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 6: Old Memories and New Arrivals

Tomorrow we leave for a flying visit to both Umpiem Mai and Nupo refugee camps where over 40 former political prisoners are ready and waiting. It’s going to be very hard work and based on previous experiences it’s a frantic race against the clock – but more about all that over the coming days as we re-experience it. Today we finally get to put our feet up for a few hours as we have fairly comprehensively photographed Mae Sot’s contingent in the last 48 hours.

(Myawaddy as seen from the banks of the Moei river)

With the main focus with the political prisoner issue naturally revolving around the reasons of arrest and subsequent treatment in prison, another major element lurking in the background is that so many are forced to flee – leave their home, their country. This is the same for so many people in Burma – there are 160,000 people just sitting in the camps that litter the border – all waiting to go home, some having been here almost 20 years, others it’s all they’ve ever known. I took Jackie down to the Friendship bridge that links Thailand to Burma and for the first time in 10 years she was able to see her homeland – albeit Myawaddy. But imagination is more important than knowledge and in opening your mind and seeing beyond the Dawna mountain range I can only imagine how many people might stand here and dream if only for a second about what once was and what hopefully will be again. I can only imagine what those feelings must be like to see your homeland so near but yet in reality so far.

We got a call from Thiha early in the evening, a former political prisoner had literally just arrived from across the border in Burma in the early hours of the morning and we had to go and meet him, confirming the news that we had heard just yesterday that someone was waiting in Myawaddy to cross over. We headed back into town and went to meet Kyaw Thu Htike in a safe house in the back streets of Mae Sot. This was the first time I had met someone who had literally just arrived to relative safety. Escaping from Burma as a former political prisoner is fraught with danger. It’s not just as simple as getting on a bus and heading out to Myawaddy. Every day, sometimes every hour you are watched, monitored, questioned “Where did you go today” “Why were you visiting that place” “Who is that person you were with”. It’s perpetual and it’s purpose in the eyes of the regime is to continue their de-humanisation process of political prisoners. So to evade the authorities for long enough to be able to escape from Rangoon and then several days under the cover of darkness until you reach Myawaddy is not easy. Once there you are then faced with the lawlessness of a border trade town, now run almost solely by the DKBA who continually recruit returning migrants from Thailand and others at random on the streets into their ranks. Crossing over late at night the final step is to make it to a safe house in Mae Sot, but of course with no identity, no papers, nothing to save you from an immediate return to Burma and back to jail if you are caught by the Thai authorities or SPDC spies. Not even the protection of the UNHCR. Only money as always in this world that we live in can buy you your future…

Kyaw Thu Htike arrived late last night with his wife and young son (full audio interview will be posted soon). He was jailed for 1 and a half years in Insein and Taunglaylone prisons having been arrested in March 2008 under section 13(1) and 505(B) – the antiquated law that is often thrown at political prisoners… “Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report… (b) with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public”. He was released in September 2009 under the amnesty despite having been sentenced to 7 years in prison. We chatted for ages and it was incredible to hear testimony first hand from someone who had only a few hours escaped from Burma. The long road ahead to real freedom lies in wait for Kyaw Thu Htike but at least tonight he is a free man, if only from the Military Intelligence officers waiting outside his door each day back home in Rangoon.

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