I have these past weeks defies not just the regime but also logic as well as the insanity of the situation that they find themselves having to try to survive in. But nothing is taken lightly. Due to the nature of taking part in this work deemed an act that may “affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order,” under Burma’s draconian 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, almost everyone who has taken part cannot yet be shown for obvious security reasons. Their safety above all else is paramount. However, whilst as with U Win Tin last year, there are a number of dissidents who we are able to show publicly…

Par Par Lay, jailed 3 times has spent more than 6 years in prison and labour camps

Having been moving around Rangoon subversively for the past few weeks it’s time to head out of town and up country to Mandalay. I will miss my evening or early morning walk around the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda. A peaceful haven in so many different ways. Serene and silent it holds as much hope as Burma’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi and like the Lady it plays the most important of roles in Burmese peoples lives. As with Rangoon and elsewhere before, I cannot mention names or places but can only say that as always it was a privilege to meet those who I did whilst here in Mandalay. Brave men and women, jailed for many years but still continuing with their unfinished work to change Burma’s roadmap to one that reads more coherently. The only portraits from Mandalay and basically Burma as well, that can be shown now are those of the fantastic Moustache Brothers.

Lu Zaw, cousin to Par Par Lay and Lu Maw, was jailed for 6 years

The Moustache Brothers, ‘Par Par Lay’ and ‘Lu Maw’ joined by cousin ‘Lu Zaw’, are one of Burma’s most famous and most loved comedy acts famed for their now banned ‘A-Nyeint’ vaudeville performances that combine classic Burmese dance, screwball comedy and sharply satirical criticism of the military regime. But their controversial style attracted the attention of the authorities and they became an international symbol of political oppression in Burma when they were arrested in 1996. It was during Independence Day celebrations held in the compound of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home and in front of watching government officials and dignitaries that their performance poking fun at the regime would end in their arrest. The defining sketch that would see them jailed ended with Par Par Lay being shot multiple times by a Burmese General and when refusing to die he replies “Why should I die when I am right?”. The play on words was not lost on the watching military officials and Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were arrested and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Brother Lu Maw had not travelled to Rangoon and so escaped punishment. Much of their time incarcerated was spent in chains in a hard-labour camp in Kachin state, but thanks to a global campaign lead by Amnesty International and many Hollywood stars demanding their release along with negotiations lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, they were freed on 13th July 2001. Despite being banned from performing ever again and under virtual house arrest as part of their release conditions they continue to perform each night to tourists, still telling the jokes and subversively the truth despite constant threats from the authorities that they would be jailed again. In September 2007, Par Par Lay was in fact jailed again for 35 days for offering food to monks during the Saffron Revolution.

Par Par Lay decided straight away that the only name he wanted on his hand was that of ‘Mya Aye’, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students who is currently serving a 65 year  sentence in Taunggyi prison and suffering from extreme poor health. As we talked about Mya Aye and his colleagues, Par Par Lay’s boundless enthusiasm started to drift towards Mya Aye’s daughter ‘Waihnin Pwint Thon’, now a leading global campaigner for Burma in her own right. Their eyes lit up as they spoke of her now famous speech they had heard and watched last year and then even more so when I told them that she was a very close friend of mine. They decided they wanted to send a video message for Ko Mya Aye to accompany their portraits and here it is shown above.

After many laughs, tea and the occasional serious chat we decided on a final group shot in solidarity for their good friend ‘Zarganar’ before parting company once again. Brothers in arms. Still laughing but also still fighting.

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“Yayzan Lan” A Documentary Film About Burma’s Political Prisoners

A new documentary film directed by Jeanne Hallacy and co-produced by the Democratic Voice of Burma and in partnership with the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) is due to be released in April 2011.

 

For Further details please view the official website

“Yayzan Lan” or “Into The Current” tells the story of Burma’s unsung heroes – its prisoners of conscience – and the price they pay for speaking the truth to power in a military dictatorship.

Using footage secretly shot in Burma, the film uncovers the stories and sacrifices of ‘ordinary’ people of exceptional courage and the leaders who inspire them. Former prisoner Bo Kyi and an underground team work tirelessly and often at great risk on behalf of their 2,100 jailed colleagues.

While they and countless others fight on, the dream of a free Burma remains alive.

The film will be screened at the FCCT club in Bangkok Thailand at the end of March 2011.

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USA Day 1: The Orient Express to Myingyan. Burma’s Darkest Hell on Earth.

