Thailand Day 20: Bangkok Dangerous… and no Batteries!

Back in Bangkok and an early start making my way from Mo Chit to the airport to drop off my bags whilst I spend the last day running the rule over the red shirts. The day I arrived some 6 weeks ago was the first day of their demonstrations against the Thai Government and now as I am about to leave it seems we are merely moments away from civil war. Make no mistake when it comes (and it will come) it will be bloodier than what we have seen already. The red shirt encampment is now more tense than before – not surprising seeing people have died on both sides – but the walls of tyres and bamboo spears prove a menacing sight especially in this area more famous for farangs, fake DVDs and sex shows. There is a heavy military and police presence and there is a very different atmosphere now – eery and often tense at times.

Click HERE to view more photos from the red shirt demonstrations

All of the shopping centres are closed… still… it’s been over a month now and they must have lost millions. No last minute presents for everyone back home then! But there’s only so many times you can wander around MBK (which is the only place open) – I don’t think even a nuclear bomb would close it down. It epitomises the commercial side to Thailand. I head over to Ari to Wawee coffee where I know I can get internet access, good coffee and a break from the rain showers before meeting up with Thar Nyunt Oo – my final portrait to take before heading to the UK for a few months. Killing time once again, the only other thing I have to do today is an interview with Amnesty International UK for their magazine. They want to put U Win Tin on the cover and do a feature article about when I met him as a lead in to launching their involvement with me and political prisoner issues. Another front cover and now I feel the hard work is paying off for us all – this is a big one on Amnesty’s magazine as almost half a million people will see this magazine.

I meet up with Thar Nyunt Oo slightly later than planned, but not surprising considering the current situation here. He works for Voice of America (VOA) Burmese section and actually lives in Washington DC but is here in Bangkok for 3 months so its a lucky meeting for me. The light is fading fast and my time is also running short as unfortunately I have a plane to catch this evening so we head to the nearest place to sit down and have a chat before taking a portrait. He has just been informed by his office that its too dangerous to work anymore as the situation is so volatile – days after handing out helmets and bulletproof vests to everyone. He was arrested in 1990 as a leader of the ABFSU and was sentenced to 5 years in prison – spending it in Insein, Pyay, Thayet and Monywa before being released in 1995. In Thayet prison he shared a cell with Tate Naing (Secretary of the AAPP). Upon his release he resumed his political activities but was forced to flee in December 1996 when the authorities tried to arrest him for his involvement in the student demonstrations. We headed back out on to the overhead walkway that runs over sections of Sukhumvit and prepared for the portrait… soldiers in the background this was looking good… until I pressed the shutter and nothing happened. Battery dead and the spare one too – both totally drained due to the heat and a forgetful memory as I had been shooting all day yesterday too back in Mae Sot. There was nothing else to do but go for a beer and charge a battery enough to get the shot. Luckily I not only had my charger but also we found a Japanese restaurant right next to us that had a socket under our table… it was as though it was a sign that it was meant to happen! We carried on chatting over a few beers and it was great to hear more about his experiences but with the clock ticking away and the light almost gone we had to take the shot  and I had to catch that plane! Luckily we just about managed and I jumped on the Skytrain to ‘On Nut’ before catching a taxi the final tense miles to the airport and just made it in time before the desk closed. What is it with just making connections in time? It’s happening everywhere we go and can only be a sign that we are meant to keep moving forward on this incredible journey. And that’s exactly what we will do… after a few months rest mixed with lots of editing both photographs and video before planning the next stages. Where next? who knows… but for now it’s thank you Thailand. You have delivered.

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Thailand Day 2: Happy New Year

Yesterday in Bangkok was very surreal – for a city that is vibrantly hectic 24 hours a day it was serene and silent as Thai New Year festivals got underway. Songkran’ in Thailand or ‘Thingyan’ in Burma is like no ordinary new year celebration where people just get drunk and party for one night. This is four days of hedonism and celebration all round and this is my first taste of it. But Bangkok was experiencing an altogether different sort of shutdown as the red shirt demonstrations seemed to have turned a different corner in the few days that I was out of the country. With tyre barricades now erected behind lines of bamboo poles I was glad to be heading out of Bangkok and back to Mae Sot where I could party with friends. Getting a bus was of course another trial altogether but so typical of Thailand… when i got to the counter at Mo Chit terminal there were no VIP bus seats left. No problem I’ll travel first or second… “one seat left in first” I was told. Ok… i’ll take it but how much? “No room now” I was told… “you go second class”… No point in arguing, even though the screen showed an empty first class bus – I just want to get out of this city as soon as possible. Thankfully I got the ‘last’ in second class (of course at the back right above the engine!!

Anyway those were the trials and tribulations of dealing with  Bangkok yesterday and now back here in Mae Sot it’s time to put my feet up for a few days and enjoy Thingyan with everyone else. Apart from a few hours work in the morning just catching up with some writing, emails and some images to be sent to certain people, the laptop and cameras stayed firmly in their bags – just as well as you cant walk more than 10 yards without having a bucket of water thrown over you! Headed down to Aiya in the mid afternoon to see who’s there and met up with Ei Ei and spend the rest of the day and evening partying away with Generation Wave and what felt like about a hundred other people packed into the bar – water everywhere – music pumping and beer almost cold. Happy New Year to one and all.

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Bangkok: Emergency on Planet Earth

When we first arrived in Bangkok on March 20th the red shirt demonstrations had just started the day before and Bangkok was a carnival atmosphere with thousands in cars and bikes on a friendly procession the rough the main streets. Now some 3 weeks later we’re back in Bangkok (after a short break on a beach!) and Sukhumvit is awash in a sea of red – the shopping centres are all closed and the Ratchaprasong intersection now resembles Glastonbury rather than the centre of a one of the biggest and busiest shopping districts in SE Asia.

