WORLD EXCLUSIVE: U Win Tin – The Voice They Cannot Silence

UK newspaper “The Independent” publishes an in-depth feature article about Burma’s Political Prisoners in the colour supplement magazine on Saturday 24th April 2010 featuring 18 images from this campaign including an EXCLUSIVE portrait of U Win Tin.

For full details of the article visit The Independent website on Saturday 24th April.

“Well you see my opinion about this government is you see, that when you have to face with a military government, you need a little bit of courage, some sort of confronting you see. Because if you are always timid and afraid and intimidated they will stamp on you. Sometimes you have to make yourself a bit courageous, outspoken and so on.

That is why when people tell me I should keep a low profile because people are very anxious about my security. You can be snatched back to prison at any time, but you can’t help it.

You can’t help you see. Of course you don’t like to go back of course, but you see you can’t help, that depends on them, their idea and their intention.

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Thailand Day 9: Generation Wave

In a safe house in Mae Sot, we sit chatting and laughing about an extraordinary incident that happened in Burma just last week. I was there on a flying visit, working undercover on this campaign but not even in my wildest dreams could I have expected it to happen. Playing tourist for the moment, but still very clearly being watched, I stood away from most prying eyes in a far corner of the concourse that surrounds Shwedagon Pagoda going through the motions of taking photographs of the beauty around me. I turned around and was immediately frozen to the spot. There sitting right in front of me was Kyaw Oo, a member of Generation Wave who I had been with in Mae Sot just days before arriving in Burma. A casual glance to each other but no more, as this was most certainly not the time or place to continue where we had left off just days earlier! I think winning the lottery would have been more likely than this – even writing about it now I still can’t quite believe it happened… but i believe it was a good omen because my trip was successful and so to was his and here we are both now sitting in the evening heat of Mae Sot laughing about it.

In the aftermath of the Saffron Revolution a new youthful student force was born. Five former high school friends galvanised by the demonstrations that they took part in and the events on the streets of Rangoon that shocked the world started their own underground organisation. Generation Wave was founded on 9th October 2007 by Zay Yar Thaw, Aung Zay Phyo, Nyein Nwae, Moe Thway and Min Yan Naing all of whom were actively involved in the students demonstrations in 1996 and 1998. Over the last two years they have carried out a number of high profile campaigns inside Burma – including pamphleting, grafitti, daring protests outside Insein prison and distributing CDs of their music in tea shops. But at some price. There are currently 21 members of the group in jail in Burma including Zayar Thaw, Arkar Bo, Aung Zay Phyo and Thiha Win Tin. Two thirds of their members are behind bars for promoting democracy in their country. It’s made even worse when you consider their age.

For the full picture on Generation Wave please read this in-depth interview with them here in this great article by my friend Joseph Allchin from DVB.

There are currently only a handful of GW members living in exile here in Mae Sot (obviously names and details can’t be divulged for security reasons), including one, let’s call her ‘Nyi Ma’, a very old friend of Jackie’s when she was living in Rangoon. They had not seen each other for more than 10 years and we all met in complete surprise for the first time since then during the AAPP tenth anniversary last month. With that first coincidental meeting with a member of GW I suppose I really shouldn’t have been surprised when I bumped in to Kyaw Oo in Rangoon! So other than just enjoying spending time with friends at Generation Wave HQ, I’m also here to take the portrait of the only member of GW who is a former political prisoner.

Kyaw Oo has been jailed twice for his political activities – in 1989 for 4 years and again in 2008 for 1 year – both times in Insein prison. He was released in the General Amnesty on September 19th 2009 and now lives in exile here in Thailand. You can see the portrait we took here on the main website. I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Generation Wave over the past few weeks (often just having a break from what I’m doing and hanging out with my little sister and co has provided me with the space to find new ideas and inspirations). And it has proved so very inspiring to spend time with them. In fact I’ve got some ideas for some portraits for them all so we’ll have some fun next week for sure. Despite being too old to be a member I have been given the great honour of having my own numbered mug (the only non-member with an official place in the dishrack!) – so if you’re ever at their house and you see number 10 left lieing around half filled with unfinished coffee you’ll know it’s me! The Student movement has long played the decisive role in shaping the fight against the military regime and like so many that came before them, they are the new generation of students, still fighting for their country, but a long long way from home.