Wrapping up from  the shoot as well as the cold in Times Square we catch the subway over to Queens for our next installment of the day and a visit to meet Ko Nay Tin Myint and Ko Myint Soe. To some degree I felt riding the subways reminded me of being back in Burma. It’s been 20 years since I was last in New York and it seems like nothing has changed underground. As we step out in Queens it’s like being back in the real world as the fantasy fiction of Manhattan sits on the horizon a bit like Disneyland. I had hoped to be able to shoot everyone outside with New York landmarks in the background but the weather has put paid to that as New York is facing one of its worst spells in decades. With the light already fading fast we make our way through Ugly Betty’s neighbourhood (which brings a smile to our faces) to Myint Soe’s house. As we get nearer I suddenly realize we are walking underneath the overhead railway of the famous “Oriental Express” or the ‘7 line’ as it’s officially known. It’s classic New York and makes a great setting for a backdrop with all its meanings as well as looking straight out of a picture book of New York’s real life. So a quick call to Nay Tin Myint and he willingly comes to meet us and to brave the cold and do the shot outside just before the light calls it a day.

88 Generation Student, Nay Tin Myint, was jailed for more than 15 years

Nay Tin Myint had been actively involved in leading student demonstrations during the uprising of 1988. Exactly one year on from that fateful day the 8th August 1988 he was arrested by officers from Special Branch SB14 as he gave a speech during an  anniversary demonstration on the corner of Barr St in Rangoon. As he stepped down from the stage he was grabbed by 8 armed officers and ruthlessly arrested. A commotion ensued as people tried to help him but soldiers were quickly on the scene arriving with machine guns on the back of a huge truck. As he was thrown into the back of the truck one soldier stabbed him in the head with his bayonet – he still bears the horrific scar today. He was taken to a concentration camp, the HQ of SB14 and was brutally tortured for days. He told them he was an NLD youth leader as well as a member of the Tricolor student organization. He was swiftly sentenced by a military court to 3 years in prison and was sent to Insein. On leaving the court room he was asked by the so-called judge, General Aung Kyaw San, if he had anything to say. He responded that “I am doing this for the people. The people are on my side, not your side.” This didn’t settle well with the General. “Ok. You get 4 years” and he was hauled away with a further year added to his sentence.
In jail he was tortured severely both physically and mentally, being kept in solitary confinement. He carried out a hunger strike and almost died but this didn’t stop him being shackled for almost 6 months until he was transferred to Tharawaddy. Again he performed another hunger strike over prison conditions and was the transferred to the darkest hell on earth that is Myingyan prison. Once again in Myingyan he was shackled until his release in October 1993. His right leg was paralysed due to more than a year of being shackled and severe torture. He needed 6 months in hospital in Rangoon and then a further 9 months before he was able to walk again.
In spite of everything he had suffered he continued his political activities but was arrested once again in June 1993 with 11 comrades as they had met with UN Human Rights Commission representatives and had handed out the “New Era Journal” (a newspaper produced by exiled opposition groups). Nay Tin Myimt was sentenced to 20 years in prison and was sent back to Insein. One year later he was transferred once more to Myingyan where he would stay for 11 years until his release in July 2005. Torture and brutal treatment of political prisoners is state policy in all of Burma’s prisons. It is shocking, systematic and arbitrary. It is also illegal. Whilst the notorious Insein prison harbours some of the most brutal torture that has ever occurred on this planet, it is the darkest hell on earth that is Myingyan prison were suffering knows no bounds and has become the model for breaking spirits and the destruction of resolve. As the AAPP report ‘The Darkness We See’ states that upon arrival “…the first treatment given will be covering his eyes with a dirty piece of cloth. Beating immediately follows as a second lesson. The prison authorities refer to this event as the ‘welcoming ceremony with orchestra’ in which they regard truncheons and bamboo rods as musical instruments. Solitary is mandatory. Treatment where it is forbidden to speak or even look at anyone and when someone passes by your cell you must have your head bowed. The world has no eyes or ears to the abuse that goes on inside the walls of Myingyan for if it did then it would surely have acted by now to bring an end to this inconceivable mess.

Prison shackles used on political prisoners in Burma’s jails

Nay Tin Myint spent 7 years in solitary confinement. For 7 whole years he saw no-one other than the weekly visit by the superintendent but even then he was not allowed to look or speak. The only time he could get out of his cell every day was for a few minutes to have a bath with 15 cups of water. He was never once allowed the statutory 30 minutes exercise. During an ICRC visit in 2000 he was called for by name to be checked due to the concern over the abuse he was being subjected to and the state of his health. During his time he was shackled on 2 separate occasions, the first time for 3 months but the second time was for over a year. He received no medical treatment at all. Despite this treatment he summoned up the strength from within to launch a counter offensive against the regime by carrying out yet another hunger strike, but this would be one that would have very different results that bring true meaning to the term ‘will to live’. In 2005 he started a hunger strike that would last 14 days. For the first 8 days the authorities gave him water but after that they stopped. When the authorities tried to force him to eat and even offered him medical treatment he still refused. He was sure he would die but he was never going to give in. By now the prison authorities were so concerned they called the military’s Regional Commander, Ba Myint, who came straight to the prison. Nay Tin Myint’s demands for political prisoners were simple – the right to receive a reduced sentence; improved food and medical treatment enabling them the right to access to hospital outside the prison if needed and finally the right that political prisoners could write to their families. His stubbornness was to prove valiant as one by one his requests were granted as the authorities gave in to his demands. He was released soon after and returned to Rangoon.
Having suffered such senseless brutality for 15 years, after undergoing some serious medical treatment, the first thing Nay Tin Myint did was to return to his former political activities where he rejoined with all his former student colleagues, Min Ko Naing, Htay Kwe, Ko Ko Gyi and others and history was made as the 88 Generation Students organization was born. He played a big role in many of their activities including the White Campaign but in May 2007 he was forced to flee Burma as the junta came for him once more. He fled to Mae Sot where he worked for the NLD-LA and in April 2008 he was granted special case referral to resettle in USA. He is now the Secretary 1 of the NLD-LA USA branch.

