Burma’s Political Prisoners book: ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’ with foreword by Aung San Suu Kyi

After 3 long years of  hard work and over 100,000 miles travelled, finally the book of our long term project documenting Burma’s political prisoners will be published in November 2011 by River Books. Hopefully all political prisoners will also be released by then as well.

Featuring a foreword written by Aung San Suu Kyi and portraits of more than 250 former political prisoners in exile around the world (as well as over 50 from inside Burma, including leaders of the National League for Democracy), ‘Abhaya – Burma’s Fearlessness’ captures a moment in time in Burma’s history, dated October 2011, with more than 2,000 political prisoners incarcerated.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK:

The Abhaya mudrā (“mudrā of fear-not”) represents protection, peace and the dispelling of fear.

In 1962 a military coup lead by General Ne Win saw Burma, an isolated Buddhist country in South-East Asia, come under the power of one of the world’s most brutal regimes. For the past five decades, thousands of people have been arrested, tortured and given long prison sentences for openly expressing their beliefs and for daring to defy dictators who tolerate no form of dissent or opposition to their rule.

Today, more than 2,000 political prisoners including monks, students, journalists, lawyers, elected Members of Parliament and over 300 members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, The National League for Democracy, are incarcerated in Burma’s notorious prisons.

In Burma and across the world, almost 300 hundred former political prisoners have come together to raise awareness of the tragic plight of their colleagues still detained in jail. Photographed standing with their right hand raised, palm out-turned facing the camera, the name of a current political prisoner is shown written on their hand. The sacred Buddhist gesture of Abhaya, “Fear Not”, is not only an act of silent protest, but also one of remembrance and fearlessness.

“The people featured in this book have all had to learn to face their fears squarely during the decades they have passed in the struggle for democracy and human rights in Burma. Their commitment has been their courage. It is important that they and what they stand for should not be forgotten, that their sufferings as well as their aspirations should be remembered.”

“I hope that all who read this book will be encouraged to do everything they can to gain the freedom of political prisoners in Burma and to create a world where there are no political prisoners” Aung San Suu Kyi

View the project in its entirety at www.enigmaimages.net

 

 

Advertisements

FREE THE VJs: Inside Burma’s Secret Network

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

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

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

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

Undercover VJs at work in the secret offices

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES & DVB and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

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

All photos available to view in COLOUR or BLACK & WHITE

Reflections on tea with the Lady.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aung San Suu Kyi at home in Rangoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

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

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

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

You can buy your copy of VOGUE Japan Magazine CLICK HERE

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and VOGUE JAPAN and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Brothers in Arms: The Moustaches and Ko Mya Aye

Meeting Burma’s dissidents inside the country holds great risks for everyone involved. For many it is too dangerous whilst others are able to do so under different guises or because they have in some way formed an uneasy alliance of sorts with the regime, but whoever and however these risks are taken with the overwhelming desire to inform the outside world about the situation in Burma. Defying and countering the state propaganda with the truth is the risk that dissidents, journalists, opposition groups and often ordinary people take every day in Burma. Staying silent is not an option for many. That’s what the regime want them to do. Whilst some leading opposition voices, including Aung San Suu Kyi, are often able to quietly and ‘unofficially’ meet with foreigners without much cause for retribution from the authorities (thankfully so far anyway), almost every other dissident and even ordinary person in Burma runs the very real risk of interrogation and even prison if caught or even suspected of meeting foreign journalists and the like. A simple journey to the NLD offices can strike fear into the heart of many a taxi-driver in Rangoon. To be able to meet and photograph the people that I have these past weeks defies not just the regime but also logic as well as the insanity of the situation that they find themselves having to try to survive in. But nothing is taken lightly. Due to the nature of taking part in this work deemed an act that may “affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order,” under Burma’s draconian 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, almost everyone who has taken part cannot yet be shown for obvious security reasons. Their safety above all else is paramount. However, whilst as with U Win Tin last year, there are a number of dissidents who we are able to show publicly…

Par Par Lay, jailed 3 times has spent more than 6 years in prison and labour camps

Having been moving around Rangoon subversively for the past few weeks it’s time to head out of town and up country to Mandalay. I will miss my evening or early morning walk around the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda. A peaceful haven in so many different ways. Serene and silent it holds as much hope as Burma’s democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi and like the Lady it plays the most important of roles in Burmese peoples lives. As with Rangoon and elsewhere before, I cannot mention names or places but can only say that as always it was a privilege to meet those who I did whilst here in Mandalay. Brave men and women, jailed for many years but still continuing with their unfinished work to change Burma’s roadmap to one that reads more coherently. The only portraits from Mandalay and basically Burma as well, that can be shown now are those of the fantastic Moustache Brothers.