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Burma Day 5: A New Year But With Nothing New

(As stated before, information posted about inside Burma is strictly limited for obvious security reasons)

The fifth and final day of this trip inside – it’s been cut short due to a change in plan after the second day. Today is the first day of Thingyan and whilst the real festivities don’t start until tomorrow you can already sense a very small wave of euphoria in the air… but with it a very big increase in police and miltary presence on the ground. Stepping out of the hotel yesterday to be confronted by armed police was an unwelcome surprise. It’s the only time of the year when all flights out of Burma are full and I’ve been on standby since Saturday. Finally today I have a flight out this evening. Off course I really don’t want to leave this beautiful country and the people I care so much about, but I have to. Every time I come back here I wonder if things are getting worse. But then can things really get any worse for these people? In the few days I’ve been here I’ve seen the same old shocking sights of poverty, corruption and intimidation. Of course I’ve been followed and watched by intelligence and their stooges – sometimes its so obvious that you feel like just wandering right up to them and taking their portrait from about 3 yards away! Even when you’re not followed, someone somewhere is always watching you or is scared of you being there next to them. It’s indicative of this climate of fear that prevails throughout Burmese society. Fear of retribution from this, the most brutal of ruling regimes. But then there are the times when you can just grab a few silent moments away from prying eyes and perhaps share them with The Lady, sitting silently across the lake.

Aside from the work that I managed to do here there were a couple of other moments that were highly entertaining and when the authorities could have had a field day. First off, an unbelievable incident at Shwedagon Pagoda where I bumped into a member of an ‘outlawed organisation’ whom I knew. It could have been the moment when the SPDC got two for the price of one! The second memorable incident was just hours before leaving and looking back now I can laugh, but at the time I’ll admit that for a split second I thought my time was up. I was in Kandawgyi Park killing time before heading to the airport to leave. There was a very heavy police presence – armed riot police everywhere throughout the park and on the road watching all the stages being built for the water festival due to start tomorrow. I paid my two dollars to enter the park and walked along the timber walkway by the waters edge past the 5 armed riot police sitting in the shade at the entrance. As I walked on I noticed in the distance a large group of people coming the other way – it was unusual because you have to pay to go on this walkway and it was blisteringly hot so why would so many people be out in this sun? I stopped to try to see what was going on and I realised it was a large group of police, military and plain clothes intelligence and they were walking towards me. I turned around and the police I had just walked past at the entrance were now all standing blocking the entrance to the park. My only reason of concern was that in my camera bag was all the photos and video that we had done in the past few days. Work that if found here and now would mean very serious trouble. I couldn’t go anywhere so I had to resort to just playing the dumb tourist card (not for the first time – ed) If they know who you are its too late to worry anyway. The group walked towards me and as they got nearer I made out that there was clearly someone of very high military rank amongst them – 5 or so senior military personnel, one with more medals stitched on his shirt than are surely possible to win. There were armed riot police, armed soldiers, 10 or so plain clothes military intelligence, radios crackling away, men in dark glasses… I tried not to smile as they all just walked on by past me, oblivious to what was hidden in my bag, oblivious of what I was up to. Dumb tourist… thanks for visiting our beautiful country and giving us your dollars. UPDATE AFTER THE EVENT – this was the exact location where the bomb went off 3 days later killing 9 people and injuring dozens more. Coincidence?? You decide…

Coming within touching distance of one of the Generals (or someone of similar high rank) was certainly not part of the itinerary when we planned this trip, but as always with Burma – expect the unexpected! As soon as they were gone in the distance I walked to a quiet area of the park out of sight and earshot and rang in to share the moment as I could barely contain myself with laughter. Checking in is all part of the procedure at times and this was an unexpected check in to have to discuss! It’s so bizarre because I had an almost identical incident when I was leaving last year. Let’s hope we’re not tempting fate and that it’s not a case of 3 strikes and your out when I come back next time. I make it to the airport without any other dramas or excitement, on the way passing by Khin Nyunt’s house where he is currently under house arrest, a casual glance in wondering if perhaps he’ll be available for a portrait next time I’m here! Safe flight back to Bangkok and mission accomplished… for now anyway.

Over the last two days I’ve captured a few images whilst wandering around killing time and you can view them here at the enigmaimages website.

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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 10: Joining The NLD On The Day They Said ‘NO’

Back in Mae Sot after the hectic weekend touring the camps down south but there’s no time to put the feet up and rest. We have to leave on Wednesday evening back to Bangkok and have a lot to cover back here in town before we go. So another early start but perhaps too rushed as over a breakfast planning meeting a jug of milk goes over my laptop… ‘no use crying over spilt milk’ couldn’t be more appropriate and thankfully everything is ok (good old macs!!). Last year we shot more than 30 former political prisoners in one session at the AAPP office. It was great but now there is the opportunity to take many of those portraits again to get different backgrounds adding diversity to the numbers of portraits we now have. We have managed some last week but the next few days we can concentrate on photographing those who are around in town. In fact we get a surprise call and a former political prisoner not yet photographed is in town at an ABSDF meeting, so we jump on the bikes and head of to the location to meet Myo Min Tun. He was jailed for 1 year in Insein and Maubin prisons and was cellmates with Dr Aye Chan (from Tokyo) and also Aung Din (executive director and co-founder of the US Campaign for Burma).

