Military, Democracy and Ludu U Sein Win

A four hour delay at an airport with not a plane in sight might be hard to comprehend anywhere else in the world other than here. Last time I caught a flight a few years ago instead of landing in Mandalay we found ourselves at Heho – even to the surprise of the captain judging by his announcement upon arrival. But thankfully a transfer to another plane meant a safe arrival back in Rangoon and in time for a meeting that I had been looking forward to for some time with one of Burma’s most famous and well respected dissidents. Mandalay had had it’s moments of caution but with no sign yet of any ‘trouble’ from the authorities, now was not the time to relax on taking care and covering your tracks as needed. Moving hotel each night is just part of the game of cat and mouse that one plays to try to stay one step ahead of attention from the authorities. Checking in under a false name can even buy you time if you are being followed and judging by others apparent recent experiences of scores of police cars giving chase at high speed through the 5 lane highways of Rangoon whilst knocking over market stalls, one clearly has to take more care now than ever before. Checking in as ‘Jason Bourne’ was not going to be missed in an effort to bring out my own equally fantasy filled story from inside Burma. But of course I have no such stories to bring back nor take lightly the dangers involved in working inside Burma. The only stories I wish to tell are those of the people who have stood up to this brutal regime. Wandering once more through the busy streets of downtown Rangoon I made my way to meet with the man who’s writings had defied successive military regimes for more than 50 years.

Ludu U Sein Win was jailed for 13 years in Insein Prison and Coco Island

Veteran journalist, author and openly outspoken critic of Burma’s ruling military regime, Saya Ludu U Sein Win has fought tirelessly for more than four decades for the people of Burma. His hardline approach has more than often seen him calling for Burmese people to topple the regime by force rather than relying on help from the outside world and an ineffective and uncaring United Nations. He began his career as a journalist at ‘Ludu’ (The People) newspaper in 1964 but with his subversive style of commentary he soon caught the attention of General Ne Win and just 3 years later by 1967 Ne Win had ordered the paper to be shut down and Ludu Sein Win along with five other editors were arrested. He was sentenced without trial to 13 years in prison and jailed in Insein where he was placed in solitary confinement for two years before being sent to the notorious Coco Island, the island prison in the Andaman Sea that housed only political prisoners. In 1971 he was returned to Insein prison before his release in 1976. However, his freedom was short lived and was soon jailed again for a further four years. In 1980 he was finally released after he suffered a stroke in an Insein prison cell where he had been kept alone for three years. Though the right side of his body was paralysed, he learned to write with his left hand after his release and still today, using more than 15 pseudonyms, he writes 2 essays every day for about a dozen weekly journals and a dozen monthly magazines including Weekly ElevenNews Watch and Ah Kwint Ah Lan. His indomitable spirit defies everything that both the regime and his increasingly poor health throw at him – he survives with the breathing aid of an oxygen tank that more than often fails due to the lack of electricity supply in Rangoon.

Like so many before he has faced the wrath of the regime for speaking out to foreign and exiled media but he continues to do so and it is with his instruction that his portrait and brief audio clip (below) from our conversation is published here.

Q. “Do you feel there can be any dialogue before political prisoners are released?”

Ludu U Sein Win: “No, I don’t think so. They must be released first. The government side must show some good will on the political activists. Without showing this good will how can we trust to conduct a dialogue with this kind of regime? Without the release of political prisoners there will be no dialogue, there will be no national reconciliation. At this situation they dare not release especially the student leaders like Min Ko Naing and his friends. They are the most powerful after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. I think the one and only effective way to help our people including the political prisoners is to help Burmese people change the regime. With this military regime I don’t believe any military regime will allow democracy in the country. Military and democracy are opposites. Poles apart.”

With the name ‘Zarganar’ written on his left palm (due to paralysis in his right side), Ludu U Sein Win stands for more than 50 other dissidents who I have met and photographed inside Burma. Their portraits cannot yet be shown in public for fear of reprisal from the authorities. Their safety must be guaranteed above all else and many of those who I have met (and work with) would face severe retribution of the highest degree from this regime should their faces be put alongside their colleagues who can be shown in public. Rest assured that whilst the risks they have taken are significant they have not be taken in vain or even for some pointless vanity project. Whilst their faces may be hidden their voices are not and the fight for democracy in Burma continues with them and for them whatever it takes and whatever the risks.

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USA Day 1: “I Will Keep Fighting. I Will Be Back Here”

Brief background… This was a trip that came from nowhere and was totally unexpected. Wednesday evening I get an email from a certain person (who you’ll hear about soon…) asking me to come to New York to meet on Monday. The opportunity simply can’t be missed so everything gets dropped and cue frantic phone calls and emails to various contacts in USA to try to arrange as many former political prisoners as possible in New York. 24 hours later we are on the plane. Before I go any further I’d like to thank everyone who helped pull this together and in particular the unbelievable efforts of Nickie Sekera, Tim Aye-Hardy and Ko Myint Hlaing.

