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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Burma Wins Big at the PX3 Prix de la Photographie Awards

One of the biggest and most prestigious photography awards in Europe, the “PX3 Prix de la Photographie Paris” have announced the winners in the annual event that celebrates a huge spectrum of photography from Photojournalism to Fine Art. With thousands of entrants from 85 countries including many of the world’s top photographers from agencies such as Panos Pictures and VII it is extremely pleasing and also humbling to win four awards – two golds, one silver and one bronze and an honourable mention – all for recent work in Burma and on the Thai-Burma border.

The winning images and photo-stories are as follows:

Aung San Suu Kyi: At Home With Burma’s Hope“:
Gold in Photojournalism (People)
Silver in Photojournalism (Political)
Honourable Mention in Portraiture

Burma’s democracy icon, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, photographed at home at 54 University Avenue

The Prison Without Bars“:
Gold in Photojournalism (Political)

From the refugee camps scattered along the border with Burma to the safe houses of Mae Sot to those who have been resettled to third countries, the daily lives of Burma’s former political prisoners are documented as they continue their fight in the struggle to bring democracy to Burma as well as their own personal fight for freedom.

Burma’s Defiance: Bo Kyi
Bronze in Photojournalism (Political)

“Burma’s Defiance” an ongoing long term project both inside Burma as well as in exile, documenting dissidents and human rights defenders still leading the fight against the ruling military regime in spite of threats and harassment from the authorities in the quest to bring freedom to their country.

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It is a huge honour to win these awards but most importantly it gives an audience and a platform to the subject matter and the issues concerned. This is the reason why as photographers so many of us take these pictures and follow these stories – personal satisfaction in the process and challenge of learning, helping and making a difference. Awards are due not to me but to the people in my pictures due to the struggles they have had to endure. My thanks, of course go to each and every one of them.

Burma’s Defiance: The Non Violent Revolution For Change

New Work Part 1

Burma’s non-violent revolution for change, as Aung San Suu Kyi called for just days after her release from house arrest, continues inside Burma and in exile as former student leaders, political prisoners, human rights defenders and activists continue the struggle for democracy against the tirade of brutality and oppression dealt by Burma’s ruling regime.

This ongoing long term project will document those leading the non-violent revolution for change in Burma both inside the country and in exile with a mixture of portraits and documentary. Currently the majority of work from inside Burma is embargoed to protect the security of those involved with only some able to be shown.

View the first instalment of work on BURMA’S DEFIANCE

Bo Kyi, Joint Secretary of the AAPP, was jailed for 7 years due to his political activities.

Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma have chosen the route of non-violence in order to bring about change in Burma. Many would argue that it is a fight that cannot be won against a regime that uses weapons at will, but here in this article, Mark Kurlansky, best selling author of ‘Nonviolence: the History of a Dangerous Idea’ tells how it will eventually prevail in Burma.

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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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USA Day 1: “I Will Keep Fighting. I Will Be Back Here”

Brief background… This was a trip that came from nowhere and was totally unexpected. Wednesday evening I get an email from a certain person (who you’ll hear about soon…) asking me to come to New York to meet on Monday. The opportunity simply can’t be missed so everything gets dropped and cue frantic phone calls and emails to various contacts in USA to try to arrange as many former political prisoners as possible in New York. 24 hours later we are on the plane. Before I go any further I’d like to thank everyone who helped pull this together and in particular the unbelievable efforts of Nickie Sekera, Tim Aye-Hardy and Ko Myint Hlaing.

Touchdown USA at last. After our aborted efforts last year it’s very important that we are finally here. If this truely is the ‘…home of the brave’ then there are no people more brave than those whom I am going to meet on this trip. It’s freezing cold and yet again snow welcomes us as we embark on another leg of this mission. The sprawling gargantuan metropolis that is Manhattan awaits and there’s no time to lose as we are only here for a few days and of course there’s lots to see as well as to do! Customs at JFK was surprisingly quick and left me wondering what all the fuss was about – we had a harder time getting into Norway and Japan. The remainder of our day was spent wandering around taking in the sights and size of Manhattan as well as trying to come up with a few ideas for locations, but unfortunately the bitter cold would mean that shooting outdoors would be almost impossible. We touch base with our man on the ground Tim Aye-Hardy and it’s confirmed that tomorrow we will have 3 maybe 4 people to shoot. (This day will now be split into 3 seperate postings for each person – ed).


Saturday morning and we head straight to Times Square as there’s no time to lose – not only is it minus 2 but it’s going to be a long day traversing across New York City. If only one shot was going to be done outside I decided that this had to be the one – standing in the middle of a scene epitomising western freedom with a gaudy shine that glosses over the darkness that lies underneath – a darkness that has been experienced to it’s fullest degree by Burma’s political prisoners. We scout for a few positions to try to get as much in the background as possible, the ever present model Jackie San standing on every corner and picture postcard spot of Times Square until we decide that the top of the red stairs of TKTS provides the perfect position aloft of all the madness that this world has to offer. The walk up what symbolises a red carpet is more than deserved by Ko Thet Mhu, and the first shot of the day is underway with both Jackie and Tim taking it in turn to film as the bitter cold makes it a real challenge to keep your hands out of your pockets let alone hold them aloft for Burma or try to take pictures.

