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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Campaigning at Lovebox Festival in London

Last weekend Burma’s Political Prisoners made their first major appearance on the UK festival scene at both Lovebox and Latitude Festival courtesy of the Amnesty UK teams who were out in force. The campaign is launched in full in two weeks time so further details to follow very soon.

Amnesty will be taking the campaign to many more festivals over the summer in the UK culminating in the Edinburgh Festival where there will be a special evening dedicated to Zarganar and Burma’s Political Prisoners at the annual ‘Stand Up For Freedom‘ comedy event. This campaign will be exhibited once again and we will be in attendance with some of the team including Waihnin (daughter of 88 Generation Student leader Mya Aye) and artist and former political prisoner Htein Lin.

Lovebox Festival, London UK

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Caught on Camera: Burma’s Political Prisoners

Continuing the ongoing partnership with The Independent newspaper, a brief article and full gallery of images is posted on The Independent website ahead of the private view of the exhibition being held on Monday 21st June 2010 at Amnesty International UK headquarters in London. In total there are 21 portraits of former political prisoners that make up the exhibition at Amnesty International  – one for every year since Aung San Suu Kyi was first placed under house arrest.

You can read the article and view the exhibition images here: The Independent

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The Public be Warned of Interviews in the Airwaves – RFA, VOA & BBC

Following on from the announcement earlier today of the double award recognition at the ‘Prix de la Photographie Paris 2010’ awards for both this project for Burma’s political prisoners and my other recent work for the Mae Tao clinic the airwaves were full of us saboteurs as RFA, VOA and BBC all kindly did interviews with me allowing me the opportunity to talk about Burma’s political prisoners as well as the Mae Tao clinic and the refugee situation for a change.

MRTV broadcasts warnings of ‘killers in the airwaves’

You can read an article about the two award victories here on the RFA website or you can listen to the ‘killers in the airwaves’ doing interviews below:

Click below to listen to the 3 interviews:

BBC Burmese interview 07 June 2010

Thailand Day 19: Generation Wave “Never Give Up”

It’s May and the wet season is starting to close in with the first of the sporadic showers that break this oppressive heat of the last few weeks. I’m still here… no complaints at all as I could stay forever and never finish the work that  needs to be done, but today is the last day before heading back to Bangkok and the mayhem that awaits with the red shirt demonstrations. It’s getting tense in Bangkok now and it seems it’s only a matter of time before it erupts once and for all. Tomorrow I’m meeting up with Thar Nyunt Oo from VOA but before then we have a music video to shoot for Generation Wave for their latest single “Never Give Up”. It’s being directed by brilliant documentary film maker Mike Garrod who is over here working on a feature length documentary called “Beyond Section 10” about the lives of the soldiers in the KNLA and it’s excellent – you can see a clip here.

Click HERE to view all the images from the video.

Last night Mike shot the night scene in a quiet part of the backstreets of Mae Sot and with the many helping hands of fellow GW members holding smoke machines, revving bikes and shining spotlights, lead rappers 9KT and MK got the video got off to a great start. Today however was a different matter as trying to shoot in broad daylight without drawing too much attention to themselves would prove challenging – naturally they have to keep their identities hidden and wearing masks and covering up was tricky in the searing heat. We moved form the market and side streets to a set up at the AAPP office where they were filmed as political prisoners in the AAPP museum’s replica prison cell (there are 21 members of GW in prison at the moment). The final scenes were shot late into the night back at the safe house and the video was wrapped, full of political messages against the regime and reinforcing Generations Wave’s message to “Never Give Up”.

In between scenes I had to dash around not only saying my final goodbyes and making final plans but also managed one last portrait for the campaign – a brave man indeed and that’s all I can say about him. It’s hard to believe that six weeks or so have finally come to an end already but it’s been so successful and things are very nicely set up to make a big impact with Amnesty International back in the UK who are getting right behind this campaign in a big way. A final beer at Aiya with friends before leaving on the night bus to Bangkok and a chance meeting with Wai Moe who is in town – great to see him and to catch up. I feel sad to be leaving now but it’s a perfect sign to depart with because that’s exactly what this work is all about. Even though I’m leaving, in spirit I am not, for no matter where we are in the world “Though imprisoned they are everywhere with us”.

