Power Through A Lens – Interview with DVB

With rumours of the latest prisoner amnesty circulating like wildfire once more and the book getting its first airing in public (full details and photos to follow very soon I hope!) here’s a recent interview with Francis Wade from DVB about political prisoners and photographing in the pariah state:

Click to read the interview – Power Through A Lens

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

 

 

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.

FREE THE VJs: Inside Burma’s Secret Network

Today on World Press Freedom Day the global campaign “Free The VJs” is launched by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). Seventeen reporters for the DVB are incarcerated in prisons across Burma. Some are serving sentences of 27 years, arbitrarily jailed for the so-called crime of exposing the truth about the regime. Their work has included the documenting of scorched-earth tactics against ethnic minorities, the murdering of monks by Burmese troops, and the ineptitude of the regime following cyclone Nargis in 2008. The video-journalists, or VJs, have become a source of humiliation for the regime, which keeps nearly 2,100 political prisoners behind bars: among these are activists, doctors, lawyers, MPs and comedians.

The release of the VJs and Burma’s many political prisoners is a key prerequisite to democratic transition in the country, which in March swore in what it claims to be a new civilian government. Whether this government will overturn Burma’s distinction as one of the world’s most dangerous countries in which to be a journalist remains to be seen, but action must be taken now.

Please visit the official website FREE THE VJs for further details where you can support our campaign and help bring about the release of our colleagues imprisoned in Burma’s jails.

View photos from inside Burma’s the secret VJ network – CLICK HERE – taken clandestinely in the secret offices in Thailand and Norway

Undercover VJs at work in the secret offices

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Aung San Suu Kyi: At Home With Burma’s Hope

All photos available to view in COLOUR or BLACK & WHITE

Reflections on tea with the Lady.

Waiting is often the hardest thing and this has been a long wait – almost three years to be precise since we started this project. But with the Lady under house arrest for so much of this time the opportunity has of course only been there since November 13th last year. We had already made the decision not to fly straight to Rangoon when she was expected to be released, knowing that the world’s media would be there along with numerous well-wishers as well as the vultures circling in the sky determined to get their own piece of the action and press their agendas upon Burma’s great hope. It was hard to sit back and watch the moment of history from afar as the crowds surged down University Avenue knowing I could have been there experiencing the momentous occasion, but in the back of our minds we knew the moment was not right for me to go in just yet and that our waiting would go on a bit longer until we could be distanced from the maddening crowds. Personal desire takes second place to making sure this all works the way it should. These aren’t my stories – I’m just telling them.

54 University Avenue, Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home that has also been her prison

Fast forward a couple of months and the timing is now right as not only has the media long gone but also the cover stories of fantasy car chases has passed and all eyes are firmly back on Naypidaw as a new government is about to sit. Unlike previous trips this one required a more meticulous approach due to the number of people we planned to meet and the obvious risks to them. The last few days were spent lie-ing low in our border office away from the heat in both senses of the word, going through final checks and meetings before making one last call to confirm our date with destiny. The next thing I know a soft eloquent voice, speaking perfect English, is on the other end of the phone. Whatever it is you do in life they say you always remember your first time and this will be a moment that stays with me forever (despite what is to come – ed). The aura of the Lady is infectious and the reality of what we hope to achieve these next weeks with so many people inside Burma hits home in a sense of excitement and anticipation. The funny thing is the filming we’ve been doing for the past few days of interviews and getting ready missed the funniest moment that would have been my face when I realised who it was I was talking to. But words mean everything and those spoken to me by my good friend and colleague Ko Myo as he dropped me off to catch the night bus back to Bangkok resonate still in my heart and head as much as those of the Lady. Loaded with phones, cameras and plenty of cover stories, this may be a mission, but it’s no more important or different from every other one both us and others do every single day that thankfully go unnoticed by Burma’s authorities. I’m only hoping this one does too.

Aung San Suu Kyi at home with her pet dog Tai Chi Toe bought for her by her son Kim

The welcoming party in Rangoon took me by surprise but thankfully it was not for me – you can read all about it here in a previous post (chronology of this Burma trip is not published in date order for obvious reasons). One decision that we made in planning this trip that went against the grain was to do the most high profile thing first and thanks must go to the General Secretary, San San (mine and the one and only) for suggesting and ensuring that this happened. Logic would dictate that you should do the thing that has the most chance of you being caught last of all on your trip, preferably the same day you are leaving, thereby ensuring a swift exit from Burma with perhaps nothing more than being followed by military intelligence. But with so many people to meet there are risks everywhere and putting the Lady first would mean that at least we could get the one the world would know about should we be caught after seeing her or at any other time. So after a day spent being a tourist and buying postcards from young vendors outside Bogyoke Market, finally the day arrived to meet the Lady.