 

Thet Mhu former member of the student organisation Ba Ka Tha
was jailed in Insein prison for 6 years

Thet Mhu played an active role in student demonstrations in the 1988 uprisings but as the army cracked down he fled to the Thai-Burma border with his colleague Moe Thee Zun. Whilst many students stayed on the border and formed the ABSDF to take up the armed struggle against the regime, Thet Mhu decided to return to Rangoon to continue the non-violent struggle and when he returned he played a role in the reforming of the Ba Ka Tha organisation of the ABFSU. He travelled to Mandalay to help build up the movement and spent time with a number of other activists in the Masoe Yain monastery – a secret refuge for student and other activists. He returned to Rangoon where he was now actively working for the ABSDF as well as Ba Ka Tha in an attempt to unite student organisations. On 22nd November 1990 he was due to meet a contact from the border at Rangoon Central Railway Station, but as he was waiting he was aware that Military Intelligence were on to him and were waiting. Upon meeting his contact they both fled from the station with MI in hot pursuit – Thet Mhu stopped to pick up his slipper which had fallen off his foot as he was running and he was pounced on by 3 MI officers. A fight then ensued in the middle of the street but he fought them off before fleeing again. However, both men were eventually caught and arrested and sentenced to 7 years in prison. He was just 19 years old at the time. He spent 5 and half years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons before being released in April 1996 and as the warden was signing his release papers he was asked what his plans were for the future. Thet Mhu simply replied “I will keep fighting. I will be back here”. He returned to his political activities immediately and played a role in the student demonstrations that happened just 8 months later in December 1996. Along with his colleague Thar Nyunt Oo (photographed in May 2010) he evaded arrest and hid in the offices of several organisations that had signed ceasefire agreements with the regime. In a bizarre twist of fate the authorities found themselves in an awkward situation knowing that wanted student activists were hiding out in buildings that they could not raid for fear of upsetting the tense ceasefire agreements. He finally fled Rangoon in 1997 and made for Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border where in 2000 he helped found the AAPP along with Bo Kyi and other former political prisoners. In 2002 he decided to try to resettle to USA as he wanted to support his then girlfriend who was studying in the UK, however he was rejected due to his association to the ABSDF which was registered as an ‘outlawed terrorist organisation’. He eventually made it to America some years later and the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ had welcomed someone who was just that but he spent more one and a half years with no status or permit and life was incredibly tough. He eventually gained status as a political refugee and continues the flight.

With the shot in the bag and thanks to filming by both Jackie and Tim we made our way back across the supersize neon virtual world of Times Square and headed underground on the subway to Queens where we were due to meet with Ko Nay Tin Myint and Ko Myint Soe. There was also something of a surprise in store for me with our final meeting but more about that later…

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New Year, New Hope and New Plans

The bells bring in 2011 and fresh hope in a new year, but it’s easy to feel stuck in groundhog day as another year passed with little movement towards any semblance of democracy or freedom in Burma. There re near record numbers of political prisoners and another journalist recently incarcerated hammers home the SPDC’s intentions for the future. Tell the world and pay the price. Bur no matter what threats and intentions they may have, they cannot silence the so-called ‘dissent’ that comes in the shape of defiance from those both inside and outside the country.
As 2011 starts to unfold our plans are well and truely underway like never before. We have been working very hard behind the scenes and there is excitement and anticipation in equal measures about the many journeys ahead. Two years later from the start of this project and we have photographed over 180 former political prisoners, travelling more than 55,000 miles to 6 different countries. The support for us and more importantly our message has been overwhelming at times and our thanks go out to everyone, but in particular our colleagues at AAPP and DVB and all those who cannot be named or mentioned. This year we will continue where we left off but there will be more diversification with new ideas and new projects that are in development. This blog will also become more diversified as all new work and projects will be run through here in one place. There is excitement and risk in equal measures but the stories must continue to be told. All will be revealed soon. The waiting is almost over…

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The Talk of the Town: Burma’s Political Prisoners and Lady Gaga

Surely the most bizarre yet still most welcome acclaim so far… the top 10 things being talked about in the “Talk of The Town” list sees Burma’s Political Prisoners coming 3rd in the list just behind Lady Gaga who takes the runner up spot!

It’s a mad mad world for sure and on the same day that George Clooney adopts the pose to be photographed by one of my all time hero’s Anton Corbijn for his book “Inside The American”. The only difference is that Clooney’s pose is not for my work or for Burma… it’s just a portrait for the cover of a book, but I wonder why he thought of the idea to be photographed this way… could it be that I sent him my portfolio in August 2009 asking him to become involved in my project due to his great work for Burma through ‘Not On Our Watch‘? (that not a lot of people know about). Whatever George… I’ll take the credit… for today the world just doesn’t make sense as more than 15,000 people flee Burma in the expected fall out from the election and political prisoners stand alongside Lady Gaga as well as clearly leaving their influence on one of the greatest photographers of all time as well as one of Hollywoods biggest stars.

George Clooney and a nice idea for a pose…

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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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