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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Japan Day 1: A Post Apocalyptic Fusion of Organisation and Chaos

(A long introductory post to Japan – but hopefully worth the read) – ed.

This is a trip that happened by chance and at the last minute – all thanks to the US immigration deciding not to grant us a visa. Their loss. Our gain. No doubt about it. ‘As close as you’ll come to landing on another planet’ is how someone described going to Tokyo and in many ways it’s right. It’s like ‘Blade Runner’ but without the authoritarian government (that’s the bit where Burma fits in nicely) – a post apocalyptic fusion of organisation and chaos.

After 12 hours in the air, the sight of Mount Fuji from the airplane window is a welcoming sight. A calming and serene influence to prepare you for the staggering metropolis that is Tokyo, it’s 35 million people and probably double that in neon signs. For me it was love at first sight. So many things in Tokyo upon first viewing seem complicated and impossible to comprehend, not just the language or the fact that people don’t live on roads with names but by numbered blocks and sections, but then you realise that first impressions deceive and actually just about everything has been thought through and is there to make life easier. There’s 35 million people yet the only people pushing you on the trains are the station guards who’s job it is to make sure you all get to work on time. Culture is society in this land where respect is paramount. It’s a great lesson that should be practiced and not just learnt about in western countries. Perhaps then we wouldn’t have to be reminded every second day about our ‘Broken society and yob culture’. Even the toilet seats are heated and play music.

The hour train journey from Narita airport to Tokyo Central station prepares you for the concrete jungle that lies ahead. Once again I’m lucky enough to have the Secretary General accompanying me on this trip and playing her usual vital role of basically making it all happen. We are also lucky enough to be staying with family who like many they were forced to flee Burma in the aftermath of the 1988 uprising and we haven’t seen since. Naturally this makes this trip all the more special. We arrive in Takodanababa, a suburb in central Tokyo that like Mae Sot could just as well be called Little Burma – there are around 10,000 Burmese living in Japan and judging by the fact that there are 5 Burmese shops in the same building that we are staying in reinforces the point. This trip is somewhat of a whirlwind tour as we are only here in Tokyo for 7 days and no sooner have we arrived than we are off to a demonstration outside the Burmese embassy (but not before some food at a Burmese restaurant of course!). Other than through the ongoing partnership with AAPP and DVB, much of this trip has been arranged with the help of Ko Thant Zin Oo, Chairman of the NLD-LA Japan branch and son of U Tin Oo, the Vice-Chairman of the NLD and currently detained under house arrest in Rangoon… but soon to be released (more about that later). This really is a great honour and like so many times before, it’s not just  being in the company of such significant people but to be welcomed and trusted is what makes it so amazing to be involved in this whole thing. We meet up with Thant Zin Oo and make our way to the demonstration outside the Burmese embassy – a monthly event to mark the Depayin massacre where Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo both only just evaded assassination attempts on their lives. Well over 100 protesters line the manicured street facing the Burmese embassy, every other person holding a picture of either Aung San Suu Kyi or U Tin Oo as a mark of remembrance of this barbaric act of desperation by the SPDC that International governments around the world and the UN are still yet to take action against. We meet up with a number of people from NLD-LA Japan as well as others including Min Ko Naing’s cousin and as always our friends from DVB who once again will be part of this whole campaign as they film our journey around Tokyo over the following days – Zaw Zaw Hlaing and Aung Naing manning the cameras. But of course we are here to meet the men and women who wouldn’t be broken no matter what was thrown at them – Burma’s political prisoners.

I had always envisaged taking a portrait at a demonstration and the opportunity to do that here in Tokyo seemed perfect, even with the CCTV cameras of the embassy watching from on high. We would have to act quickly with this one as shooting in such a public place can bring about unwanted attention – especially when you are outside the embassy of the very regime you are campaigning against. The Secretary General got to work in preparing everyone with what we needed to do whilst at the same time we chatted with Phone Myint Tun, former political prisoner and representative for AAPP in Japan.

Phone Myint Tun was first involved in the democracy movement as a Tenth Standard student in 1988 during the mass uprisings of that year. In August 1988 he became a member of the Tri-Color student movement who were responsible for security for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and with his colleagues in Tri-Color he lived in the compound of her house on University Avenue. In 1989 he joined the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and was heavily involved in the underground student network of democracy activism against the regime, giving speeches, handing out leaflets and organising demonstrations. He was arrested on 14th January 1991 in the middle of the night, blindfolded and dragged off to MI-7 interrogation centre by military intelligence. Phone Myint Tun was brutally tortured like all who are arrested as opposers to the military machine and faced constant beatings, mental and physical abuse.
To gain a full understanding of exactly what it’s like to be arrested and face torture for simply wanting freedom you can read “No Escape”, Phone Myint Tun’s personal account of his experience at MI-7. After a week of being held captive he was transfered to Insein prison where he was quickly paraded in front of a military court and sentenced under 5J. He spent the next 4 years in Insein prison. He was released in February 1995 and immediately continued his political activities and in November 1995 smuggled out documents from political prisoners in Insein prison that were presented to the UN. Faced with the threat of imminent arrest he fled to Japan in January 1996 and has been here ever since.

With the demonstration over we made our way to a local coffee house and set about planning the coming week – sitting around a table with NLD-LA, DVB, former political prisoners and the Secretary General pulling the strings I just know that this is going to be a very special week. Pinching myself to see if this is all real no longer works. This is a responsibility to report. If only the UN would take the same attitude with a Responsibility to Protect. With plans set in place we headed back to Ikebekuro to have dinner with Thant Zin Oo and his wife. Without the guiding hand of more than just a local you’d miss the trick that the best places are a few floors up, more than often hidden away behind closed doors… but still lit up with enough neon to blind you!

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