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Thailand Day 15: Mae Sot

In trying to make the most of this extra time here on the border it just constantly seems that there is never enough time. Meetings that just never seem to happen meaning that my plans to get to Chiang Mai and catch up with Rachel, and friends at Chiang Mai and DVB are likely to be put on the back burner again and may not happen at all this time which is a shame. The week has been busy with re-editing and re-shooting mixed with plenty of “R ‘n’ R” mostly over at Generation Wave’s HQ where I’ve been staying for a bit. So far this week I’ve retaken a number of portraits and yesterday and today once again we managed to do U Sandawbartha (16 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons), Moe Myint (12 years in Insein prison on 4 occasions) and Dr Tun Thu (8 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons).

Dr Tun Thu

Unfortunately Dr Tun Thu has been suffering from what is possibly a serious case of post traumatic stress syndrome due to his time as a political prisoner. Last year when I met him he was fit and healthy and working as a doctor in the Mae Tao clinic. In the months in-between I was very sad to learn of his failing mental health and he appears to have suffered very badly indeed. But meeting him now it would actually appear that he is hopefully turning the corner. One can’t begin to imagine how the mind has suffered through years of torture and abuse as a political prisoner. The body can show you the scars of pain but it’s what’s inside that can so often be so much more painful. There is no support system for former political prisoners other than their friends and colleagues here on the border. But there is possibly hope that comes in the form of the ‘Borderline Project‘ for former political prisoners which is a proposal to form a safe house, training and rehabilitation project here in Mae Sot and is being set up by my friend Thiha and Markus Baude. It is an excellent proposal and I can only hope that they are successful in their search for funding… I know how difficult that is (not one penny funding received yet for this project – ed). Also I’ve been busy with more UNHCR work today and will continue tomorrow as well as interviews need translating and more need to be taken… but still no response to my requests for a meeting with the UNHCR office themselves.

Other news I learn today is about Human Rights Watch plans to step up their political prisoner campaign “2100 by 2010“. They will be holding an exhibition (installation) in Grand Central Station in New York in June possibly around Aung San Suu Kyi’s 65th birthday. It looks really impressive and will hopefully keep up the awareness in the public domain – it certainly should being in one of the worlds busiest train stations. They have arranged for one of the world’s top portrait photographers Platon to come and photograph former political prisoners to be part of this campaign. Nice idea… wonder where that came from? I had meetings with HRW back in December 2009 about my work linking with their campaign but despite initial meetings outlining how ideal it was unfortunately nothing came of it… and here they now have one of the world’s top portrait photographers instead. That’s just life, but I am more pleased that one of the worlds top photographers is showing an interest in Burma and in particular political prisoners. I for one can’t wait to see his pictures and I only hope he does my friends justice…

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Thailand Day 13: A Incident of Inspiration

Today I am inspired. In part obviously because of the superb article printed yesterday in The independent Magazine which provides a great platform to take things forward, but also because of an incident last night. Whilst out celebrating the publishing of the article we were unfortunately targeted in a case of mistaken identity… but maybe not mistaken, who knows. Either way it was unfortunate and resulted in an incident which has knocked some inspiration into me (as well as a few bruises). No harm done at all in reality and no need to waste any space here talking about it as I’m going to be busy re-editing 35 portraits I took last summer at the AAPP office. They’ve been bugging me for some time, I love most of them, but they have ended up as square portraits whereas all the others are now landscapes – which isn’t exactly traditional for a portrait but in my case it works for what I want to say and what these photographs portray. Anyway, all is now looking good as I’m inspired and have got the trick to re-work them… more work but so worthwhile.

Lae Lae

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Thailand Day 12: At Last The Moment of Truth

The build up to today really started last Thursday during Thingyan. As we were all out partying away in the Reggae bar my phone started beeping – incoming texts from Andy Buncombe in India… “Is it ok now to say you’ve just been to Burma? Looks like it is on the cover. Will know tonight”. One hour later and it was confirmed… “Am told Win Tin is going on the front! They are using 18 of the portraits! Full Colour too!”.

Today was the day that the world would finally get to see the one portrait we have had to keep under wraps for 9 long months – but now it’s the real birth of this campaign. I met U Win Tin in Rangoon during summer 2009 at the time of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial – you can check back to the date on this blog by clicking here to read about it. To say it was a highlight is an understatement. He is an icon. My Hero. Meeting him was one of the greatest moments of my life. Naturally I can’t go into all the details of how, where and why, but to some it may be apparent anyway when you look at the photographs here. We spent about an hour chatting before I took his portrait – it was truely mesmerising, he really is a remarkable man. They say there are moments in life that change your way of thinking. This is a moment that simply changed my life. There were so many moments that linger long in my memory – but perhaps the funniest was when after an hour of talking suddenly someone appeared outside the large glass windows in front of where we were sitting, pretending to clean them but with eyes fixed firmly on me and U Win Tin. The thing that made me laugh was that we were 20 floors up and it was pouring with rain. Military Intelligence will stop at nothing!