Myo Min Tun

Possibly the most important part of today is the fact that the NLD are due to make their announcement about whether or not they will be taking part in the election. A foregone conclusion as we all know the result already, but who better to spend the morning with discussing the future for the NLD, the election and even the forthcoming football world cup, than an NLD Member of Parliament. Khun Myint Tun was elected MP for Thaton Constituency in Mon State. He was arrested in 1996 and charged with high treason along with hundreds of other members of the NLD. I first met Khun Myint Tun last summer and took his portrait but the chance to meet again was obviously too good to miss out – especially to be spending time with him on the day that his party are about to announce that they are not taking part in the election… an incredible moment to experience. We spent ages chatting and took his portrait in his house – it’s one of the best so far no doubt about it and it carries such meaning as it was taken on the day they said they wont take part in the sham election – as though it was another act of defiance taking this photo. Khun Myint Tun (a member of parliament don’t forget) was jailed for 7 years in 6 different prisons.

Khun Myint Tun – NLD MP for Thaton Township

A few hours after leaving Khun Myint Tun’s house the announcement was made official – the National League for Democracy would not be taking part in the forthcoming sham elections in Burma. It was very surreal but a total honour to have spent time with an NLD MP discussing all of this just hours before this historic announcement was made. It of course the only decision they could have made under the extreme conditions they were under from the SPDC.  So on May 7th the NLD as we know and love it will no longer cease to exist…
Back to Thiha’s house to re-group and also an opportunity to re-shoot U Zawana as the one we shot week the before last was too hurried on the day of the 10th anniversary. He is an incredible man having spent 16 years in prison and was only too happy to have his portrait taken again and thankfully this time we got an absolute beauty. You can note in the photo below the iPhone coming in to play again – not only saved the day at Umpiem camp the other day but its also the personal log book with all the info and details i need – a crucial device for the modern day activist/photographer!!

Thiha, U Zawana and Jacqueline San

The day ends meeting up with Aye Min Soe and he joins us at the tea shop (where else!). Aye Min Soe is a DVB video journalist who worked undercover during the Saffron Revolution. He escaped to Thailand with Thiha when Thiha was released from prison after 17 years inside. They are both now my very good friends and I’m working closely with them on the issue of former political prisoner refugees and the UNHCR issues. We take their portraits again in the market area – Thiha’s being a moment of genius (and luck) as I get a monk in the background and the shot looks as though its inside Burma – highly symbolic I hope. We continue on to dinner at the night market and enjoy the evening relaxing after another long day.

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Thailand Day 8: Nupo Refugee Camp – The Return

Click HERE to view all of the portraits of former political prisoners in Nupo refugee camp.

An early start for what will be a long day – or rather an intensive day as we have to try and wrap things up before the sun gets too high overhead and we’re left with nothing but shadows and highlights. Last night we had a meeting with many of the former political prisoners here in Nupo to learn more about their current precarious situation living in the camp and the ongoing disgraceful situation in regards to the UNHCR resettlement program. There is great fear amongst many here that they will be returned to Burma – all refugees that is – after the election. There are already noises being made from Thai authorities than suggest that this could be the case. Perhaps this goes some way in explaining why the USA has all cases currently on hold. So it’s an early start after sleeping in the camp last night and after morning coffee in the school’s coffee shop “Memento” we started with the portraits. Luckily a group of former political prisoners met us early at ESC school so we started looking for suitable backdrops around the school.

First up were Myint Oo (5 years in Insein, Bago and Taungoo prisons), Kyaw Han (3 years in Sittwe prison) and Zaw Win Naing (4 years in Myeik prison). The day is almost a race against the clock as we have to get the last line car out of Nupo at about 3pm or we get stuck here (no bad thing in my book) but with a tight schedule we cant afford any more slip ups like yesterday. Also it’s a race against the sun – in fact the whole thing is one continual race around everywhere, tracking people down, trying not to draw too much attention to yourself – it’s a total challenge that is impossible to do without the ever present help of Thiha and of course the Secretary-General Jacquelin San who as well as being on interview duty and translation is also filming everything – and she’s getting very good at it to!