Lu Zaw, cousin to Par Par Lay and Lu Maw, was jailed for 6 years

The Moustache Brothers, ‘Par Par Lay’ and ‘Lu Maw’ joined by cousin ‘Lu Zaw’, are one of Burma’s most famous and most loved comedy acts famed for their now banned ‘A-Nyeint’ vaudeville performances that combine classic Burmese dance, screwball comedy and sharply satirical criticism of the military regime. But their controversial style attracted the attention of the authorities and they became an international symbol of political oppression in Burma when they were arrested in 1996. It was during Independence Day celebrations held in the compound of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home and in front of watching government officials and dignitaries that their performance poking fun at the regime would end in their arrest. The defining sketch that would see them jailed ended with Par Par Lay being shot multiple times by a Burmese General and when refusing to die he replies “Why should I die when I am right?”. The play on words was not lost on the watching military officials and Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were arrested and sentenced to 7 years hard labour. Brother Lu Maw had not travelled to Rangoon and so escaped punishment. Much of their time incarcerated was spent in chains in a hard-labour camp in Kachin state, but thanks to a global campaign lead by Amnesty International and many Hollywood stars demanding their release along with negotiations lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, they were freed on 13th July 2001. Despite being banned from performing ever again and under virtual house arrest as part of their release conditions they continue to perform each night to tourists, still telling the jokes and subversively the truth despite constant threats from the authorities that they would be jailed again. In September 2007, Par Par Lay was in fact jailed again for 35 days for offering food to monks during the Saffron Revolution.

Par Par Lay decided straight away that the only name he wanted on his hand was that of ‘Mya Aye’, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students who is currently serving a 65 year  sentence in Taunggyi prison and suffering from extreme poor health. As we talked about Mya Aye and his colleagues, Par Par Lay’s boundless enthusiasm started to drift towards Mya Aye’s daughter ‘Waihnin Pwint Thon’, now a leading global campaigner for Burma in her own right. Their eyes lit up as they spoke of her now famous speech they had heard and watched last year and then even more so when I told them that she was a very close friend of mine. They decided they wanted to send a video message for Ko Mya Aye to accompany their portraits and here it is shown above.

After many laughs, tea and the occasional serious chat we decided on a final group shot in solidarity for their good friend ‘Zarganar’ before parting company once again. Brothers in arms. Still laughing but also still fighting.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Dignity in Defiance from Behind the Iron Curtain

“If they can’t accept a point of view that is different to theirs and they are threatening to annihilate us simply because we express a different point of view, what sort of a government is this? What sort of democracy is this? Democracy, even disciplined democracy as they put it, has to accept that there are different views otherwise there would be no need for democracy and you just keep to a dictatorship.”

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 15th February 2011… (excerpt from an as yet unpublished story).

 

Behind the gates to 54 University Avenue that keep prying eyes at bay

Once more Burma. Our beautiful Burma. A land of dreams and distant still voices where shackles detain hope yet still the brave defy the authoritarian regime. Once more we enter this land of fear…

Image and text Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

USA Day 4: Saffron Robes and Revolutions

With New York City bracing itself for the mother of all snow-storms slowly making its way up the East coast, our fingers were crossed that we’d manage to make it to JFK before it struck. But before leaving we had one last person to see – in fact the only former political prisoner in NY who I had had previous contact with some time ago. Thankfully the timings have worked out well to allow us a visit to Metta Parami Monastery in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and a meeting with U Pyinya Zawta, a founding member and the Executive Director in exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (ABMA). The organisation was formed by a group of senior monks in response to the events of August 2007 when the military junta raised fuel and food prices overnight to astronomical levels. The leaders are recognised as the primary organisers and co-ordinators of the activities of the Saffron Revolution in September 2007 that ended in bloodshed as thousands were arrested with many more forced into hiding or fleeing to the border. One of the most famous leaders, U Gambira is currently serving a 63 year sentence in Kalay prison. However 3 other leaders, U Pyinya Zawta, U Gawsita and U Agga Nyana (below) escaped from Burma and were granted asylum in USA and are now living in the Brooklyn borough of Bedford Stuyvesant at the Metta Parami Monastery.


U Gawsita, U Agga and U Pyinya Zawta. Leaders of Burma’s Saffron Revolution.

We were welcomed to the monastery by U Pyinya Zawta who had just arrived back from an advocacy trip in Georgia – the 3 monks continue to play a crucial role on raising awareness and educating people about the situation in Burma and their trip to Los Angeles in 2010, despite Burma VJ not winning the Oscar, brought Burma’s plight right to the very heart of the world’s celebrity stage. The monastery, an ordinary building by appearance on a very normal Brooklyn street, is a hive of activity and is the headquarters of the ABMA. It was also a nice and unexpected opportunity to finally meet Aung Moe Win who is also living here at the monastery. Having met U Zawana and other monks on the Thai Burma border at various times over the past years it was a great opportunity to now be finally sitting with U Pyinya Zawta.