The interview that I did with him was published in the Irrawaddy in August last year under one of my pseudonyms Tom Parry (one of many like James Mackay !) – you can read it here. At the time that we met it was a very different situation as Aung San Suu Kyi was about to sentenced and U Win Tin’s own personal safety was under threat of imminent re-arrest due to his continued outspokenness over the treatment of Daw Suu and the current situation. We were going to publish the photo on the morning of the verdict in Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial – it would have been front page in The Independent but also would definitely have seen U Win Tin returned straight to jail, most likely under the archaic Electronic Act. We had to pull the plug at the last moment and it was the right decision despite the risks we had taken to get the shot. I was sure the time would come again when it could be used in its own right and not off the back of another event in Burma and sure enough here it is. A feature article about Burma’s political prisoners lead by their most famous Uncle, Saya U Win Tin.

I owe a massive debt of gratitude to Andy Buncombe for his continued belief in this campaign and me – he was as determined as me that one day we would get the story out – but I could never have expected it to have been in this fashion and to have front cover and 5 full pages inside with 18 portraits is more than I could dream of – but it’s only any good if it does any good. We need to keep the issue of political prisoners firmly in the spotlight. Nothing less will do.

I spoke with U Win Tin this morning to share the wonderful feeling at seeing his image staring out proudly at the world with the name of Burma’s true leader marked clearly on his hand. He was delighted and excited that finally our moment from last year can be shared with the world. You won’t be buying this edition of The Independent anywhere in Burma, but be sure that he has his own copy. (We had spoken several times in the past few weeks to confirm he was 100% happy to go ahead with publishing the image despite the risks he may face and he was adamant it must be published. Above all else U Win Tin’s safety was considered more than anything – for me it was and still is the most important thing, but he was crystal clear in wanting this image to be shown to the world).

And under those orders, here it is. The image that will now go on to lead this campaign for Burma’s Political Prisoners in the build up to the elections later this year. You can expect some more very exciting big news soon..

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WORLD EXCLUSIVE: U Win Tin – The Voice They Cannot Silence

UK newspaper “The Independent” publishes an in-depth feature article about Burma’s Political Prisoners in the colour supplement magazine on Saturday 24th April 2010 featuring 18 images from this campaign including an EXCLUSIVE portrait of U Win Tin.

For full details of the article visit The Independent website on Saturday 24th April.

“Well you see my opinion about this government is you see, that when you have to face with a military government, you need a little bit of courage, some sort of confronting you see. Because if you are always timid and afraid and intimidated they will stamp on you. Sometimes you have to make yourself a bit courageous, outspoken and so on.

That is why when people tell me I should keep a low profile because people are very anxious about my security. You can be snatched back to prison at any time, but you can’t help it.

You can’t help you see. Of course you don’t like to go back of course, but you see you can’t help, that depends on them, their idea and their intention.

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Thailand Day 7: Mae Sot – On Becoming an IDP

I am officially a refugee. Or maybe more of an IDP. I was supposed to be leaving Thailand in 3 days… not anymore. Late last week a volcano erupted again in Iceland sending plumes of volcanic ash into the sky and bringing a halt to all flights in Europe. It first erupted on March 21st having been dormant for more than 200 years but now it had got angry and has brought Europe to a grinding halt which means I’m not going anywhere fast. After spending 3 hours trying to get through to Emirates office in Bangkok I finally managed to re-schedule my flight – for Monday 2nd March!! A 10 day extension to this trip is obviously very welcome as there is plenty to do but it throws a few spanners in the works (quite literally with work in the UK). But its settled for me and now I can carry on with all the blog writing I’ve been busy doing last week and also with the editing of thousands of photographs. So what was going to be a frantic last few days here in Mae Sot has now turned in to a much more enjoyable timescale allowing me to hot-desk from my work places at AAPP to DVB to GW and back again as much of the background work can be completed at a more relaxed and obviously enjoyable pace. With any luck we’ll get the chance to take a few more portraits as well!

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