First ones in the can (as they say) and we spend the next few hours trekking across Nupo camp starting in Section 16 where all POCs are living. It’s a cramped section of the camp in comparison to almost all other areas – another hardship faced by former political prisoners and their associates – conditions also vary across the camp depending on the usual things in life – how how much money you have and who you know. The portraits keep coming thick and fast – first up my good friend Ma Khin Cho Myint @ Zulu who was photographed for the 3rd time (the previous two political prisoners had been released so she now is known by everyone as having the lucky hand!). She was jailed for 6 years in Insein and Moulmein prisons. Zulu has been the main organiser here in Nupo so a massive thanks to her for making today come together so well. Making our way swiftly through Section 16 we pick up quite a crowd along the way, one by one having their portrait taken as we desperately try to quickly find differing yet most importantly interesting backgrounds to be able to take the portraits – Kyaw Win Swe (7 years in Insein and Mandalay prisons), Kyi Toe (3 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons), Kyaw Zaw (11 years in Insein and Kalay prisons), Su Su Win (8 years in Insein prison), Kyaw Tint Oo (2 years in Maubin prison), Win Hlaing (6 years in Insein and Thayet prisons), Yu Yu Hlaing (1 year in Myant prison) and her husband Soe Moe (6 years in Dawei prison). We also had time in passing to catch up with Lwin Lwin Myint (U Gambira’s sister) who with her husband were busy building their new house.

Heading across towards the monastery on the other side of the camp we take a detour to the graveyard where two former political prisoners who died whilst in the camp are buried. U Than Myint (who’s wife and child we met and photographed – see above) passed away on 23rd January 2009 aged 52. He was a member of the NLD and BPPU. Unfortunately I never had the chance to meet him but when I visited in July last year I met Myo Khin. He had been jailed for 7 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prison and he was suffering form bad health coupled with no home in the camp – his life was one of extreme hardship and makes you seriously reflect on everything you have in comparison. He died on 15th December 2009 aged 53. He was a member of the NLD and BPPU. I was very sad to hear that he had passed away in  of liver failure amongst other serious health problems. Both men had gravestones in the rundown graveyard of Nupo camp – it was a true moment of reflection and sadness. Our final stop was over at the monastery to photograph U Aubar before making our way back through the wide open boulevards (in comparison!) of the Karen section of the camp to ESC Nupo for a final meal and well earned rest before catching the line car back to Umphang. Yet another brief but totally exhausting and truely rewarding time spent in Nupo camp. I thank you all for everything that you did and hope that in turn we can in some way help with your current situation. God knows we’ll try.

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Thailand Day 7: Umpiem, Nupo… Houston We Have a Problem.

The usual early start heading south to Umpiem Mai refugee camp but we only just make the line car as it’s packed up and ready to go half an hour early! The day ahead is going to be hectic – there are more than 30 former political prisoners in Umpiem Mai refugee camp and most of them will be photographed today. Getting into the camps is often a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. Either a few hundred baht changes hands and a look the other way as you sneak in the gate or if you’re lucky you may be able to sneak in without having to pay some tea money. Either way the bottom line is you’re not supposed to be going in – the Thai authorities don’t want photos, videos and reports coming out of what like is life inside these camps. The usual way is to be a ‘Teacher’ or ‘Missionary’ for the day. But today I am concerned about getting in as we have company with us which on a normal day I would be more than happy to have but today is about the issues we are trying to cover for former political prisoners and we can’t afford getting caught or not getting in to the camp.

The route south is nothing but the usual – checkpoints where those without papers are hauled aside and have to part with whatever cash they have to be able to continue their journey. It’s just another part of the perilous life of a stateless person on the Thai-Burma border being exposed to corruption at every turn. About 30 minutes from Umpiem Mai cmap we are pulled over at the top of a hill by the Thai police – it’s a random checkpoint and there about 30 police in total – many armed, ready and waiting to fill their pockets with a little extra cash for the weekend – they are in for a nice surprise when they stop us as we had just picked up 19 Karen refugees on their way to a day’s farming… a handsome reward for the Thai police even if they had to do their best to extort money away from the eyes and ears of the foreigners amongst us on the line car – we filmed what we could and you can just make out the Karen woman ‘talking’ to the police in the clip above.