Touchdown USA at last. After our aborted efforts last year it’s very important that we are finally here. If this truely is the ‘…home of the brave’ then there are no people more brave than those whom I am going to meet on this trip. It’s freezing cold and yet again snow welcomes us as we embark on another leg of this mission. The sprawling gargantuan metropolis that is Manhattan awaits and there’s no time to lose as we are only here for a few days and of course there’s lots to see as well as to do! Customs at JFK was surprisingly quick and left me wondering what all the fuss was about – we had a harder time getting into Norway and Japan. The remainder of our day was spent wandering around taking in the sights and size of Manhattan as well as trying to come up with a few ideas for locations, but unfortunately the bitter cold would mean that shooting outdoors would be almost impossible. We touch base with our man on the ground Tim Aye-Hardy and it’s confirmed that tomorrow we will have 3 maybe 4 people to shoot. (This day will now be split into 3 seperate postings for each person – ed).


Saturday morning and we head straight to Times Square as there’s no time to lose – not only is it minus 2 but it’s going to be a long day traversing across New York City. If only one shot was going to be done outside I decided that this had to be the one – standing in the middle of a scene epitomising western freedom with a gaudy shine that glosses over the darkness that lies underneath – a darkness that has been experienced to it’s fullest degree by Burma’s political prisoners. We scout for a few positions to try to get as much in the background as possible, the ever present model Jackie San standing on every corner and picture postcard spot of Times Square until we decide that the top of the red stairs of TKTS provides the perfect position aloft of all the madness that this world has to offer. The walk up what symbolises a red carpet is more than deserved by Ko Thet Mhu, and the first shot of the day is underway with both Jackie and Tim taking it in turn to film as the bitter cold makes it a real challenge to keep your hands out of your pockets let alone hold them aloft for Burma or try to take pictures.

 

Thet Mhu former member of the student organisation Ba Ka Tha
was jailed in Insein prison for 6 years

Thet Mhu played an active role in student demonstrations in the 1988 uprisings but as the army cracked down he fled to the Thai-Burma border with his colleague Moe Thee Zun. Whilst many students stayed on the border and formed the ABSDF to take up the armed struggle against the regime, Thet Mhu decided to return to Rangoon to continue the non-violent struggle and when he returned he played a role in the reforming of the Ba Ka Tha organisation of the ABFSU. He travelled to Mandalay to help build up the movement and spent time with a number of other activists in the Masoe Yain monastery – a secret refuge for student and other activists. He returned to Rangoon where he was now actively working for the ABSDF as well as Ba Ka Tha in an attempt to unite student organisations. On 22nd November 1990 he was due to meet a contact from the border at Rangoon Central Railway Station, but as he was waiting he was aware that Military Intelligence were on to him and were waiting. Upon meeting his contact they both fled from the station with MI in hot pursuit – Thet Mhu stopped to pick up his slipper which had fallen off his foot as he was running and he was pounced on by 3 MI officers. A fight then ensued in the middle of the street but he fought them off before fleeing again. However, both men were eventually caught and arrested and sentenced to 7 years in prison. He was just 19 years old at the time. He spent 5 and half years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons before being released in April 1996 and as the warden was signing his release papers he was asked what his plans were for the future. Thet Mhu simply replied “I will keep fighting. I will be back here”. He returned to his political activities immediately and played a role in the student demonstrations that happened just 8 months later in December 1996. Along with his colleague Thar Nyunt Oo (photographed in May 2010) he evaded arrest and hid in the offices of several organisations that had signed ceasefire agreements with the regime. In a bizarre twist of fate the authorities found themselves in an awkward situation knowing that wanted student activists were hiding out in buildings that they could not raid for fear of upsetting the tense ceasefire agreements. He finally fled Rangoon in 1997 and made for Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border where in 2000 he helped found the AAPP along with Bo Kyi and other former political prisoners. In 2002 he decided to try to resettle to USA as he wanted to support his then girlfriend who was studying in the UK, however he was rejected due to his association to the ABSDF which was registered as an ‘outlawed terrorist organisation’. He eventually made it to America some years later and the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ had welcomed someone who was just that but he spent more one and a half years with no status or permit and life was incredibly tough. He eventually gained status as a political refugee and continues the flight.