Myint Soe, CEC member of the NLD-LA

After shooting underneath the Orient Express we headed to Myint Soe’s house so we could all talk over a nice cup of warm Burmese tea. Myint Soe, a central committee member of the NLD-LA spent 16 years in prison in Burma. I had previously met and photographed him in Mae Sot back in July 2009 and now here we are on the other side of the world, in very different scenery as it starts to snow outside but a link to the past in many different ways. We all chat away for what seems like hours but with the night closing in we have one more person to meet and the surprise I could not have envisaged.

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Interviews All Round But Caution Abound

The media frenzy continues as the world waits in delight and anticipation to hear Daw Aung San Suu Kyi speak (some appearing increasingly desperate to speak to the Lady themselves whilst those both trusted and respected are able to share her words with the world). Almost every leading campaigner and activist gave a media interview of one sort or another over the past few days, but there is always a moment when a new leading voice can be heard for the first time and most certainly not the last, usurping many others around her. Jacqueline San, a leading campaigner at Burma Campaign UK and also for Burma’s political prisoners as a whole as part of the team producing this project gave a radio interview along with Baroness Caroline Cox from HART – click on the player below to listen:

Jacqueline San stands in solidarity with Burma’s political prisoners outside 10 Downing Street

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No Caption Needed: Bearing Witness To The Burmese Prison

A feature in the photographer’s showcase on the highly esteemed blog “No Caption Needed” that features iconic photographs, public culture and liberal democracy. No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

Read the post in full on the No Caption Needed website.

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EXCLUSIVE: British Foreign Secretary Demands the Release of Burma’s Political Prisoners

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has taken the stand in solidarity with Burma’s political prisoners, demanding their immediate and unconditional release from prison. The British government has been vocal in condemning the forthcoming elections as a sham and in demanding the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners if there is to be any sense of national reconciliation in Burma – something he was keen to re-iterate.

British Foreign Secretary, William Hague MP

The name on his hand is Mya Aye, leader of the 88 Generation Students who is currently incarcerated in Taungyyi prison where he is suffering extreme ill health and is in urgent need of medical attention.

With just over two weeks to go until the election, we are keeping up the pressure not just on the regime, but also on EU and ASEAN governments who take a more soft approach with the SPDC. With most of the leading UK politicians photographed already, there is just one big name yet to some… come in number 10 – your time is up.

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AAPP Report: Torture, Political Prisoners and the Un-Rule of Law

A new report was released today by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) documenting torture faced by political prisoners – you can download it here and also it’s in the ‘AAPP Reports’ section on this site.

Written by Bo Kyi and Hannah Scott, the report “Torture, Political Prisoners and the Un-Rule of Law: Challenges to Peace, Security and Human Rights in Burma” provides further evidence for the case of a Commission of Inquiry to be established to investigate crimes against humanity committed by the SPDC – torture being just one of those crimes.

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Political Activist and Former Political Prisoner Speaking Tour to New Zealand

My good friend and former political prisoner Aung Khaing Min who works at the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, will be visiting New Zealand on a 10 day tour giving a first-hand account of his own experiences as an activist and political prisoner in Burma and the personal struggles the people of Burma face. He was just 14 years old when he first stood up to the regime in 1988 and has spent 5 years in prison for his political activities. Aung Khaing Min will also be asking the New Zealand Government what they are doing for the people of Burma. His visit from October 10th-20th is part of Amnesty International’s Freedom campaign.

For full details of his trip please visit Amnesty New Zealand

Aung Khaing Min was jailed for 5 years in Insein and Taungoo prisons


His brother’s name ‘Chit Ko Lin’ is written on his hand.
Chit Ko Lin is serving a 7 year sentence in Pakokku prison

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Waihnin Pwint Thon Speaks for Burma and Political Prisoners at the UK Labour Party Conference

The issue of Political Prisoners and Burma has taken centre stage today at the annual British Labour Party conference being held in Manchester, UK. The short film made about this political prisoner work was shown as an introduction to a speech from Waihnin Pwint Thon, daughter of jailed 88 Generation Student leader Ko Mya Aye,

 

Waihnin Pwint Thon demands the release of her father Mya Aye

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