We finally make it to Umpiem Mai and meet Kyaw Soe Win at the gate as planned, but this is where the plans go wrong (as I had expected form the start). There is no way we are going to be allowed in today as we are too many people. If it had just been Thiha, me and Jackie then no problem – we could sneak in as normal, but with the extra (white western) faces accompanying us its obviously a no go. No time to be disappointed as when one door shuts another opens and we change around our entire schedule and decide to head straight to Nupo and come back here on Sunday… when the Palat is away!… (just us 3) providing we can catch the last line car form Umphang and also get a message to the camp that we are on our way (they aren’t expecting us until tomorrow). There is no phone reception in Nupo camp but with the wonders of modern technology I send a Facebook message via my iPhone to John Glenn in Houston, Texas, who then in turn gets a message to our contacts in Nupo Camp informing them of our imminent arrival… Houston we have a problem!! Digital democracy at it’s very best!! We catch the next line car down to Umphang and just make the last connection to Nupo camp by the skin of our teeth. It’s becoming a bit of a habit just making these connections wherever we are in the world… it’s as though it’s just meant to happen.

The road to Nupo has been vastly improved since my last visit just 6 months ago and we arrive much quicker than expected giving us time to take several portraits in the early evening before the light disappears – the call ahead had already been made by John Glenn from in Houston to prepare whoever was available – great teamwork! So here we are back at ESC Nupo (English Speaking Course) and a warm welcome as always – it’s great to see Robin, Min Zaw Oo, Ton and everyone again and a real honour to be able to stay in the camp at the school. This part of the trip wouldn’t be possible without the help from all at ESC so a huge thanks to you all. Nupo camp is home to approximately 25+ former political prisoners, mostly living in Section 16 and most of whom I photographed on my last visit back in July. But the light was not so good back then and the portraits were all rushed and also with many of the same backgrounds. Also most importantly, with the Leica back in my hands these portraits will simply rock. So without any delay we decide to get the shoots underway as tomorrow we will only have the morning to work with as it gets too bright after about 11am and we have to head back to Umphang and then on to Umpiem Mai on Sunday.

This time our trip to the camps is taking on an extra dimension as we are also documenting the current perilous situation for former political prisoners on the Thai-Burma border where they are basically stateless people as they are not being recognised as refugees by the UNHCR or Thai authorities. You can read more about this issue on a seperate blog entry here. The first person who we not only take a portrait of but spend some time interviewing is U Chit Tin, a former member of parliament for the NLD. Jailed for high treason in 1990 when he was one of 35 NLD MPs who met in Mandalay to form an alternative government, U Chit Tin is now awaiting resettlement like so many here in the refugee camps. (You can read about his story here). U Chit Tin spent 2 years in Insein prison and amongst other things in his life as an NLD MP he was in the lead car in front of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi when they were attacked at Depayin. Imagine an MP from your Government going through that as well as torture and oppression for 16 years and now being forced to live in a refugee camp… A complete and utter farce is the only polite way to describe this mess.

With the light fading we manage to take 5 more portraits this evening which makes all the hassle and misfortunes of earlier pale into insignificance. We photograph Naing Linn (2 years in Pathein prison); Moe Kyaw Aung (7 years in Insein & Tharwaddy prisons); Than Oo Myint (1 year in Moulmein prison); Moe Kyi (3 years in Insein, Bago & Tharawaddy prisons) and finally Soe Myint Aung (3 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons).

Please click HERE for full size images of the above portraits

As the evening drew to a close we headed back to ESC for some dinner and a good catch up with everyone. It may sound strange to say it but it’s great to be here and I only hope that next time I come back we can have made huge in-roads on not only the political prisoner issue inside Burma but also that of those in peril as stateless people living in these camps.

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Thailand Day 5: More Mae Sot

A slow start to the day after the celebrations of yesterday that ended up late on with karaoke in MyMaesot – Ko Tate Naing flexing his vocal chords and keeping everyone entertained. Rachel had made it down from Chiang Mai as well and it was great to catch up with her now that she’s back out here. First stop today was a meeting about the Burma trip – naturally I can’t go into details but at least some of it will be revealed very soon indeed in the international media. The idea to photograph former political prisoners inside Burma is obviously the most challenging part of this campaign yet – for my part there is obviously the risk that I will get caught with someone or somewhere I shouldn’t be and most likely get deported (maybe worse… we’ll have to wait and see) but the biggest risk is obviously for those former political prisoners who i’ll be meeting and photographing. They are watched the whole time by military intelligence, so meeting isn’t easy which is why we’ve been planning this for many months now. Then there’s the contacts working on the underground who can’t risk being exposed. If they are, then its 20 years inside. No questions asked. The risks are huge but everyone is willing to take them. A sign if ever one was needed of belief in what the message of this campaign is all about. All we have to hope for now is that we have the platform for this work should it all go to plan.