With the shot in the bag and thanks to filming by both Jackie and Tim we made our way back across the supersize neon virtual world of Times Square and headed underground on the subway to Queens where we were due to meet with Ko Nay Tin Myint and Ko Myint Soe. There was also something of a surprise in store for me with our final meeting but more about that later…

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Amnesty Netherlands Magazine

Another front page for Ba Ba U Win Tin and an accompanying feature article as well – with huge thanks to Jorn and Elke at Amnesty Netherlands for producing this great opportunity to continue raising awareness and profile of political prisoners.

Former political prisoners featured alongside U Win Tin are (clockwise top left to right): Htein Lin, U Zawana, Saw Than Hla, Daw San San and Kyaw Win Shwe.

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Christopher Eccleston Stands Up For Burma

Christopher Eccleston, the English film, stage and television actor stands in solidarity with Burma’s political prisoners.

For Amnesty’s campaign using my work to raise awareness about Burma’s political prisoners they have been working hard to secure celebrities to be photographed and I was particularly pleased to meet Christopher Eccleston as he starred in one of my favourite films of all time “28 Days Later” and has just appeared on screens as one of my and no doubt your all time heroes, John Lennon, in “Lennon Naked“.

We met up in a private dining club in London’s Soho district back in August and it was great to be able to have time for a chat rather than just taking the portrait in few seconds before leaving. What a really great guy who was not just totally engaged in the idea of my work but more importantly in the issue of Burma’s political prisoners.

A huge thank you to Christopher Eccleston on behalf of Burma’s political prisoners.

Due to the way Amnesty International works with the celebrities it approaches (and the limited time celebrities have) they also get them to do other promotional work at the same time supporting other Amnesty campaigns or Amnesty in general including photographs with placards etc and so Amnesty use their own photographer. Unfortunately whilst it means I may not be able to photograph all these celebrities (I’m also often away as you can see) it’s just the way Amnesty work and it works with their campaign which is somewhat seperate to this long term documentary project that we are working on here with the political prisoners. This does however often leave me with the opportunity to discuss Burma and political prisoners with the celebrity when I am free to attend these shoots and that after all is more important than a photograph. The actual portrait of Christopher Eccleston was shot by Amnesty’s photographer Leo Cackett … or is that really me after all?

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Waihnin Pwint Thon Speaks for Burma and Political Prisoners at the UK Labour Party Conference

The issue of Political Prisoners and Burma has taken centre stage today at the annual British Labour Party conference being held in Manchester, UK. The short film made about this political prisoner work was shown as an introduction to a speech from Waihnin Pwint Thon, daughter of jailed 88 Generation Student leader Ko Mya Aye,

 

Waihnin Pwint Thon demands the release of her father Mya Aye

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Burma’s Political Prisoner’s Launch Photomonth Festival

Internationally renowned photography festival “Photomonth” celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and who better to take centre stage on the launch night other than Burma’s political prisoners. The official website is launching soon but you can read more about the festival here on ‘The Arts Hub’.

To have my name mentioned in the same breath as my hero Philip Jones Griffiths is enough for me, but it’s huge exposure and awareness for the issue of Burma and political prisoners that is most important as the launch party will generate good media attention.

Download your invitations here and come and show your support for Burma’s political prisoners.

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Al Jazeera TV: Former Political Prisoners Need Urgent UNHCR Action NOW.

As we have reported in previous posts here and here, once again the issue of the former political prisoners forced to live a perilous life as stateless people on the Thai-Burma border needs urgent attention from the UNHCR now more than ever before. We have been working with the former political prisoners on the border now for a long time on this issue and our close friends, Aye Min Soe and Thiha, have appeared in an interview on Al-Jazeera about this issue:

The Best Friend have recently posted some of the documentation made available by the former political prisoners on the Thai-Burma border to the public to highlight this issue – Please download it and help us with this urgent issue.

We will be meeting with a number of human rights organisations in the coming weeks to raise this issue and fight to ensure that no-one is sent home after this sham election is done with. The political landscape will not be conducive to closing the camps and sending people home. Not now, not after the election, not ever until this regime is dealt with. Rhetoric from ASEAN and Thailand in contrast to this fact is exactly that. Rhetoric.

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Archbishop Tutu Demands The Release of Burma’s Political Prisoners

A massive moment for this campaign and it has been possible thanks to the Elders, an independent group of world leaders of which Archbishop Desmond  Tutu is the chair.
(Very special thanks to Katy Cronin and everyone at The Elders for their belief in this work and Burma’s political prisoners)

Full details can be read here on The Elders website

Archbishop Desmond Tutu demnads the release of Aung San Suu Kyi
and ALL of Burma’s political prisoners

“For me, Honorary Elder, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is the living symbol of the Burmese people’s hope and courage. She is the embodiment of their determination to live in freedom, health and prosperity. That is why I have written her name on my hand.