U Pyinya Zawta was jailed for a total of 10 years in Insein and Tharawaddy prisons

U Pyinya Zawta entered a monastery at the age of 11. When he was 20 he was ordained as a monk and began attending Swedawsyin Pali University. Now an instructor of Buddhist literature, he moved to Rangoon Aloan Aung Mingala Pali University. In 1988 U Pyinya Zawta became President of Aloan Township Young Monks Union. In 1990 he completed his formal religious study. Having received a degree in Dharmasaria, he helped found the Zawtanarama teaching institute for the further study of Buddhism. That same year he was imprisoned in Insein Prison for his involvement with the first monks’ protest against the military, in 1988, that had usurped power from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party after the military’s landslide election loss. Released from prison, in 1993, U Pyinya Zawta became an instructor at Zawtanarama Monastic Institute. He was rearrested again in 1996, but released after being interrogated. In 1998 he was sentenced to seven years in Insein. In 2005, U Pyinya Zawta moved to the Maggin Monastery and opened another study hall and an HIV/AIDS patient support center. In 2007 he helped form and led the All Burma Monks’ Alliance (www.allburmamonksalliance.org) to protest military rule in Burma. Tens of thousands of saffron-robed monks marched through the streets with thousands of civilians, chanting the Buddhist Metta Sutta invocation for loving kindness and peace in the world. As a result, Maggin Monastery was padlocked by the regime and the sitting Abbot was imprisoned. To evade arrest, U Pyinya Zawta fled Rangoon, resurfacing in Thailand in January, 2008. Granted refugee status, he resettled in the US in September, 2008. As Director in Exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance, U Pyinya Zawta has spoken extensively around the US, promoting awareness of the Burmese people’s struggle for democratic freedom.

Still today Maggin Monastery remains locked and under the control of the military authorities. In December 2007, just one month after the monastery was raided and locked I visited Maggin Monastery and you can see the video footage below:

With the clock running down we paid our respects, said our thanks and had to head back into Manhatten to collect our bags and leave New York before the storm arrived… I think we’d have both been very happy if the storm came early but unfortunately it wasn’t to be and despite my efforts at stalling in the airport which resulted in a not unusual announcement over the tanoy for certain passengers to hurry up or risk missing their flight we kissed New York a fond farewell and finally USA has made its mark on this work.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

USA Day 1: The Orient Express to Myingyan. Burma’s Darkest Hell on Earth.

Wrapping up from  the shoot as well as the cold in Times Square we catch the subway over to Queens for our next installment of the day and a visit to meet Ko Nay Tin Myint and Ko Myint Soe. To some degree I felt riding the subways reminded me of being back in Burma. It’s been 20 years since I was last in New York and it seems like nothing has changed underground. As we step out in Queens it’s like being back in the real world as the fantasy fiction of Manhattan sits on the horizon a bit like Disneyland. I had hoped to be able to shoot everyone outside with New York landmarks in the background but the weather has put paid to that as New York is facing one of its worst spells in decades. With the light already fading fast we make our way through Ugly Betty’s neighbourhood (which brings a smile to our faces) to Myint Soe’s house. As we get nearer I suddenly realize we are walking underneath the overhead railway of the famous “Oriental Express” or the ‘7 line’ as it’s officially known. It’s classic New York and makes a great setting for a backdrop with all its meanings as well as looking straight out of a picture book of New York’s real life. So a quick call to Nay Tin Myint and he willingly comes to meet us and to brave the cold and do the shot outside just before the light calls it a day.