After the rush around town photographing 11 people yesterday, you could be excused for wanting a few hours off to check progress, but there’s no time for that. After our morning meetings its straight back on the bikes and first stop to see Daw San San, National League for Democracy elected Member of Parliament and former political prisoner at her home in the back streets of Mae Sot.

(Daw San San – NLD MP for Seik Kan Township, Rangoon)

During the 1988 uprising the Workers Union was formed and she was duely elected chairman but as the military cracked down she was forced to retire. Having previously worked at the Labour department of the government, it was her expertise in this field that was to lead to her playing a prominent role in the NLD and in 1988 she joined the NLD becoming secretary of the Central Labor Working Committee. In 1990 she was elected as member of parliament for Seik Kan Township in Rangoon but as the military refused to hand over power she fled along with many of her MP colleagues to Mandalay. It was here that the regime arrested 35 MPs accusing them of meeting to form a parallel government. Daw San San was one of those arrested. Charged with high treason she was sentenced to 25 years and sent to Insein prison. In 1993 under the General Amnesty 1/93, Daw San San was released from prison – like many her sentenced commuted on condition of non involvement in politics in the future. In 1997 Daw San San was interviewed by the BBC via telephone and despite knowing that her answers and by identifying herself would result in her arrest she spoke with them, outlining the current situation and providing details of MPs currently in prison. Eventually as she expected, the authorities arrested her and she was returned to Insein to serve the remaining part of her sentence. She was finally freed in 2001 and forced to sign 401/1 (agreeing not to partake in politics in the future). She was given back her title of vice-chairman of NLD Rangoon Division and continued working in her role. Faced with the ever present threat from the military and having been arrested several times in 2003 around the time of the Depayin Massacre she finally fled to Thailand where she continues working as an elected member of parliament for the NLD and as vice president of the MPPU.

As luck would have it and is so often the way out here, you end up bumping into someone you need to meet and Eai Shwe Sinn was here at Daw San San’s house so we re-took her photo – as always when she’s not filming or doing interviews, my beautiful assistant acts as stand in – this time even managing to wear the same colour top to make my life as easy as possible! There is no end to her skills. The rest of the day like yesterday is spent going from one place to the next and a further 5 newly arrived former PPs are photographed. Saw Mo Shay was sentenced to 10 years at the age of 15 in 1994 and spent 11 years in Insein, Tharawaddy and Moulmein – he received a further 2 year sentence for his alleged role in a prison break to which he took no part. Back at AAPP office we hook up with new member of staff Aung Khaing Min who has been living and studying in USA. He was jailed for 5 years in 1997 in Insein and Taungoo prisons and many of his family including his brothers are still detained in Burma’s jails. On his hand is written the name of his brother Chit Ko Lin – when he was in Rangoon as a student activists between him and his brothers they all knew they would be arrested so they took it in turns to cover each others tracks until they had all been caught.

(Chit Ko Lin is currently serving a 7 year sentence in Pakokku prison)

Family links are so common for those who are detained or have been – so many brothers, sisters, cousins are jailed, if not for their direct involvement then because their family members are at large so the authorities arrest anyone they can find. We met Thet Naing at the ‘Knowledge Zone Vocational Training Centre’ that he set up last year. He had arrived in Mae Sot in 2005 but until now I had not had the chance to meet him. He had spent 8 years in 4 different prisons – arrested in 1988, again in 1997, he fled to the border in 2005 with his nephew… so the SPDC arrested his niece and sentenced her to 11 years in jail. She is currently in Umpiem Mai camp and we will meet her tomorrow. Next up was Thet Khaing who we met at the ABSFU headquarters – he had been sentenced to a mind numbing 38 years in 1998. Thankfully he only had to serve 4. Our final stop of the day was to meet Yi Yi Win who spent 3 years in Insein prison in 2004. Her husband is also a former political prisoner but is currently living in Norway, having had success on the resettlement programme. Yi Yi Win is waiting to join them but like so many currently living in a state of statelessness here in Mae Sot. With the light fading fast I ran up and down the road desperately trying to find a spot to take her portrait. Sometimes you need look no further than right in front of your eyes and we took it on her doorstep.

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Thailand Day 4 (part 2): One Hundred Years in One Day

So much for thinking there were only a handful of new arrivals since last being here in Mae Sot 6 months ago. The General Amnesty of September 2009 where 128 political prisoners were released had seen a signifcant number of people flee across the border since then – both those who had been released and others whose lives had become un-liveable as a former political prisoner inside Burma. In short the only difference is that once released from prison you are no longer in a cell. Almost everything else about your life remains the same but just in a different context. Constant monitoring, harrasement and mental torture by the regime and its thugs – for a former political prisoner life can so easily cease to exist as everything is taken from you – even your friends and family. Many are therefore forced to flee across the border into Thailand – this is not easy and is a trip faced with extreme danger. As a former political prisoner you are always watched and being caught trying to flee brings about an immediate return to jail.