Behind the gates to 54 University Avenue. For years Aung San Suu Kyi stood at these gates giving speeches to thousands gathered outside

As the taxi turned into University Avenue my mind was cast back to my first visit here many years ago, standing alone outside the famous gates (then a faded green) of number 54 whilst Burma’s most famous political prisoner sat alone inside. I dreamt then that one day both I would be able to walk in and that more importantly the Lady would be able to walk out. As we pulled up to number 54 the big yellow gates were opened and we drove through into the the famous compound, a sense of excitement and disbelieving inside me mixed with a nirvana of memories and stories that have been shared with me over these past years by those former Tri-Color students and other NLD members who spent so much time here working and looking after the Lady. I had to pinch myself that I was really here, standing in Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound, closing my eyes imagining what it might have been like to be standing behind these gates with thousands cheering outside as the lady delivered her speeches back in those heady days of the late 1990’s let alone just being here at any other time over the past 20 years.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Burma’s political prisoners:

The house is now a hive of activity with building work and restoration ongoing and meetings being held on the front lawn looking out across the beautiful Inya lake. A warm smile and welcome from many that I already knew and others just recognised and I sat down inside, facing the beautiful huge portrait of General Aung San, waiting for his daughter, the democracy icon of Burma and hero to us all to walk through the doors. It really doesn’t get any better than this. Trust me.

Aung San Suu Kyi at home in Rangoon

“The Lady is coming” said U Nyi before exiting to allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to walk into the room. My heart missed a beat as in she walked and with her an aura that is simply indescribable. Everything anyone has ever said is true. And then some. Dignity, grace and beauty personified, I was completely captivated by her and in awe to be in her prescence, which may well sound contrived or over the top but to meet the Lady is more than just a lifelong dream and personal ambition, it is a truely incredible experience, made more so if one has more than just a passing interest in Burma or are here just to get your story. To do so here at her home in University Avenue is a great privilege and all the more memorable. We chatted and shared tea for some time (hours in fact) and whilst a few short sound files can be listened to here (actually from our second meeting the following week) our conversation roaming from politics and prisoners to pianos remains personal as I had already made a conscious decision not to sit there with microphone in hand armed with a barrage of the same old questions just asked in a slightly different way. I left that for the journalists with editors to please and newspapers to sell as this meeting was personal and personally one to be cherished – a chat and afternoon tea with the Lady and I think secretly she enjoyed the alternative approach as smiles and laughter around ensued.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on democracy and the new government:

Aung San Suu Kyi on the front steps at home with Tai Chi Toe

The time came for ‘the photo’ and it took no time at all and for better or worse as usual I made do with what we had – we shared a good laugh when I said all I had and needed was my Leica. A smile came over her face perhaps reminiscing of other more elaborate shooting requirements. With the large portrait of General Aung San as a backdrop, what could be better. For now the photo remains embargoed along with all the others from this trip inside Burma, including NLD leaders and dissidents, for the book which I’m hoping will be out at the end of the year. Stay tuned and i hope you can all join me in Rangoon for the launch. We then decided to shoot some more with Tai Chi Toe, her pet dog given to her by her son Kim. The VOGUE magazine article leads with one of the images I managed to capture before Tai Chi Toe decided it was time to chase imaginary rabbits in the garden and so I took the opportunity to take a few portraits of the Lady at home. It was no surprise when she adopted her now famous pose so beautifully captured in my friend Nic Dunlop’s powerful black and white portrait from 1996. I showed him the images soon after out of guilt that I had somewhat inadvertently re-created his classic moment in time, but his sincerity in response was re-assuring. But perhaps it also shows something much deeper, that nothing has changed in Burma and that this Lady is still as strong and relevant to the country’s future as she has always been. The Generals and many foolhardy world leaders, academics and businessmen would do well to take note. Before I knew it, it was time to leave and step back into the real world once more, or rather the very unreal world that the people of Burma must face every day. We joked about the not so secret service watching and waiting outside before saying our goodbyes. With everything hidden and also already on its way out I took one last look around this magical place before tightening my longyi and driving away through the bright yellow gates. No frantic chase, no flying market stalls. Maybe nothing achieved other than personally. Only Time will tell.

A final message from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on helping Burma:

The hardest thing about it was that I could be here at all when my beloved and so many of my very close friends and colleagues could not. For them just returning to Burma let alone the chance to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is not an option. A swift return to Insein is what the regime would provide should they try. But they were with me here in spirit – every single one of them and like the Lady herself continues to re-iterate, as do I, it’s not about us. It’s about the political prisoners. This whole long journey has been possible because of them and I owe everything to everyone of them, both those incarcerated and those freed. It is their story, not mine. I’ve just had the privilege of trying to tell it and one day I hope we can all enjoy sharing it over tea with the Lady.

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Aung San Suu Kyi: ‘The Dignity of Freedom’ VOGUE Magazine

London, Paris, New York, Tokyo. Not just the fashion capitals of the world that act as a byline to the famous high-couture houses, but also just a few of the cities we have visited in compiling this long term project for Burma’s political prisoners. And now Rangoon.
These images of the Lady at home in Rangoon were shot when we met earlier in 2011 and some have now been published in VOGUE Japan magazine. It’s been quite a ride getting this article completed and is a story in itself which can’t really be shared here but massive thanks to Mayumi Nakamura, editor at Vogue Japan, for bringing Aung San Suu Kyi and the issue of Burma to the readers of Vogue Magazine.