88 Generation Student, Nay Tin Myint, was jailed for more than 15 years

Nay Tin Myint had been actively involved in leading student demonstrations during the uprising of 1988. Exactly one year on from that fateful day the 8th August 1988 he was arrested by officers from Special Branch SB14 as he gave a speech during an  anniversary demonstration on the corner of Barr St in Rangoon. As he stepped down from the stage he was grabbed by 8 armed officers and ruthlessly arrested. A commotion ensued as people tried to help him but soldiers were quickly on the scene arriving with machine guns on the back of a huge truck. As he was thrown into the back of the truck one soldier stabbed him in the head with his bayonet – he still bears the horrific scar today. He was taken to a concentration camp, the HQ of SB14 and was brutally tortured for days. He told them he was an NLD youth leader as well as a member of the Tricolor student organization. He was swiftly sentenced by a military court to 3 years in prison and was sent to Insein. On leaving the court room he was asked by the so-called judge, General Aung Kyaw San, if he had anything to say. He responded that “I am doing this for the people. The people are on my side, not your side.” This didn’t settle well with the General. “Ok. You get 4 years” and he was hauled away with a further year added to his sentence.
In jail he was tortured severely both physically and mentally, being kept in solitary confinement. He carried out a hunger strike and almost died but this didn’t stop him being shackled for almost 6 months until he was transferred to Tharawaddy. Again he performed another hunger strike over prison conditions and was the transferred to the darkest hell on earth that is Myingyan prison. Once again in Myingyan he was shackled until his release in October 1993. His right leg was paralysed due to more than a year of being shackled and severe torture. He needed 6 months in hospital in Rangoon and then a further 9 months before he was able to walk again.
In spite of everything he had suffered he continued his political activities but was arrested once again in June 1993 with 11 comrades as they had met with UN Human Rights Commission representatives and had handed out the “New Era Journal” (a newspaper produced by exiled opposition groups). Nay Tin Myimt was sentenced to 20 years in prison and was sent back to Insein. One year later he was transferred once more to Myingyan where he would stay for 11 years until his release in July 2005. Torture and brutal treatment of political prisoners is state policy in all of Burma’s prisons. It is shocking, systematic and arbitrary. It is also illegal. Whilst the notorious Insein prison harbours some of the most brutal torture that has ever occurred on this planet, it is the darkest hell on earth that is Myingyan prison were suffering knows no bounds and has become the model for breaking spirits and the destruction of resolve. As the AAPP report ‘The Darkness We See’ states that upon arrival “…the first treatment given will be covering his eyes with a dirty piece of cloth. Beating immediately follows as a second lesson. The prison authorities refer to this event as the ‘welcoming ceremony with orchestra’ in which they regard truncheons and bamboo rods as musical instruments. Solitary is mandatory. Treatment where it is forbidden to speak or even look at anyone and when someone passes by your cell you must have your head bowed. The world has no eyes or ears to the abuse that goes on inside the walls of Myingyan for if it did then it would surely have acted by now to bring an end to this inconceivable mess.

Prison shackles used on political prisoners in Burma’s jails

Nay Tin Myint spent 7 years in solitary confinement. For 7 whole years he saw no-one other than the weekly visit by the superintendent but even then he was not allowed to look or speak. The only time he could get out of his cell every day was for a few minutes to have a bath with 15 cups of water. He was never once allowed the statutory 30 minutes exercise. During an ICRC visit in 2000 he was called for by name to be checked due to the concern over the abuse he was being subjected to and the state of his health. During his time he was shackled on 2 separate occasions, the first time for 3 months but the second time was for over a year. He received no medical treatment at all. Despite this treatment he summoned up the strength from within to launch a counter offensive against the regime by carrying out yet another hunger strike, but this would be one that would have very different results that bring true meaning to the term ‘will to live’. In 2005 he started a hunger strike that would last 14 days. For the first 8 days the authorities gave him water but after that they stopped. When the authorities tried to force him to eat and even offered him medical treatment he still refused. He was sure he would die but he was never going to give in. By now the prison authorities were so concerned they called the military’s Regional Commander, Ba Myint, who came straight to the prison. Nay Tin Myint’s demands for political prisoners were simple – the right to receive a reduced sentence; improved food and medical treatment enabling them the right to access to hospital outside the prison if needed and finally the right that political prisoners could write to their families. His stubbornness was to prove valiant as one by one his requests were granted as the authorities gave in to his demands. He was released soon after and returned to Rangoon.
Having suffered such senseless brutality for 15 years, after undergoing some serious medical treatment, the first thing Nay Tin Myint did was to return to his former political activities where he rejoined with all his former student colleagues, Min Ko Naing, Htay Kwe, Ko Ko Gyi and others and history was made as the 88 Generation Students organization was born. He played a big role in many of their activities including the White Campaign but in May 2007 he was forced to flee Burma as the junta came for him once more. He fled to Mae Sot where he worked for the NLD-LA and in April 2008 he was granted special case referral to resettle in USA. He is now the Secretary 1 of the NLD-LA USA branch.

Myint Soe, CEC member of the NLD-LA

After shooting underneath the Orient Express we headed to Myint Soe’s house so we could all talk over a nice cup of warm Burmese tea. Myint Soe, a central committee member of the NLD-LA spent 16 years in prison in Burma. I had previously met and photographed him in Mae Sot back in July 2009 and now here we are on the other side of the world, in very different scenery as it starts to snow outside but a link to the past in many different ways. We all chat away for what seems like hours but with the night closing in we have one more person to meet and the surprise I could not have envisaged.

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

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…

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved

Coming to America..

One year ago today we were denied entry to America. Not any more. Burma’s political prisoners take centre stage in Gotham.
Stay tuned for all the details over the coming week meanwhile enjoy this short teaser video

Copyright © ENIGMA IMAGES and not to be reproduced without permission.
All Rights Reserved