(Naw Ohn Hla – currently in Insein for leading prayers at Shwedagon pagoda for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners)

So as the 10th Anniversary event came to a close in the mid-day sun, the first day of shooting got underway almost straight away. The next few days were going to be very busy – the initial estimates of 5 or so new faces were way off the mark. The next 5 hours saw us race around town on the back of bikes as we met , interviewed and photographed 11 new arrivals in Mae Sot since last being here: Daw Cho Mar Htwe (11 year), U Zawana (16 years), U Sandawbartha (16 years), U Thawbita (1 year), Soe Lwin (15 years), Moe Kalayar Oo (6 years), Soe Htike (8 years), San Lwin Oo (2 years), U Kyaw Kyaw (6 years), Sein Kyaw Oo (5 years), and Thwin Linn Aung (5 years). In one afternoon 11 people had spent almost 100 years in prison.

(Cho Mar Htwe being interviewed by Jacquelin San)

One of the first people I heard about that had recently arrived was Daw Cho Mar Htwe. She was arrested in 1998 as a member of the NLD and spent 11 years in Insein and Moulmein prisons before being released in the Amnesty of September 2009. The funny thing was that my good friend Ma Khin Cho Myint @ Zulu had written Cho Mar Htwe’s name on her hand when I took her portrait in Nupo camp last year. It was the second time I had had to take Zulu’s portrait as the original name she wrote on her hand had also been released… so with Cho Mar Htwe now having been released I needed to take yet another picture of Zulu… her hand was now quickly becoming known as the lucky hand! So first stop was to Lae Lae’s house where Daw Cho Mar Htwe was now living – in fact whilst we were there we also photographed Sein Kyaw Oo and Thwin Linn Aung – who was of particular interest to Jackie as he had been a prominent student leader at Rangoon university during the student uprisings in 1996 whilst she had been one of the many junior students who sat in the road at Hledan junction listening to their seniors speaking. Then it was a race across town to see Moe Kalayar Oo and her husband Soe Htike. Moe Kalayar Oo spent 6 years in jail because of her participation in the demonstration during the funeral ceremony of U Nu. During the Saffron Revolution she was a member of the 88 Generation Students but evaded arrest and went on to assist Nargis victims in 2008. But the authorities finally caught up with her so she fled with her family. Her husband Soe Htike had been involved in the All Burma Students Democratic Movement and was arrested in 1991 spending 8 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons. Like his wife he then became a member of the 88 Generation Students and was one of the core group outside Insein prison every day whilst Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was on trial in summer of 2009.

(U Zawana and U Sandawbartha – both spent more than 16 years each in Burma’s prisons)

Back across town again to Thiha’s home for a meeting with monks U Zawana and U Sandawbartha. Both had spent more than 16 years each in prison – much of it together in Insein and Tharawaddy. Both were from the same monastery in Rangoon – Shwe Pyi Thar learner’s monastery and U Sandawbartha being arrested 2 days earlier and both were finally released in September 2009. In 1992 U Zawana met with UN Special Rapporteur of human rights Mr. Yozo Yokota and gave evidence on the situation inside the country. He was subsequently sentenced to 29 years in jail – full interviews with both will be available soon. Staying in Thiha’s house temporarily is Soe Lwin – 15 years in 4 different prisons having been sentenced to 24 years in jail. It’s so hard to get your round being with someone so young who has spent half of their life in prison for absolutely no reason. It’s always a time to reflect on so many things whenever I meet a former political prisoner, but also it provides you with such an amazing sense of inspiration. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Just ask these people who have survived hell.

(Soe Lwin – 15 years spent in Insein, Myeik, Tavoy and Moulmein prisons)

The final stop of the day was to visit the People’s Volunteer Association being run by former political prisoners San Lwin Oo arrested after Saffron Revolution in 2007 and U Kyaw Kyaw – a solo protester arrested in 2003 and who has been jailed for 6 years. The organisation was formerly known as the “Burma Volunteers Association” and is a non-profit association taking a leading role to solve the social conflicts in the migrant community in Thailand. We photographed both men in a dusty road where the office is located but also is the home to hundreds of Burmese migrants – as though stacked one on top each other like chickens in a battery farm. It may be a sense of freedom from the oppression behind the walls that is Burma but its a very long way from the world that most people are lucky enough to be able to enjoy.