View the photo-story, a personal portrait of The Lady at home – CLICK HERE

You can buy your copy of VOGUE Japan Magazine CLICK HERE

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The Activist & The Uninvited Guests

On March 23rd one of the foremost human rights campaigners for Burma, Benedict Rogers, was deported from the country. Stopped late the previous night in his hotel by military intelligence officers, he was questioned, searched and early the following morning deported. The official reason was because of the books and many articles he has written “give misinformation about Myanmar”. The news of his deportation has been widely reported in exiled media as well as most recently the New York Times but here he talks to DVB TV about the experience:

Interview with Ben Rogers on DVB TV. Copyright DVB and reproduced here with permission.

It was mixed emotions when I received his call just hours after his deportation from Burma – shocked but at the same time not surprised. Thankfully he was treated well and left the country safely. If he had been Burmese, we would now be reporting on his torture and subsequent sentencing to many years inside Burma’s notorious prison system. I have known Ben for many years and without doubt he is one of the most important ‘Western’ voices to speak and act for the Burmese people of all ethnicities. His advocacy work and campaigning is second to none, he has travelled to virtually every Burmese border, has written numerous articles and books including the biography of the despotic ruler of Burma, Than Shwe, that got him deported and whilst he was deported on this most recent trip inside Burma, it has not been the first time he has been inside the country to document Burma’s deplorable human rights situation. The authorities expelled him from Burma because of ‘misinformation’ he was telling the world. ‘Misinformation’ that is repeated again and again by both dissidents inside Burma who risk their lives to speak out and echoed on theirs and the people of Burma’s behalf by campaigners, experts and academics worldwide to not only counter state propaganda that so-called ‘disciplined democracy’ is ready to flourish but also to cast no doubt on the fact that this regime is guilty of human rights attrocities that must be stopped and must be accounted for. The regime continue to intimidate and arrest anyone who speaks out or acts in defiance of their rule. There is nothing disciplined or democratic with this totalitarian approach and by rewarding these acts with the removal of sanctions, like so many would now seem is appropriate to do, is incomprehensible at best and in reality is a likely death sentence for true democracy to have the chance to finally flourish in Burma. Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy and cannot be allowed to be traded for a business venture to further line the pockets of a regime that has already raped it’s country bare.

The most important thing that this sorry episode highlights is that nothing has changed in Burma. New government or not and although ridiculed by many, the intelligence services still seek out those who they fear and you can underestimate them at your peril (not that Ben ever did – moreover his immediate and ongoing concern was for anybody with whom he had come into contact during any of his trips inside). The ruling authorities may have new clothes at best, but MI are still there and still watching. Nothing has changed in Burma. Nothing.

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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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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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No Change in Policy or Defiance as DVB’s Sithu Zeya is Sentenced

With the welcome news last week that 16 political prisoners have been released including 3 members of the ABFSU (Lwin Ko Latt, Han Win Aung & Kyaw Kyaw) comes the usual twist of fate for others less fortunate. Welcome news indeed, but it was no amnesty or relaxing in policy by the regime as yesterday it was confirmed that Sithu Zeya has been sentenced to 8 years in prison under Burma’s draconian laws – 3 years under section 13/20 The Immigration Act and 5 years under section 17/1 The Unlawful Association Act. It is likely this will be increased as we await further news over charges under the infamous Electronic Act that could add a further 20 years to his already unjust sentence.

Along with his father Maung Maung Zeya, he was arrested for the crime of photographing the aftermath of the bombing scene at Kandawgyi Lake in Rangoon during the Thingyan festival in April earlier this year. But it was whilst under interrogation by military intelligence that brutal torture he endured lead to his confession that he was a journalist for Democratic Voice of Burma and so was his father. This was his real crime, being one of the brave undercover journalists who risk everything to expose the reality of the SPDC’s crimes. The young 21 year old man now faces a life of continued torture in Burma’s dark prisons along with 17 other DVB journalists. Deputy Director of DVB, Khin Maung Win, confirmed that authorities had offered to free Maung Maung Zeya if he divulged the names of other undercover DVB reporters – the regime have made targeting the undercover VJs of DVB and other exiled media organisations a number one priority. But it is a policy doomed to failure and is as futile as that which the world continues to adopt in ‘waiting and seeing’ as an ever patient nation grows tired of it’s meglomaniac rulers and more people than ever before are willing to take the risks to expose the regime by becoming VJs themselves and joining the ranks of the many hundreds already at work undercover throughout Burma. In a small part of the world far from the darkness of Insein a candle will be lit tonight to honour Sithu Zeya and all 22 journalists jailed in Burma.

Defiance comes in all shapes and sizes and without the likes of Sithu and Maung Maung Zeya willing to take the risks involved the outside world would have even less knowledge of life behind this iron curtain. Whilst the numbers of political prisoners rise and fall in equal measures there will be no let up in the undercover journalists’ and activists’ quest to tell the truth no matter what the consequences. As Han Win Aung said on his release last Friday, “It doesn’t matter for how long they’ve detained us … how brutal they were, we will never be broken in spirit. Our beliefs are unshakeable. We will flourish under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership for the sake of democracy and political freedom.”

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