The main section of Sukhumvit is now closed, there are are thousands of people here, food stalls, music, stalls selling everything you can think of in red, a massive stage and it’s right here in the middle of the tourist and shopping heartland of Bangkok – only MBK is still open – it’s incredible how this has been allowed to happen and I already fear how it may turn out in the coming weeks – there are some very pressing issues at the core of Thai politics and society that need to be addressed and maybe now they are starting to come to a point of no return. Only time will tell. This morning Jackie flew back to England as she is unable to join me on the next part of the trip into Burma – we started this trip with the release of Nyi Nyi Aung and I don’t really want to end it with the arrest of Miss J San. The day is spent running through final checks, and final meetings before flying into Rangoon tomorrow where I am hoping my ‘Visa on Arrival’ will be waiting for me with no problems. Arriving back at the hotel later in the evening I am handed a letter from the hotel management (see below) informing me that there has been a ‘State of Emergency’ declared by the Prime Minister and public gatherings of 5 or more are outlawed!!! Welcome to Burma one day early!!

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Thailand Day 11: Mae Sot Over & Out… for now

The end is in sight… well, for me the end of the first of many phases of this trip as I’ll be back here in Mae Sot in a couple of weeks, but for Jackie it’s the final day of her first time to Mae Sot and more importantly the first time back within touching distance of her homeland (you can read more on previous post here). As I said before, I cant begin to imagine what that must feel like, not just for the thousands who are living here who have fled but also for those who come here for the first time, often opening up old wounds from many years ago. A somewhat more relaxed day today as I made the decision during yesterday that I can re-shoot people when I return in a couple of weeks time – so we spend today just wandering around and doing some shopping in the market and also down at the Rim Moei market down at the border.

One day this will be us back home in Rangoon

But I can’t keep my camera locked up for long and whilst stopping off at AAPP to collect some books I decide to re-shoot Aung Khaing Min and also by complete chance I bump into a friend of Moe Maung Maung (from Norway) – he had told me about Aung Kyaw Oo (not the Aung Kyaw Oo who works at AAPP) and by chance here he was in the AAPP office! So we snap away and get two portraits for the price of one – done using the backdrop of the huge poster of my project thats on the wall in the office.

Aung Kyaw Oo

Aung Khaing Min

Aung Kyaw Oo was jailed twice for a total of 5 years – first time in 1988 (4 years) and then again in 2008 (1 year). He was a member of the All Burma Student Demo Movement Organisation & All Burma Student Union re-establishment committee. Aung Khaing Min was jailed in 1996 for 5 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. The name on his hand is his brother Chit Ko Lin who is serving a 7 year sentence in Pakokku prison.

Throughout the week we have been having a number of secret meetings about my forthcoming trip to Burma – naturally I can’t talk about anything here but it’s all set now and this is where I am heading next (after a holiday on the beach with my beautiful assistant!!).  We spend the remainder of the afternoon with our little sister Nyi Ma Ei Ei before heading back to the AAPP office for a leaving party for Aung Kyaw Oo, his wife Florence and their beautiful little daughter Louanne as they set off to France for several months – it’s sure to be a very special time for Aung Kyaw Oo considering he has spent 15 years in prison and now is setting off on a whole new life adventure. It’s sad to be leaving Mae Sot and all my friends (and many new ones) once again and we get carried away enjoying the company too much as always and before we know it we have about 5 minutes to get to the bus station!! We race back to collect our bags and luckily pick up Thiha and Aye Min Soe on the way past Aiya – we jump on the back of their bikes and race to the bus station, getting there at 9.30 with 30 seconds to spare… or so I thought until we checked the tickets and our bus was the 9.15 and had left!! It was like Japan all over again – why do we always have last minute dramas trying to leave somewhere!! Thankfully there was a final bus leaving that had space so we climbed aboard bidding a fond farewell to all. An incredible trip, but now it starts to take on a whole new meaning…

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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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RFA interview & article on FCCT win

Further to the win at the FCCT Awards 2009 Radio Free Asia did a short interview and subsequent article online – in Burmese only.

To read the article click here

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Thailand Day 22: Bangkok

Ma Suu Mon AyeBack in the ‘City of Angels’ for final preparations for the trip into Burma tomorrow – despite MBKs best efforts there’s no way my iPhone can be unblocked to work in Burma! The first of two meetings sees an early morning catch up with Ma Suu Mon Aye, the youngest female political prisoner who was jailed in 2000 at the age of 18. We manage to grab a few moments to chat early in the day in a park by Mo Chit station before heading to work – so often this is the case with this project. She spent 1 year in Insein Prison. Like so many she was forced to flee Burma after her release from jail and she currently lives in Bangkok where she is a journalist for Radio Free Asia. On her hand is written the name of her friend, a 25 year old fellow journalist, who was arrested on June 10th 2008 for photographing a demonstration of Cyclone Nargis victims outside the UN Development program office in Rangoon. Eine Khine Oo is the inaugural winner of the Kenji Nagai Award which Ma Suu Mon Aye collected on her friend’s behalf. Courage runs deep no matter how old or young. The afternoon was set aside for a meeting and interview with U Zin Linn, the veteran journalist, former political prisoner, vice-president of the Burma Media Association and Director of Media and Information for the NCGUB… amongst many other things. An incredible meeting. This was a real honour to be able to spend time with him and to hear first hand details of not only his own personal experience in Insein prison (including time spent with his colleague U Win Tin) but a hugely informative insight into the world of political prisoners. You can read the interview on this blog in the Interview section.

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