As the last of the light disappeared we headed back to AAPP to join in the celebrations (see part one of this post). A completely unexpected start to have photographed so many in one afternoon and simply not possible without the ever present help from Thiha and also the Secretary General keeping me on the straight and narrow and concentrating on what I had to do. without them both doing all the real hard work in interviews and planning then most of this campaign just wouldn’t have the depth that it does.

100 years in prison in one day. There’s nothing to add to that sombre fact.

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Thailand Day 4 (part 1): Ten Years Strong

Ten years ago today, on 23rd March 2000, former political prisoners from Burma living in exile in Thailand formed the human rights organisation the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), more commonly known as the AAPP. The date of 23rd March has relevance as it is the anniversary of the arrest of student leader Min Ko Naing in 1988. For the past ten years, AAPP has cast light on the dark situation that is the hell of Burma’s prisons and the political prisoners that have suffered within them. It has played a vital role in reporting to International governments and the UN on the situation of political prisoners in Burma and has campaigned vigorously and untiringly to both raise awareness and bring about change. It provides a voice and support for the 2,186 political prisoners currently incarcerated in Burma’s jails and also assistance to their families and those who have been forced to flee into exile.

The day starts in a rush and thankfully we grab a lift from Dr Naing Aung from the AAPP office to the Rujira Hotel on the outskirts of Mae Sot – where the celebrations are being held. More than 150 people had gathered to this special occasion – former political prisoners, activists, exiled NLD Members of Parliament – the room was awash with important people who had come to acknowledge not just the work and tenth anniversary of AAPP but more importantly the fact that 2,186 people were still in jail and the fact that a significant number of those people should be playing important roles in the forthcoming elections. Former political prisoners dressed in their blue prison uniforms carried a banner that re-iterated this message “There can be no national reconciliation in Burma as long as there are political prisoners”. There is really no other way to put it.

It was a strange experience to know so many people in the room – to have been privileged to have shared the lives of so many of them for this project; an honour to be a part of this family. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. Anniversary t-shirts in the prisoner colour blue were handed out to all and the MCs Moe Myat Thu and Ma Suu Mon Aye got things underway. The former political prisoners performed to the packed hall and a number of prominent activists and former political prisoners spoke to the audience. It was a great day and I spent most of the event wandering around chatting to people and taking the odd photograph – you can see the photos here. Also with so many former political prisoners gathered in one place it was also a great opportunity to start planning who to photograph and a real coup as Daw San San, NLD MP, Vice President of the MPPU and former political prisoner agreed to have her portrait taken later in the week. In fact our initial estimates of 5 or so new faces to photograph in Mae Sot were way off target. We also caught up with Ma Thida who was over from DVB in Oslo – so many friends everywhere but a big surprise for Jackie who met a very special old friend (now in Generation Wave) whom she hadn’t seen for ten years since having to leave Burma in 2000. It was a wonderful moment to enjoy a re-union and such a small world to be re-united here in Mae Sot both fighting as activists for their country.

To mark the 10th anniversary the AAPP were launching their new report “The Role of Political Prisoners in the National Reconciliation Process”. The report calls on the international community to press the military junta to unconditionally release all political prisoners, review the 2008 Constitution, and begin a tripartite dialogue. But the report also calls for the criminal records of all political prisoners to be erased. The 2010 election and party registration laws prohibit current prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Khun Tun Oo from standing for election or belonging to a political part – and this is a key point if there is to be any sense of real democratic change and progress for Burma. You can condemn the constitution, repression and general disastrous human rights situation throughout Burma all you like but the basic fact that the very people who were not only originally elected to run the country but who are also who the people of Burma would still want to play a role now in shaping its future are still in jail. Their unconditional release and involvement in the political process is fundamental if there is ever to be meaningful change in Burma.

The new report was launched at a press conference and the whole event was filmed by Democratic Voice of Burma DVB and you can read all about the days events here in a report from The Irrawaddy. The celebrations continued throughout the day culminating in an evening event held at the office of AAPP for former political prisoners and a selection of specially invited guests – time to really celebrate and for me an incredible moment as a slideshow of the 115 photographs of this project was played on a big screen to everyone – amazing feeling to see all these former political prisoners watching their colleagues from all over the world – it made all the hard work really seem worthwhile to have it shown and acknowledged in such company. Everyone partied long in to the night – a well deserved day of celebration but also acknowledgement of the role of political prisoners in Burma’s past, present and future.

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