“There are thousands of others who are also imprisoned and detained in Burma. Each of them is a sign of great hope, determination and courage. Please join Amnesty, the Elders and our fellow activists by naming each of Burma’s political prisoners, by holding that person’s name up and demanding their release.

“We condemn the ongoing detention of political prisoners. We call on Burma’s neighbours to make it clear to the military authorities that they must be released and that the people must be able to exercise their freedoms safely in the run-up to the elections on November 7.

“At every Elders meeting we always keep an empty chair for Daw Suu Kyi but she has never been able to join us. Work with us in the spirit shown by Burma’s activists, for the day when she and her fellow activists will be free.”

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PRESS RELEASE: Former Political Prisoners Need Urgent UNHCR Protection

An issue that we have been working on for some time with the former political prisoners living in Mae Sot and the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border is now being accelerated as the date for the elections has been announced, bringing with it the very real threat of the former political prisoners being returned to Burma. You can read previous posts here and here.

Below is the Press Release letter issued by the former political prisoners to Human Rights organisations across the world. We are part of the working group working very hard on this issue so please contact me directly if you can be of assistance. enigmaimages@gmail.com

PRESS RELEASE

The Ex-Political Prisoners of Burma have joined together in an unprecedented call for help from the international community ahead of the elections in Burma set to be held on November 7. The Ex-Political Prisoners, now living in camps on the Thai Burma border,  fear forced repatriation from Thailand to Burma after the election and are desperately seeking assistance that is currently unavailable from the UNHCR for a safe haven,  if only temporary, in a third country.

The Ex-Political Prisoners currently have limited access to UNHCR to claim refugee status due to policy agreements between UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government.

The fear is that the Thai Government could repatriate all refugees back to Burma after the November 7 elections on the basis that the elections have created a legitimate Government in Burma. The Ex-Political Prisoners claim that the election will be a sham. Many potential candidates have been banned and Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.

The elections will change nothing, they claim, but simply install the junta under false pretences for a number of years to come. During this period any repatriated ex-political prisoners fear that the Junta will again persecute them.

“There are multiple examples of forced repatriation from Thailand, a violation of the Principle of Non-Refoulement which is a cornerstone of International Human Rights Law.  The Royal Thai Government has clearly stated its intention of repatriating Burmese asylum seekers following the ‘democratic election’ in Burma.  Our fears are well founded and should we be forced to return, with no recognition from UNHCR, we face certain imprisonment or death,” the ex political prisoners said in a signed letter to human rights organizations around the world.

NOTE TO THE EDITOR: We plead for your help.  Please publish the attached letter or an article exploring our situation so that the general public is aware of the situation we face. Without help from the international community we have no further options.  We have sent this letter to a number of Human Rights Lawyers and Human Rights Organizations in the hope of gaining legal representation.  Should you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact our spokesperson Aye Min Soe , also an Ex-Political Prisoner, at andrewsaisai@gmail.com (ph +66822259968).

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U Win Htein Freed After 20 Years In Hell

Some fantastic news this morning as U Win Htein was freed form Katha prison after serving nearly twenty years in prison.

Aung Myo Thein spent more than 6 years in Insein prison

(U) Win Htein served in the military for five years and became a Captain. He was PA (Personal Assistant) of then Commander-in-Chief General Tin Oo (now NLD Vice Chairman). He was arrested in 1980s for his involvement with Captain Ohn Kyaw Myin, who was hanged for state treason. (U) Win Htein was sentenced seven-year imprisonments.

During the 1988 popular uprising and when the National League for Democracy was formed, he became active member of the NLD and served as personal assistant and senior adviser of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo. He was arrested briefly in early 1989 and was severely tortured by the military intelligence. Then he was arrested again in 1989 and spent over five and a half year in prison until 1995.

On May 22, 1996, he was arrested again by the regime. He was accused that he provided false information to foreign media and providing fabricated news and information about the situation of farmers in the delta region, charged with two counts under Section 5 (J) of the Emergency Provision Act, and sentenced seven-year each for two cases, altogether 14-year imprisonment on August 15, 1996.

On Sep 23, 2008, he was released from Kathar Prison, Kathar Township, Sagaing Division, over a thousand miles away from his home town Rangoon. He stayed that night at a guest house in Kathar and called his wife. He asked her and other family members to come to Mandalay, middle point between Rangoon and Kathar, where they would meet and reunion. His wife, Daw Done Done, and family quickly left for Mandalay and they, together with NLD members from Mandalay, waited at the port to pick up (U) Win Htein, whom should be coming with a passenger boat from Kathar. However, he didn’t show up. Later, prison authorities contacted Daw Done Done and informed that they have put (U) Win Htein back in prison as some situation were changed.

Finally today after spending a total of more than 20 years in prison he is free.

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